Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #12: Connecting Foster Youth with Virtual Coaches

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Eden Harris, a student at North Carolina Wesleyan College.

The Proposal

Harris proposes that Congress fund “a competitive pilot program” that would assign a virtual success coach to a foster youth between the ages of 14 and 18. She would boost the recruitment of talented coaches by offering student loan forgiveness incentives tied to service in the program.

The Argument

Eden Harris, a student at North Carolina Wesleyan College

Harris starts with the large body of research indicating that far too many foster youth end up homeless and unemployed, and far too few end up with a college degree and success.

“It is time to try different approaches to recurring problems,” Harris argues. “Like the great Einstein said, ‘Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.’”

Such a program would bring the federal government in line with what several foundations already grasp: the best way to reach youth, in foster care or not, is through a mobile device. Technology-driven solutions are lacking from the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, Harris notes, which “is the main federal program aimed at helping foster youth transition successfully.”

In Her Own Words

Harris was accepted to the Berklee School of Music, among the most prestigious music schools in the world. But when the school required her to attend a $20,000 summer program, she gave up and took on meaningless jobs, and ended up dropping out of another school.

“I met Stedman Graham at Howard University and he encouraged me to go back to school but as a business major. He ignited a spark in me to go to school to fulfill my passion and my dream. Mr. Graham’s efforts to coach me into a successful future tie closely to the role of a success coach.”

The Chronicle‘s Take

Harris hones in on something that should probably be seen as an advantage in the delivery of services and support to foster youth. Older people (including this writer) were raised with the mindset that personal relationships were carried out in person. To younger generations, it is not necessarily the case that they’d have to know and sit with someone for the interaction to be meaningful.

In fact, it is entirely possible that a virtual success coach would be far more helpful than an in-person one. You have to make appointments to meet people, and then at least one of them needs to travel to that meeting. A virtual coach can be summoned, to some extent, on demand.

And more bluntly: a lot more people can probably pull off being a dynamic virtual coach than can do it in person. Especially if it is a side job for someone who is either still in school, or making their way in the professional world.

There is one huge question we’d want to answer before crafting this in the first place though, and that is what the qualifications of a “virtual success coach” are for this population. Must they have experience with the child welfare system? A psychology background of some kind? Regardless, grant candidates should have to demonstrate some sort of formal training curriculum to ensure that this relationship was meaningful.

Harris proposes Chafee as a home for this program. It makes sense thematically, but not structurally, because Chafee pretty much packages funds into blocks and hands it to states. This undertaking would likely entail the private sector – perhaps teams of nonprofits and web/app developers – competing for federal funding.

If the loan forgiveness component was doable, then the Department of Education might be the right home for this concept. Any shift in federal loan rules would involve that agency anyway.

You would also want to write in some level of evaluation for this because that is how an idea goes from small competitive pilot program to nationally used best practice. You’d want to know eventually whether foster youth who were paired with virtual coaches fared better than peers who did not receive that help.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

John Kelly
About John Kelly 1128 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.