Academic journal article Social Work

Mentoring for Young People Leaving Foster Care: Promise and Potential Pitfalls

Academic journal article Social Work

Mentoring for Young People Leaving Foster Care: Promise and Potential Pitfalls

Article excerpt

It would seem that mentoring--matching youths with a caring and committed adult--would fit hand in glove with the needs of young people who are transitioning out of the foster care system. A stable, consistent, and caring adult presence is precisely what many such youths lack as they reach the age of legal adult maturity (18 in most states, 21 in others) and may no longer have access to foster care services. It is not surprising that mentoring programs targeting foster care youths have been cropping up across the United States and abroad (Clayden & Stein, 2005; Mech, Pryde, & Rycraft, 1995), as mentoring programs have enjoyed unprecedented growth in recent years (DuBois & Karcher, 2005). However, the existing empirical literature on the conditions associated with effective formal youth mentoring relationships and the potential for harm in their absence should give us pause, as meeting these conditions may be especially challenging when working with transitioning youths.

The needs of transitioning youths and the efficacy of mentoring programs are of central concern to social work. Child welfare has been a major field of practice since the beginning of the profession. In addition, relationship-based approaches to intervention are a core technology of the profession, both through clinical intervention and community-based programming. In this article, consistent with the social work profession's attention to the empirical evidence base for interventions, we identify and critique the research literature on the effectiveness of mentoring programs for youths more generally and the implications of this evidence for programs serving youths leaving foster care and for policies guiding and governing these programs. We use the ecological approach (for example, Germain & Gitterman, 1996) in our analysis, partially out of concern that mentoring has tended to focus intently on the interpersonal relationship to the neglect of both mezzo and macro issues (see Keller, 2005, for an exception).

PSYCHOSOCIAL OUTCOMES AND NEEDS OF TRANSITIONING YOUTHS

Prior to addressing the potential for mentoring with transition-age foster youths, we briefly review what is known about the outcomes of youths aging out of foster care.Virtually all of the existing evidence suggests that the psychosocial and vocational outcomes of these youths are, on the whole, quite poor (for example, Collins, 2001; Cook, 1994; Courtney & Dworsky, 2006; Courtney & Heuring, 2005; Courtney, Piliavin, Grogan-Kaylor, & Nesmith, 2001; Lindsey & Ahmed, 1999; McMillen & Tucker, 1999; Reilly, 2003). Studies have found, for example, high rates of homelessness and incarceration, poor physical and mental health, limited educational attainment, higher unemployment and use of public assistance, and higher rates of parenting and substance abuse among this group than other young adult populations (for example, Cook, 1994; Courtney & Dworsky, 2006; Courtney et al., 2001; Reilly, 2003). Although some youths do make the transition to healthy and productive adulthood (Hines, Merdinger, & Wyatt, 2005), for substantial proportions of youths who have been in substitute care, the basic goals of a high school education, employment, and stable housing remain elusive.

It is typically presumed that the challenges facing young people aging out of care are at least partially related to the lack of strong, healthy, and stable relationships, which are key ingredients for any adolescent's successful transition to adulthood. It is expected that these relationships are lacking; otherwise, the child need not have spent long periods of time in care. However, the extent to which young people are completely on their own is unclear. Often they reconnect and sometimes live with their biological parents, siblings, and extended family members (Collins, Paris, &Ward, 2008). In addition, efforts are made while youths are in care to provide alternate nonparental relationships through foster parents and professional staff, and many youths are helped by these relationships (Lemon, Hines, & Merdinger, 2005). …

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