youth and mentor

Opinion

Giving hope to youth in foster care – and their families, too

Susan Walsh

One of the most traumatic events a family can go through is a child being separated from his or her parents. Entering the foster care system is yet another traumatic event. In early development, these events are called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which research has shown to have a lifelong impact on mental and physical health.

Right now, more than 437,000 children in the United States are in the foster care system – and even more alarming is the fact that this number has increased by 10 percent since 2012 and continues to grow.

Enter Friends of the Children.

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 thanks to Friends of the Children’s long-term mentoring model and other mentoring programs.

Friends of the Children selects children ages 4-6 from foster care and high-poverty schools, pairing each of them with a salaried, professional mentor (a Friend) who stays with them from kindergarten through graduation – 12 1⁄2 years, no matter what.

Our model, sought after by foster care agencies nationwide, has been incredibly successful for the youth that we serve (40% of our youth have some experience in foster care) and for entire families. 

Moreover, 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 our program who have not experienced care:  

  • 83 percent graduate from high school (the national graduation rate for youth in foster care hovers around 55 percent). 

  • 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system. 

  • 98 percent avoid early parenting. 

This data shows not only the success of the Friends of the Children model, but the strength and resilience of each child we serve. With long-term, consistent support and love, even the children facing the toughest challenges can tap into the amazing potential that they already have. 

Our model not only helps each young person we serve, but it is extremely beneficial to the families of our youth as well. This study showed that with the trained help and knowledge of each of our professional Friends, families were wrapped around another support system, which helped them cope with challenges and connect to community services.

Four global themes emerged from the research as to why our model works: 

  • We advocate for and connect with families by empowering them with tools to navigate complex systems, connect with needed services and supports, and build connections among providers and stakeholders in families’ lives.  

  • We build knowledge and skills through strengthening social-emotional skills that promote positive behavior and family stability. 

  • We create relational support by providing role models, along with consistency and stability. 

  • We provide general support such as navigating crises and connecting families to resources. 

The findings from the study also contain many valuable insights that could be helpful for other mentoring programs or therapeutic settings interested in providing more holistic family support within the mentoring context.  

As we celebrate National Mentoring Month and the role a mentor can play in changing a child’s life trajectory, we want these findings to be helpful not only for our learning, but for every organization that serves youth in foster care.  

We want every child in foster care to have a Friend. For 12 ½ years. No matter what. 

To learn more, visit friendsofthechildren.org.