As adults, we have autonomy in our relationships. Youth in foster care have much less control over theirs. Many of their relationships with adults — biological family, foster caregivers, teachers, social workers, and other professionals — are directed by policies and laws that determine their parameters. It’s not uncommon for young people who age out of foster care to find the majority of their adult relationships are with paid professionals.
Youth in foster care are often limited in their autonomy or the means to maintain relationships with adults over the long-term. It can start with how they enter the system — according to a Casey Family Programs report based on 2019 data, 91% of young people entered foster care due to neglect or other reasons, while 9% of youth entered foster care due to abuse.
Regardless of the circumstances for placement, the youth may have a deep attachment, familiarity, culture, and memories with their biological parent(s). Any adult who attempts to step into a parental or caregiving role, such as a foster parent, guardian, or group home staff member, may arouse feelings of conflicted loyalty and painful memories of disrupted relationships. Mentors, on the other hand, are not trying to fill a parental role and therefore some youth may find mentors easier to talk to, receive advice from, or share feelings.
Frequent moves also make it difficult to maintain relationships. On average, youth in the Massachusetts foster care system are moved more than five times every three years. The longer children remain in foster care, the more placements—and different beds, different schools and classmates, even different doctors—they may experience. A higher number of placements has been linked to academic difficulties and a hard time growing healthy attachment in relationships.
That’s where mentoring comes in. A formal mentoring relationship gives youth an opportunity to practice maintaining long-term relationships, the interdependence of healthy attachment and self-advocacy, among other skills. Healthy relationships help nudge a young person’s life outcomes toward mental, social and physical health, even in the face of adversity.
Deavonie Bowen, 24, is an artist and mentee with Silver Lining Mentoring and has lived experience in the foster care system. Reflecting on his experience with a mentor, he said, “When kids hear ‘mentor’ they are thinking, ‘this is just another adult that is going to lecture me,’ but it is more like a friend or buddy system. When I went into it I was glad to see [my mentor] wanted to work with me on what I wanted to do. It’s not just ‘hey, do this’ and ‘do that,’ they do help with logistical stuff, but that’s good because we need that out in the real world.”
In my volunteerism and professional work on behalf of youth in foster care with Silver Lining Mentoring, I’ve seen young people empower themselves to create a chosen support network. Young people are able to do this when they have options. A young person has a high degree of autonomy in a mentorship. The youth gets to decide if they want to have a visit, what the discussion will be, and typically, youth are permitted to communicate with their mentor regardless of their placement or custody circumstances.
Mentoring helps knit a relationship support blanket for youth in foster care, one that may have been nonexistent or unraveled by the circumstances around state intervention.
I’ve been a volunteer mentor to multiple youth impacted by foster care over the past seven years and I’ve also been a foster parent. I particularly appreciate that, as a mentor, the power to determine the path of the relationship is in the hands of the young person, and the youth can determine which missing thread in their support blanket they want the relationship to fill.
Visit the Massachusetts Mentoring Partnership to find a mentoring program in your area. Visit Silver Lining Mentoring to learn more about our local and national programs.
Christina Haines is senior director of strategy and national impact at Boston-based nonprofit Silver Lining Mentoring. She is a former foster parent, mentor, and current volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate to youth in foster care, and child welfare. philanthropist.
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