Future Learnings: Can we change outcomes for foster youth?

Child maltreatment and foster care are factors that predict a dismal cycle of intergenerational poverty and instability. Here at LEO, we have the privilege of partnering with several providers who have designed inventive, community-based solutions that counteract these patterns, and disrupt the cycle of poverty for children in foster care.

More than 250,000 children in the United States enter foster care each year and approximately 400,000 are in care at any given point in time. These children will go on to experience higher rates of poverty, substance abuse, and criminal engagement than their non-foster peers, even after we account for racial, economic, and neighborhood effects. Whether these trajectories are driven from foster care itself or the events that preceded it is a complex question, but the need to do better by these children is clear. We need to improve the safety and stability of out-of-home placements, and find interventions that can counteract the harm to children who experience the physical and emotional disruption of neglect, abuse, and out-of-home care. LEO has embarked on research collaborations with three organizations who are seeking to do just this: Friends of the Children, Child Advocates, and Hands of Hope.

Friends of the Children is a national organization that works to impact generational change in the child welfare space. They employ a 2Gen model of support for both at-risk children and their parents. The goal of the 2Gen model is to reduce child maltreatment and factors of poverty that necessitate removal to out-of-home care, or to encourage family reunification in cases where removal has already occurred. Beginning when children are between 4 and 6 years old and continuing for 12 years, they are matched with a Friend, a professional mentor who spends one-on-one time with children and provides emotional support as well as age-appropriate counsel about school, peers, family, behavior, nutrition, and other activities. Friends also serve a role with caregivers, encouraging a better connection between the parent (or foster parent) and child by building the protective capacity of the family, navigating social service programs, building up social capital, and increasing parental engagement in their child’s education. LEO and Friends of the Children are partnering to conduct a randomized controlled trial that will generate evidence on the impact of the 2Gen program on child welfare involvement, economic mobility, self-sufficiency, family stability, housing stability, caregiver employment and wages, and health outcomes for both child and caregiver.

Hands of Hope, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, seeks to interrupt the cycle of poverty and child maltreatment by supporting foster caregivers. Child welfare agencies across the country struggle to recruit and retain qualified foster caregivers. Hands of Hope partners with faith-based communities to surround foster families with a “Care Community”, a team of community members who support foster families by delivering meals, tutoring foster children, providing respite care, giving rides to and from appointments or school, and many other acts of kindness. The care community model is intended to increase placement stability and decrease the level of foster caregiver attrition, with the belief that this stability ultimately provides better care for foster children. Evidence from correlational studies suggests that better placement stability will lead to better outcomes for foster children both while they are in out-of-home care and afterward. We are testing whether the care community model, which aims to increase placement stability and decrease foster caregiver turnover, will promote positive outcomes for children in foster care.

Finally, LEO is also developing an RCT with Child Advocates, a non-profit dedicated to providing specialized legal services for vulnerable children throughout the state of Indiana. Currently, legal representation is not available to the majority of foster youth in Indiana. Child Advocates direct representation program provides specialized attorneys to children and youth in the child welfare system. LEO is studying the causal impact of legal representation for children in foster care. Access to legal counsel could shorten a foster youth’s out-of-home placement duration by reducing unnecessary removals or placement changes, expediting steps that support timely reunification, and providing an adult confidante with specialized training and experience in child welfare issues. Research has shown that direct representation can decrease the average time to case resolution (known as permanency), and increase the probability that children are reunified with their family of origin within 12 months.

We still have a lot to learn about how to change outcomes for children in foster placements and foster care alumni, but each of these three projects contributes to this effort. Our hope is that these projects not only offer evidence to inform policy makers and service providers, but also that they will encourage more research and research partnerships. Ultimately, we hope to generate better evidence of interventions that can overcome the later life predictions of foster care, and improve life outcomes for those individuals and families who have experienced foster care.

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