A calm port in the storm: Mentors serve as reliable support for youth in the foster care system

Greeson, J.K., Thompson, A.E., Ali, S., & Wenger, R.S. (2015). It’s good to know that you got somebody that’s not going anywhere: Attitudes and beliefs of older youth in foster care about child welfare-based natural mentoring. Children and Youth Services Review, 48, 140-149. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.12.015

Summarized by Benjamin Alford

 

Introduction:

Research shows that older youth (between 15 and 21 years old) exiting foster care are at increased risk of experiencing dire financial, health-related, educational, and legal issues. With thousands of older youth exiting foster care each year, many are leaving without stable familial connections. Given the lack of adequate support systems for foster youth, the presence of trustworthy, committed adults is especially important in helping provide foster youth skills to overcome myriad obstacles.

For example, while legal support is a key area for youth exiting the foster care system, older foster youth believe that emotional support is more important. Older foster youth place great emphasis on the sense of belongingness they experience with an adult mentor.

While there is ample research suggesting that older youth in foster care can benefit from the guidance and support of natural mentoring, few studies have investigated the attitudes of older youth about natural mentors and interventions that support them. Greeson and colleagues intended to obtain feedback from the youth to better understanding  how older youth in foster care define helpful natural mentors. The researchers aimed to also gain a better understanding of factors in a broader social context that might contribute to a lack of growth in these relationships after emancipation from the foster care system.

Method:

The researchers first designed the Caring Adults ‘R’ Everywhere (C.A.R.E.) intervention, a 12-week intervention aimed to serve youth in foster care through sustaining their relationships with natural mentors. The researchers recruited 17 students between the ages of 15 and 21 that attend an urban charter high school located in the Northeast United States.

All of the participants were at-risk youth who were part of the city’s child welfare foster care system. Nearly all of the participants were Black/African American (94%) and slightly more than half were male (53%).  The students reported an average of 7.2 years in foster care.

Greeson and colleagues conducted six focus groups with the participants to provide them opportunities to share their experiences with natural mentoring relationships in a supportive, caring environment. The research questions aimed to encourage participants to elaborate on their definition of natural mentoring and their experiences with natural mentors, and obtain feedback about the C.A.R.E. intervention. The responses of the participants were audio recorded and then coded by the researchers for specific themes.

Results:

The participants stressed the importance of long-term stable relationships with caring adults in the wake of familial disruptions and loss. Many participants alluded to the idea that establishing and maintaining permanent relationships with mentors requires lots of time and effort. In regard to natural mentors, the participants highlighted that mentors should be honest and serve as surrogate family members. The participants articulated that honest and trustworthy mentors helped them restore their faith in other people.

Next, participants conveyed that mentor-mentee relationships should be mutually beneficial. The participants mentioned that both the mentee and mentor can learn important values (i.e., empathy) and fulfill each other’s needs for stable and positive interpersonal relationships.

While many of the participants shared positive experiences with natural mentors, some also discussed challenges related to natural mentoring. For instance, one participant articulated that she felt insecure about how mentors would perceive her and the stereotype of foster youth as deviant made her feel stigmatized. She preferred social interactions with a mentor from outside her social network. Some participants also reported struggles in establishing stable long-term relationship with a helpful, committed adult. The participants expressed the challenges of a mentor filling the void of an absent parent and consequently feeling confused about their identity and purpose in life.

Overall, the participants in the study provided positive feedback about the C.A.R.E. intervention but provided some suggestions for a more effective intervention.

  • The youth articulated that the intervention should identify natural mentors by directly speaking with the youth instead of using case files of the youth. A participant articulated that some children would feel uncomfortable if another individual reviewed details about them.
  • In addition, the participants believed a program could play a role in mutually beneficial relationships. They stressed the importance of a staff providing impartial assistance to mentors and mentees in any conflict.
  • Last but not least, the participants expressed a greater desire to learn independent skills in a relational setting as opposed to a classroom setting.

Implications:

While keeping in mind the limited number of youth involved in this study, the participants in the study touched on some important issues facing older foster care youth. Specifically, they stressed the importance of a sustained emotional connection with natural mentors. Many of the participants stated that honesty, positive role modeling, and emotional support were the most salient aspects of any relationship with a mentor. The youth felt as if emotional support could provide them the confidence and support needed to excel in different facets of life.

The participants also provided mostly positive feedback about the C.A.R.E. intervention but outlined areas of improvement for the intervention. Responses from many of the participants highlighted the importance of speaking with youth directly about identifying natural mentors and the role of third-party interventionists in facilitating mutually meaningful relationships.

The inability of some youth to establish and maintain positive relationships with caring, supportive adults can be partly attributed to the stigma of interpersonal dependence. As individuals transition into adolescence and adulthood, they are too often expected to handle personal matters on their own. Seeking the help of others can be perceived as a sign of incompetence and is thus a detriment to people experiencing distress. It is important that programs keep these factors in mind as they implement their programming when working with youth in or in the process of leaving the foster care system.

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