Mentoring youth in foster care: The impact relationship histories has on the youth trauma symptoms & mental health outcomes

Weiler, L. M., Lee, S.-K., Zhang, J., Ausherbauer, K., Schwartz, S. E. O., Kanchewa, S. S., & Taussig, H. N. (2021). Mentoring Children in Foster Care: Examining Relationship Histories as Moderators of Intervention Impact on Children’s Mental Health and Trauma Symptoms. American Journal of Community Psychology.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin  

Notes of Interest:

  • Although caring relationships with non-parental adults can help buffer the impact of youth maltreatment, evidence indicates that some youth benefit more from mentoring than others.
  • This study assesses whether youths’ relational histories moderated the impact the Fostering Healthy Futures program (FHF) had on youths’ trauma symptoms, mental health, and quality of life.
    • Relational histories can refer to foster parent relationship quality, birth parent relationship quality, caregiver instability, and past mentorship experiences.
  • FHF has a positive impact on youth in foster care with diverse relational histories.
  • Prior mentoring experiences and relationship quality with foster parents didn’t moderate the effects of the intervention.
  • Caregiver instability pre-program and relationship quality with birth parents moderated the effects of several intervention outcomes.
  • Quality of life had a stronger effect on youth with poorer relationships with their birth parents and experienced fewer caregiver changes.
  • Youth with fewer shifts in their caregivers were more affected by trauma symptoms.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract) 

Mentoring-based interventions show promise among children in foster care, but previous research suggests that some benefit more than others. Because children in foster care experience relationship disruptions that could affect mentoring effectiveness, we examined whether children’s relational histories at baseline (i.e., relationship quality with birth parents, relationship quality with foster parents, caregiver instability, and previous mentoring experience) moderated the impact of a mentoring intervention on children’s mental health, trauma symptoms, and quality of life. Participants included 426 racially and ethnically diverse children (age: 9–11; 52% male) who participated in a randomized controlled trial of the Fostering Healthy Futures program (FHF), a 9-month one-to-one mentoring and skills group intervention. Results showed that relationship quality with foster parents and prior mentoring experience did not moderate intervention impact. Relationship quality with birth parents and caregiver instability pre-program, however, moderated the effect on some outcomes. The impact on quality of life was stronger for children with weaker birth parent relationships and fewer caregiver changes. Likewise, the impact on trauma symptoms was stronger for those with fewer caregiver changes. Overall, FHF seems to positively impact children with varied relational histories, yet some may derive more benefits – particularly those with fewer caregiver changes pre-program.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion) 

The results of this study indicated that, overall, FHF appears to have positive effects on youth in foster care who bring with them diverse relational histories. We hypothesized that youth would benefit more from the intervention if they had better relationships with caregivers, fewer caregiver disruptions pre-program, and prior mentoring experience, but, for the most part, this was not supported. Neither prior mentoring experience nor foster parent relationship quality significantly moderated the effects of the intervention on mental health, trauma symptoms, or quality of life. Relationship quality with birth parents and caregiver instability moderated the impact of FHF on some outcomes. Specifically, the impact of FHF on quality of life was greater for youth reporting lower relationship quality with birth parents, and similarly, the impacts of FHF on quality of life, post-traumatic stress, and dissociative symptoms were strongest for youth with relatively few caregiver transitions (about three or less).

The role that a youth’s history of caregiving transitions plays in a formal mentoring intervention effectiveness is logical and consistent with previous literature. Mentoring consists of bringing a new, temporary relationship with a caring adult into a young person’s life. Youth who have already had numerous transitions in caregiving relationships may be less willing to invest in a new relationship. For example, if they bring with them a model of relationships that includes abandonment by adults, this could influence how open they are to a mentoring relationship (Bowlby, 1988). Youth in foster care also are more likely to have had numerous professional helpers coming in and out of their lives, so a mentor may feel like one more temporary helper who will eventually leave them, although empirical research is needed to further investigate these potential processes.

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