Meet Dr. Heather Taussig, International Expert on Mentoring Youth in Foster Care

Dr. Heather Taussig - The Chronicles of Evidence-Based MentoringEditor’s Note: We are honored to feature Dr. Heather Taussig. Dr. Taussig is a clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Kempe Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Dr. Taussig was named Outstanding Young Professional for her work on child abuse and neglect by the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. In 2007, she was appointed by Governor Ritter to serve on the Foster Care and Permanence Task Force (Senate Bill 07-64). Dr. Taussig has worked clinically with maltreated children in out-of-home care for over 20 years and has conducted research on risk and protective factors in this population. She has been the Principal Investigator on multiple grants funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and her program has received support from over 20 foundations.

Jean Rhodes (JR): Please tell us about the FHF program, and how it came to be. 

Heather Taussig (HT): The Fostering Healthy Futures (FHF) program was designed as a positive youth development program to build on the competencies and interests of maltreated children in foster care. Too often, we find that children in foster care are labeled with mental health diagnoses or “serious behavior problems,” and are not provided opportunities to find their “sparks” and explore their unique talents. We wanted to provide a safe, non-stigmatizing, and empowering program for children to learn important social and life skills that we hope will help them navigate the challenges of adolescence.

JR: The recent evaluation of FHF is quite promising. Do you think the basic model could be used with non-foster care youth or is uniquely suited for that population?

 HT: We think the model of weekly individualized mentoring coupled with skills groups has been successful for the children with whom we work for several reasons. First, as I stated above, we do not label children. Second, we believe that the opportunity to be in a group with other children who have recently been placed in foster care reduces stigma and can be a powerful positive experience for children. Third, we have found that the 1:1 mentoring helps children generalize what they learn in skills groups to the “real world.” In answer to the question, we think this model would be useful for children with a range of experiences, and have talked about adapting it for children in military families whose parents are deployed, children with developmental disabilities, and children with chronic physical health problems. Having a shared experience (and one that might be somewhat stigmatizing or traumatic) seems to be a key component contributing to the efficacy of the skills groups, but the individualized mentoring could likely be used with any child.

JR: Some scholars worry that, when mentoring relationships are overly structured, mentors may not have sufficient flexibility to forge close ties. Have you found that to be the case?

 HT: Despite our program being “manualized,” we actually don’t structure the weekly mentoring visits. Much of what happens during mentoring looks and feels like more traditional community-based mentoring. The mentoring activities are always purposeful, however, and there is clear intention, even if the mentoring activity is taking a walk in the park. For example, we had a child who wanted to learn how to skateboard. His grandmother was concerned about his social skills. The boy’s mentor helped him learn and practice engagement skills with peers by coaching him on strategies to ask other children to teach him tricks at the skate park. Mentors work to build on the strengths and interests of youth during their visits, provide them with exposure to new experiences, and model prosocial relationships; much of this happens in community-based mentoring too!

JR: Although there is some evidence that longer-lasting mentoring relationships are more effective, the mentoring relationships in FHF were relatively short-term (30 weeks). What is your perspective on the role of match length in mentoring?

 HT: The FHF program runs along the academic year and mentoring and skills group happen weekly, so it is a fairly intense program. Children and families are told at enrollment that the mentoring and skills groups will end at the end of May. Discussions regarding program ending happen with mentors and in skills groups throughout the 9 months.  At the end of the program, children graduate and it is a big celebration of all their accomplishments. All children are ending with their mentors at the same time, so it helps “normalize” the experience. Given the history of trauma and loss that all of our children have experienced, we were initially concerned that ending the mentoring relationship could be detrimental or further traumatizing. Our post-program qualitative interviews as well as the quantitative findings suggest that the program does not have a negative effect on participants. In fact, there are strong findings of a reduction in trauma symptoms and other mental health problems 6 months post program. We believe, and our program experiences suggest, that a planful, non-traumatic (but sad) ending for children with such extensive trauma histories, can be a corrective experience. Children need to learn how to have healthy goodbyes, and we work hard to make that happen.

JR: Given the history of maltreatment, it might take a while for youth to develop trust with a mentor. Did you find that to be the case?

HT: Of course all the children in our program are unique, so I would not say that it has been a universal problem for children to develop trust. For some children it has taken longer than for others and we do see a lot of testing in the early stages of many of the relationships.  For this reason, having well-trained, graduate student mentors who receive weekly individual and group supervision has been helpful.

JR: Your mentoring program relies on social work students. How did you select that group to serve as mentors?

HT: Although the mentors have primarily been gradate students in social work, we have also had graduate students in psychology serve as mentors, and this has gone very well. We began the program with social work graduate students because the social work perspective is very much in line with the goals of the program. Specifically, social workers are trained in strength-based approaches and take a systems perspective when working with children and families. In addition, graduate students are eager to participate in training and supervision, which we know is so critical to the success of the program. We have written two papers on the experience of mentoring for our graduate student mentors. Our findings suggest that an internship with the FHF program builds many competencies in the mentors and that our mentors find the experience highly rewarding.

JR: How has your training as a clinical psychologist influenced your work on youth mentoring?

 HT: Well, I work with a multidisciplinary team, so I think that my views and perspectives have been shaped by multiple perspectives. My volunteer experiences probably contributed more to the development of FHF than my clinical psychology training per se. I do use information from standardized assessments, however, to help me conceptualize and contextualize clinical issues that arise in the mentoring relationship, which is likely a result of my clinical psychology training. In addition, I think my strong research training has enabled me to implement a rigorous randomized controlled trial to examine the impact of the FHF intervention.