January 25, 2019

CEO's Viewpoint

For children impacted by foster care, support for the entire family is needed.

By Terri Sorensen, CEO, Friends of the Children

A recent Washington Post editorial outlined struggles for youth aging out of foster care, highlighting that there are more than 437,000 children in the foster care system. To make things worse, this number has seen a 10 percent increase since 2012.

Children being separated from their parents is one of the most traumatic events a family can go through. Entering the foster care system is yet another traumatic event. In early development, this kind of adversity is called an adverse childhood experience, or an ACE, which research has shown to follow children into adulthood, impacting their long-term mental and physical health.

A new study funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and conducted at the University of Washington and Washington State University-Vancouver shows that there is hope for youth in foster care through Friends of the Children’s long-term mentoring model and other mentoring programs.

In 2014 we began working directly with child welfare systems in five cities to select children for our program. We pair each child with a salaried, professional mentor called a Friend who stays with them from kindergarten through graduation – 12+ years, no matter what. Our model is now being sought after by foster care agencies nationwide because it has shown to be a promising solution to gaps in support for youth in and aging out of foster care.

The report highlights four promising themes that are working with the Friends of the Children model, which has implications for other organizations:

Advocating for and connecting with families by empowering them with tools to navigate complex systems, connecting with needed services and supports, and building connections among providers and stakeholders in families’ lives; building knowledge and skills through strengthening social-emotional skills that promote positive behavior and family stability; creating relational support by providing role models, along with providing consistency and stability; and providing general support like navigating crises and connecting families to resources.

The outcomes speak for themselves. Youth in the program who have experienced foster or kinship care achieve the program’s long-term outcomes at the same rate as youth in the program who have not experienced foster care:

  • 83 percent graduate from high school (the graduation rate for youth in foster care hovers around 55 percent);
  • 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system; and
  • 98 percent avoid early parenting.

This data shows not only the impact that one caring adult can have in a child’s life, but it also paints a picture of the strength and resilience of children. With long-term, consistent support and love, even the children facing the toughest challenges can tap into the extraordinary potential that they already have.

Long-term, consistent support through mentoring is also extremely beneficial to the families (both biological and foster care parents) of youth in foster care. This study showed that with the trained help and knowledge of each of our professional mentors, families are wrapped around another support system which helps them cope through challenges, feel less isolated and more connected to community services.

Building on the model’s foster care results, we are piloting a new “Two-Generation” approach in Los Angeles and New York City, where we are selecting the children of parents who have been impacted by foster care. Research shows when a child does better, a parent does better.

The findings from the study contain other valuable insights for other mentoring programs or therapeutic settings interested in providing more holistic family support within the mentoring context. The study also included recommendations for strengthening, expanding or adding “more” of something that a Friend was already doing, rather than suggesting new responsibilities. One example was providing parents/caregivers the opportunity to connect with other parents/caregivers whose children are in the program.

Every child in foster care needs to have a Friend, or a consistent, caring adult for their entire childhood—from kindergarten through high school graduation. It could change the face of the foster care system as we know it. More importantly, it can empower entire families to move beyond their circumstances and thrive together.