When Change is the Constant: Mentoring Youth in Foster Care

By Christina Haines, National Mentoring Resource Center

For youth in foster care, change is a constant.  Each time a youth is moved, they can expect some or all of the pillars of their life will have to change, like relationships, schools, providers, neighborhoods, and friends.  Each move causes trauma. Youth experience more moves the longer they are in foster care, with most youth experiencing up to two different placements in the first year after removal from their family of origin.  Multiple moves have been shown to lead to numerous adverse outcomes, including struggles to develop attachment in relationships.1

While all youth benefit from continuity of relationships, this is often a compromised developmental component for youth in care who regularly experience abrupt ends to relationships and attachments, and a paucity of community connections compared to their peers not in foster care.  Mentoring provides a volunteer community member with whom they can practice their social skills, reflect on their identities, and receive support and encouragement as they explore their interests and talents.

Mentoring programs can prepare to serve youth in foster care by tailoring each of the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring with the unique needs of youth in foster care in mind.  It’s highly likely that any youth mentoring program serves at least some youth who have been affected by the child welfare system, given that there are over 420,000 youth in foster care nationally.  Further, preparing for situations common to youth in foster care, such as multiple points of contact for caregiving or restrictions on photo and media participation, is only going to benefit other youth served by the program who may be experiencing similar situations for other reasons.

Mentors as memory keepers

In poet and playwright Lemn Sissay’s 2014, TED Talk “A Child of the State,” Sissay reflects on his years in foster care:  “I slowly became aware that I knew nobody that knew me for longer than a year. See, that’s what family does. It gives you reference points.”  A mentor can also play the reference point role simply by chronicling and bearing witness to memories, growth, transitions and achievements of youth.

Mentors as volunteers

As time in foster care increases for a youth, it is often the case that so too does the proportion of adults in their life who are paid professionals, especially for youth living in congregate care facilities.  A mentor’s time with a youth is in no way connected to a paycheck. That fact is notable and meaningful in the context of youth growing up with involvement in a government system. As volunteers, mentors can also be anchors to the broader community, connecting youth to enrichment opportunities, social capital, and civic and cultural institutions over the course of the relationship.

Mentors are transition bridges

A long-term, multi-year mentoring commitment most beneficial to youth in foster care isn’t feasible for all program models or volunteers, but holds the opportunity for unique impact and insights for those able to undertake it.  In addition to moves while in foster care, most youth will also transition to permanency (e.g. reunification, adoption, kinship care, or guardianship), but nearly 20,000 youth nationally age out of foster care after age 18.  Mentors can be bridges during all these transitions, providing emotional and/or logistical support.

Prospective mentors will have confidence in their ability to go the distance with a youth when programs demonstrate strong match support and comprehensive policies that support critical skills like proactive communication, maintaining boundaries, practicing cultural humility, and supporting youth voice and choice.

Based in Boston, Silver Lining Mentoring has nearly 20 years of experience exclusively serving youth affected by foster care.  Silver Lining Mentoring’s mission is to empower youth in foster care to thrive through committed mentoring relationships and the development of essential life skills.  The organization’s direct service work includes one-to-one Community Based Mentoring and a cohort-based Learn & Earn program for teens and young adults.

The Silver Lining Institute was launched in 2019 to expand access to mentoring relationships for youth impacted by foster care nationwide.  The Silver Lining Institute mobilizes people and resources to grow mentoring relationships in 3 ways:

The Silver Lining Institute is a technical assistance provider with the National Mentoring Resource Center. Through NMRC training and technical assistance, the Institute brings population-specific expertise to improve mentoring efficacy for nascent and mature programs, and for multi-service agencies as well as individual mentoring programs.  In addition, the Institute offers training opportunities to the entire learning community of practitioners, allies, participants, and funders across the country through an event series, Fostering Progress.

To bring change to the broader systems and policies that affect youth, the Institute will partner with state and federal child welfare systems, other government agencies, and policymakers to ensure policy supports are relevant and accessible to youth in care.

The Institute will also contribute to public education that inspires allies and promotes a strengths-based approach in all discourse and policies affecting youth in the child welfare system.  The Institute believes communities can wrap around youth in foster care as mentors, advocates, and the village of support that all young people need to thrive.

The Silver Lining Institute is proud to partner with programs across the country to help realize a future where involvement in the foster care system does not limit a young person’s potential and all young people in foster care have access to high-quality mentoring relationships.

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