The Role of Therapeutic Mentoring in Enhancing Outcomes for Youth in Foster Care

By Johnson, Sara B.; Pryce, Julia M. et al. | Child Welfare, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Role of Therapeutic Mentoring in Enhancing Outcomes for Youth in Foster Care


Johnson, Sara B., Pryce, Julia M., Martinovich, Zoran, Child Welfare


Effective service interventions greatly enhance the well-being of foster youth. A study of 262 foster youth examined one such intervention, therapeutic mentoring. Results showed that mentored youth improved significantly in the areas of family and social functioning, school behavior, and recreational activities, as well as in the reduction of expressed symptoms of traumatic stress. Study results suggest that therapeutic mentoring shows promise for enhancing treatment interventions.

Youth in foster care often face behavioral and emotional difficulties. Relative to their counterparts not in foster care, these youth are more likely to experience suspensions and expulsions from school and are more likely to receive mental health services than youth generally identified as "at risk" (Kortenkamp & Ehrle, 2002). The negative developmental consequences for children placed in foster care include increased behavior and mental health problems (Clausen, Landsverk, Ganger, Chadwick, & Litrownik, 1998; Lawrence, Carlson, & Egeland, 2006), low academic achievement (Blome, 1997; Courtney & Dworsky, 2006; Pecora, Williams, Kessler, Hiripi, O'Brien, Emerson, Herrick, &Torres, 2006), poorer peer relationships (Bolger, Patterson, & Kupersmidt, 1998), and decreased community involvement (Courtney, Piliavin, Grogan-Kaylor, &Nesmith, 2001).

These differences suggest that the population of youth in foster care require a different kind of attention in terms of feasible and effective service interventions. The current study analyzed outcomes from the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS) tool (Lyons, Griffin, Fazio, & Lyons, 1999) to determine if mentored youth fared better than non-mentored youth on psychosocial measures. In addition, the duration of the mentoring relationship was examined as a possible mediating factor between therapeutic mentoring (TM) and improved youth outcomes.

As an intervention for youth faced with environmental risk factors, youth mentoring has shown promise (DuBois, Holloway, Valentine, & Cooper, 2002). After participation in a Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentoring program, for example, at-risk youth (e.g., those from low-income, single-parent homes) showed improvements in their relationships with parents and feelings of competence at school, as well as better school attendance (Rhodes, Grossman, & Resch, 2000). At-risk youth who engaged in a mentoring relationship for one year were less likely to engage in destructive behaviors (i.e., use drugs or alcohol, get into fights, or skip school), more confident in school, and had better family relationships as compared to a control group without mentoring (Grossman &Tierney, 1998).

These preliminary findings suggest that this intervention may also serve some purpose among youth who are uniquely at risk due to their involvement in the foster care system. To date, outcome research that specifically addresses behavioral outcomes for foster youth in mentoring relationships is promising, yet notably limited. In one study, mentored foster youth demonstrated increased trust in others subsequent to participation (Rhodes, Haight, & Briggs, 1999). After experiencing a close mentoring relationship for 18 months, these youth also showed significant improvement in self-esteem enhancement and social skills. In contrast, foster youth without mentors experienced decreased peer support over time (Rhodes et al., 1999), further supporting the potential value of mentoring relationships for foster youth.

Although the presence of a mentor in the lives of youth in foster care suggests benefits, the required and optimal duration of such a relationship to yield positive outcomes among these youth is not yet established. Research has shown that less than one year in a mentoring relationship can be iatrogenic, while more than one year supports improved behavioral, academic and emotional outcomes (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002). …

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