Leveraging the Power of Caring Adults in the Lives of Foster Youth: How Relationships Can Change Lives

By Johanna Greeson

A bleak portrait continues to emerge for youth who age out of foster care without connections to caring adults and with inadequate independent living skills.

The field of child welfare has yet to develop an effective response to this problem. As such, the transition to adulthood for these youth continues to lead to persistent difficulties and hardships even after many years have passed. Such experiences are largely due to the transition taking place without the help and support available to peers in the general population (Jessor, 1993). Their early entry into adulthood is an “off-time” transition; in this case, the change arrives too early (Hogan & Astone, 1986), as compared to peers in the general population, where nearly two-thirds of young adults in their early 20s receive economic help from parents, and about 40% continue to receive help in their late 20s (Schoeni & Ross, 2004).

In 2007, as a social work doctoral student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, I conceived of C.A.R.E., or Caring Adults ‘R’ Everywhere, as an innovative way to better serve older youth in foster care. My idea for C.A.R.E. came to me as a result of my research interest in the emancipation of foster youth, and two different graduate courses I had taken. One was in the advanced development of social work interventions, taught by Dr. Mark Fraser, and the second pertained to life course theory, taught by Dr. Glen Elder, which exposed me to the concept of natural mentoring, the power of “one adult who is crazy about you,” and the deleterious impact that “off-time” transitions can have.

At the time, I was also learning about the inadequacies of our country’s federally funded independent living programs (ILPs) to prepare foster youth for emancipation. As early as 1999, the U.S. Government Accountability Office determined their effectiveness “unknown,” and newer research has gone on to show no positive impact on any of the concrete indicators of a successful transition to adulthood (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2008). Over the years, I have repeatedly thought there must be a better way to serve this highly marginalized population of young people for whom the child welfare system fails to achieve legal permanency.

Both theory and research guided me to the concept of natural mentoring and leveraging the power of caring adults in the lives of at-risk and marginalized youth. Now, as an Assistant Professor at UPENN’s School of Social Policy & Practice, I’m finally getting to test my ideas, which comes on the heels of other research I’m conducting that demonstrates how our ILPs are ineffective at increasing social support for older foster youth at-risk of aging out.

In collaboration with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and the Achieving Independence Center (AIC), we are using rigorous research methods to test whether participation in C.A.R.E. cultivates and/or strengthens adaptive resources, like resilience, and non-cognitive abilities (i.e., grit, self-control/affect regulation, future orientation/expectations), augments prosocial development and outcomes (i.e., mental health functioning, educational engagement, peer relationships), and reduces initiation of, and engagement in, health risk behaviors (i.e., delinquency/violence and substance use).

It is important to note that C.A.R.E. is not just about identifying caring adults in the lives of the foster youth, although that’s the first step and one thing we are learning is that caring adults are everywhere in the lives of these young people, but no one has been looking for or asking about them due to the shadow of emancipation. But just identifying a caring adult is not enough. The other critical ingredient of C.A.R.E. consists of proactively facilitating and nurturing the foster youth-natural mentor relationship once we identify the caring adult.

We are currently working with 20 young people from the AIC as “intervention” youth and they are receiving C.A.R.E. Another 20 are serving as “control” youth and they are receiving the services usually provided by the AIC. We are tracking all 40 youth, collecting data at baseline, post-intervention, and three month follow-up. Presently, we are still working on identifying and securing the natural mentors. So far we have natural mentors who are grandmothers, social workers, family friends, former programmatic mentors, older sisters, and former therapists. Caring adults really are everywhere!

My ultimate hope for these youth is that the growth-fostering relationships with their natural mentors will continue beyond the intervention period and be a key part of changing their lives…one relationship at a time! My ultimate hope for C.A.R.E. is that it becomes the “gold standard” for serving older foster youth and replaces our current model of independent living programming.

Johanna Greeson is an Assistant Professor at UPENN’s School of Social Policy & Practice and Co-Director of Child Well-Being & Child Welfare Specialization (CW2).

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