How do informal mentoring networks for foster youth students change over time?

Gowdy, G., Hogan, S., Roosevelt, K., Saastamoinen, M., & Levine, S. (2023). Informal mentoring for foster youth students: Core and capital mentors over time. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 40(2), 221–236.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Many youths involved in the foster care system experience hardship before, during, and after their care placement.
  • Evidence shows that informal mentorships (natural-occurring, non-parental relationships) are beneficial for older youths transitioning into adulthood (they can promote aspiration, motivation, social attitudes & behaviors, and socioemotional & educational outcomes, as well as reduce delinquency and substance abuse).
  • Networks with diverse mentor typologies are useful in fostering youths who are transitioning into adults. One helpful informal mentoring typology is understanding the distinction between capital* and core mentors**.
  • This study assesses two types of informal mentorships (capital or core) over time.
    • More specifically, it evaluates a) whether core mentorships are more stable than capital mentorships and b) whether capital mentorships for foster youth students who are transitioning into adulthood promote relationships with other capital mentors.
  • Core mentors were more stable over time than capital mentors.
  • While stability in core relationships can help fulfill emotional and instrumental (e.g., financial assistance, food, and housing) needs, they don’t make any significant advancements (particularly economic advancements) for underrepresented youths.
  • Although the decline of network sizes didn’t notably differ between both types of informal mentoring (core and capital), the composition for capital mentoring experienced more significant changes.
    • Youths could replace any capital mentoring relationships that were compromised or lost throughout their transition to adulthood with new ones.
  • Developing (capital) relationships on campus can help youths navigate higher education via information and resources.
  • A balanced combination of core and capital informal mentoring relationships is needed to maximize success in higher education.

*Core mentors = Individuals in a youth’s immediate social network (e.g., family members)

**Capital mentors = Individuals who aren’t part of a youth’s immediate social network that provides transactional support (e.g., sharing information).

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Higher education has been associated with better social and economic outcomes for foster youth transitioning to adulthood. Informal mentorship is helpful in supporting young people to and through higher education. The present study uses an established typology of informal mentoring, core, and capital, to explore the characteristics of these mentoring relationships over time. Specifically, the present study answers two questions: (1) Are core mentoring relationships more stable over time? and (2) Do capital mentoring relationships for foster youth students promote relationships with other capital mentors? Survey participants were recruited predominantly through community-based child welfare organizations specifically for foster care alumni and campus support programs at 4-year universities. Youth completed interviews over three waves that asked questions on what supportive people they had in their lives. While core mentors are more stable over time, there was no relationship between having capital mentors and promoting more informal mentoring relationships. Implications around the importance of social capital for these young people and how informal mentors can act as a mobilized form of social capital are discussed.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

For youth with foster care experience, social relationships and supports with caring adults can play a significant role in their successful transition to adulthood. Understanding the composition and dynamics associated with social support networks for foster youth transitioning away from the foster care system and into different roles and settings can also contribute to the success of this particularly vulnerable group of individuals. In this study, we examined informal mentoring networks, dichotomized as core and capital mentors, and how these networks changed over time for foster youth during their first 2 years on a 4-year university campus. This study offered a unique opportunity to explore social network losses and gains associated with transitioning away from the foster care system into a higher education setting. The stability associated with early social relationships and the potential to replenish lost social capital incurred during a transitional period are important dynamics in the calculus of social support for transitional-age youth with foster care experience.

The findings in this study demonstrated greater stability for core mentoring relationships (e.g., extended family, friends), with the majority of core mentoring relationships persisting over time (i.e., involving the same alters). Previous research indicates that core mentoring relationships are more likely to involve instrumental support (housing, food, and financial assistance) for youth with foster care experience transitioning to adulthood through higher education (see Gowdy & Hogan, 2021). The stability observed for these relationships may be requisite for some foster youth students to facilitate some semblance of a safety net related to material sufficiency and essential needs. Marginalized populations often rely on bonding capital, capital associated with common within-group characteristics and close relationships, to maintain, albeit often tenuous, supports and resources necessary for day-to-day survival (Dominguez & Watkins, 2003; Lukasiewicz et al., 2019; Martin-West, 2019). Unfortunately, bonding capital has not proven very useful in the promotion or advancement of marginalized populations, particularly along economic lines (Brisson, 2009; Scales et al., 2020; Zhang et al., 2011).

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