Natural Mentoring for Foster Youth Moves from Theory to Practice

Young people emancipated from the foster care system are assumed to be ready for adult life. In reality this is often not the case, but more and more organizations are stepping up to better prepare foster youth for life on their own – particularly by helping them make lasting connections to caring adults.

Emancipation, often referred to as “aging out,” occurs because youth reach a certain age and are then forced to leave care, not because they are ready for the challenges of adulthood. A new mentoring program in Philadelphia, known as Caring Adults ‘R’ Everywhere (CARE), has received much praise in the academic world, and its evidence-based practices are starting to crop up in mentoring programs around the country.

Those who age out of the foster care system face multiple challenges and have worse economic and social outcomes compared to same-age peers in the general population, according to the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth.

Over the years researchers and practitioners have attempted to identify a remedy of sorts to turn around the lives of aging-out or transition-age foster youth. The result: natural mentoring.

The term “natural mentor” refers to nonparental, caring adults whom children select from their existing social networks, such as teachers, coaches, pastors, or adult relatives. Natural mentoring relies on the decision-making power of the adolescents to identify the role models in their lives.

“A natural mentor is somebody that is related to a youth or someone that a youth engaged with and lost track of, someone that they identify and would like to be in touch with. It doesn’t have to be kinship,” said Lorette Dussault, clinical director at Foster Forward, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting children and families whose lives have been impacted by foster care.

Researchers first began evaluating the concept of natural mentoring in 1992. Today, a growing body of evidence points to the benefits of natural mentoring over traditional programmatic mentoring, which pairs up children with unfamiliar adult mentors. Programmatic mentoring often heavily monitors interactions between a child and mentor through program events and meeting requirements.

Research also suggests that natural mentoring relationships may counter some of the negative outcomes for which many foster youth are at risk. One study found that natural mentoring was associated with fewer depressive symptoms, lower levels of stress, and higher life satisfaction among older adolescents in foster care.

“My uncle, he taught me a lot. Ever since my dad got incarcerated, he just, like, he taught me everything. He taught me how to respect women and then he took his time, like, really to be with me. He just took me under his wing and showed me what’s right and what’s wrong, just trying to lead me in the right direction,” said a high school senior residing in foster care in discussion with a researcher.

The challenge lies in bringing this type of intervention into the lives of more foster children.

Johanna K. P. Greeson of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice developed CARE with the intention of tackling issues common among transition-age foster youth. While working toward her doctorate in 2007, Greeson noted that there was no formal initiative that supported a complete transition from foster care to adulthood. It was then that she created the first iteration of CARE.

According to the publication Social Work Today, CARE is a “12-week, child welfare–based intervention designed to support the development of growth-fostering relationships between youth preparing to exit foster care and their self-selected natural mentors.”

Natural mentors are identified and undergo trainings to understand various aspects of adolescent development as well as their role as mentors. Throughout the intervention adolescents and their natural mentors engage in group activities and one-on-one sessions with a program specialist. The intervention culminates in a formal dinner or small graduation ceremony celebrating the development of the relationship.

CARE was at first tested in academic settings, but was then expanded for use in focus groups and other child welfare-based contexts. Research surrounding CARE led to a pilot study in Philadelphia, launched as a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and the city’s Department of Human Services. The first pilot ran in 2013, and in the fall of 2014 CARE was piloted as a randomized control trial – the gold standard in research.

Twenty-four foster youth aged 18 – 20.5 years were recruited and randomly assigned to one of two groups, whose outcomes were then compared. The analysis of results is ongoing.

Although the CARE program is still in the beginning stages, other foster care service providers have already begun to understand the importance of natural mentoring and implement their own programs. 

One of these programs, Real Connections, a collaboration between the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families and community agencies, and a programming branch of Foster Forward, helps foster youth ages 8-21 forge meaningful connections with trusted adults who can provide guidance and emotional support.

Real Connections relies on natural mentoring, in addition to traditional mentoring, and tailors the program to each young person’s needs.

“It was developed with best practices, with youth, connecting them to adults so once they age out they have an adult supporter,” Dussault said.

As in the CARE program, Real Connections’ mentors take a class to learn about the kids’ needs and potential experiences with trauma before they begin mentoring, and a support specialist helps facilitate the relationships between children and adults once the process begins.

Occasionally such strong bonds are formed through the program that some mentors eventually become permanent connections as foster or adoptive parents.

“There’s definitely youth that have gone into foster care, and have been adopted from the mentorship … that is something that does happen and is happening more,” Dussault said.

While Real Connections has already integrated a natural mentoring approach into its program, the CARE intervention started by Greeson will likely continue to evolve as she examines results from the pilot study and makes recommendations for future iterations of the program.

As one older youth in foster care recently stated during an interview with a researcher, “I think everybody should have a mentor. That’s someone they should look up to.”

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Devon Ziminski
About Devon Ziminski 23 Articles
Devon is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow. She writes about gun violence, mental health, adoption policy and practice, and education.