“My future is to have a happy family, have a career, be something in life, be a role model, and teach people the right thing.” These are the aspirations of one ninth grade foster youth at the Arise Academy Charter High School. Unfortunately, for too many youth in foster care, without the necessary guidance and support from committed and caring adults, dreams often fade into a harsh and bitter struggle for survival. Nationally, more than 20,000 youth age out of foster care annually and their surrogate parents—state child welfare systems—try to prepare youth with the essential knowledge, skills, supports and social networks to navigate the challenges of adulthood. But the state hasn’t proved to be a very nurturing parent and social workers can only do so much. Foster youth need adults in their lives, outside of the system, who will listen, share their time, care and experiences, and show and connect them to alternative pathways that heighten their chances to have productive and hopeful adult lives.
Study after study focuses on the dire life outcomes that foster youth tend to experience when they leave care. Facing chronic unemployment, low levels of academic achievement, poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early pregnancy and parenting is enough to make you think these are throwaway youth—too difficult to help. A recent report reinforces the challenge by demonstrating that older youth in foster care are at greatest risk for disconnection—neither in school, vocational training nor the workforce. Without the network of friends, family and caring adults that most youth outside the system enjoy, how can the social skills needed to succeed be developed? Who can provide them with the emotional, psychological, financial, and other supports, necessary to sustain a connection with mainstream economic and educational opportunities? These are questions that I deal with daily at the Stoneleigh Foundation. But I also can’t accept that abused and neglected youth, who have experienced multiple traumatic experiences in their lives, need be subjected to a long life of struggle as an adult—menial jobs, teen parenting, unstable housing, cash assistance? It’s immoral, and these children deserve the most that our community has to offer them. Every day I wake up knowing that something must and can be done.
Stoneleigh Foundation Fellow, Dr. Charles A. Williams, III, PhD, Associate Teaching Professor of Psychology and Education at Drexel University and a former foster youth within Philadelphia’s child welfare system, has developed a promising solution. This academic year, he is introducing a prevention project at Arise Academy, a charter high school exclusively for youth in foster care. Focused on preventing foster youth from becoming disconnected and, importantly, improving their overall well-being and helping them envision a successful life, his project provides mentors and social skills training to entering ninth graders. Through a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania, adult mentors, across a broad professional community, will be recruited, trained and carefully matched with youth. Mentors will receive training in trauma informed care and cultural competency to ensure awareness and sensitivity to the multiple emotional, psychological, social and behavioral challenges youth in care experience. In addition, Dr. Williams will teach a weekly psychodynamic class at Arise for participating ninth graders. In these sessions, they will explore and hopefully develop essential social skills such as critical thinking, listening, conflict resolution, improving self-image and problem solving, among other topics. But I bet you are wondering: Mentoring, does it really work?
Mentors serve several purposes, including: helping youth build trusting relationships, lending an ear to their interests and concerns, providing advice and motivation to succeed, and helping youth navigate through life’s challenges and opportunities. They also help youth understand the importance of strengthening their networks and connections with other influential and positive adult role models, and help them to consider future life options. As well, research supports the connection between mentoring and positive education and career outcomes.
Mentoring has also been identified by child welfare administrators, policymakers, practitioners and researchers as a way to provide multiple benefits for youth in care. Bryan Samuels, Commissioner the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recently issued an April 2012 Information Memorandum prioritizing the promotion of social and emotional well-being for children and youth in foster care. In this memo, he cited Big Brothers Big Sisters as a program geared toward improving outcomes related to youth skill development, education, and employment. He went on to state that it is the type of program that needs to be targeted to the foster care population.
But combining individual mentoring with social skills training has not been tried on older foster youth. Thus, we are hopeful that Dr. Williams’ project contributes to the “toolbox” of programs that are likely to advance Commissioner Samuels’ strategy to advance the well-being of foster youth. For no longer is permanency a sufficient goal. Older youth in foster care, who have not obtained permanency still need to be provided the supports we all know are likely to prepare them for successful adulthood. They cannot afford to wait for the loving home that will provide these critical youth development skills.
At the kick off meeting for the project, ninth graders not only expressed their aspirations, they committed to having a mentor, with the hope that they will have someone in their lives to help them achieve their dreams. This promising prevention strategy may break the cycle of disconnection for these ninth graders at Arise—increasing their access to opportunities, helping them to develop practical social skills and instilling optimism for a better future for themselves and their own children.
To inquire about becoming a mentor to a foster youth at Arise, contact Katherine Scholle at Big Brothers Big Sisters at KScholle@bbbssepa.org or 484.482.1417.
Brittany Anuszkiewicz is a Program Officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. She has worked at the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) for over seven years, first as a Program Assistant for the Making Connections Initiative, a multi-year investment in several of the nation's underserved, isolated low-income communities, and most recently as Program Associate for the Child Welfare Strategy Group, working with various states and jurisdictions across the country to implement child welfare system reform efforts. Prior to joining AECF, Brittany was a Senior Associate at The Finance Project, providing technical assistance to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and developing and managing the Youth Development Resource Center in partnership with other youth policy and advocacy organizations. Brittany earned a MA in Liberal Arts and a Certificate in Nonprofit Studies from the Johns Hopkins University and she is currently a student at the University of Maryland's Graduate School of Social Work.
*Photo at top by Flickr user JAXPORT
Updated: November 20 2012