As we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of LEO, we are sharing a special "how to" series guest-authored by some of our awesome provider partners. Below, Friends of the Children shares their experience getting their organization ready for research and securing buy-in for multiple research projects.
At Friends of the Children, our program model hinges on one thing: commitment. We commit to walking alongside youth from ages 5 through high school graduation—12+ years no matter what. We work with children and families impacted by extreme challenges, using the Adverse Childhood Experiences–or ACEs–test to identify young people who might be able to benefit most from our program.
The ACEs test adds up experiences that make for a challenging childhood–things such as abuse, neglect, and household instability. The higher someone’s ACEs score, the higher the likelihood that they will experience health and other problems in the future. A score of four or more is an indicator that someone may be at high risk of future challenges. 85% of the youth we work with experience six or more ACEs in their lifetime. Many are at risk of being impacted by or have already experienced inequitable systems such as foster care.
Because of the potential long-term impact of childhood adversity on the youth we serve, we’ve developed an equally long-term response. We provide a paid, professional mentor–we call them Friends–who commits to partnering with each child and caregiver for 12+years, as they realize their hopes and dreams. Our Friends’ full-time job is to build nurturing, supportive relationships with youth and their caregivers.
We want the best for the youth we serve, and so we require the best of ourselves. This means we have committed to a culture of continuous learning. We use our own internal data to track the progress of youth in our program. These data tell us:
- 83% of youth who are paired with a Friend graduate from high school or earn their GED.
- 93% avoid involvement with the criminal justice system.
- 98% wait until they are beyond their teenage years to become parents.
- 92% complete our program and go on to post-secondary education, military service, or living-wage employment.
Because we value checks and balances, we’re engaging in two randomized controlled trials–the gold standard for research studies–to understand the impact of our services from an external lens. Our first study, begun in 2007 in partnership with the National Institute on Health, is nearly concluded. Although final results are not yet in, we’ve learned things during the journey of this long-term study that will inform our program. One of the things we learned along the way is that parents of youth in the Friends of the Children program report stronger pro-social behavior for their kids than parents of youth who don’t participate in the program. This finding is an indicator of our program’s impact in strengthening youth’s social-emotional skills.
Research shows that a parent’s positive perception of their child’s behavior can likewise positively impact family stability, and in a cycle of wellbeing, family stability leads to better outcomes for youth. These discoveries spurred us on to develop intentional dual-generation, or 2Gen, services geared towards both youth and their caregivers. These services were designed in partnership with the youth and families we serve and resulted in a program of intentional support to caregivers to mitigate trauma from systemic barriers such as lack of access to basic needs, resources, or educational supports. Our innovative 2Gen approach is of increasing interest to policymakers as an effective foster care prevention and intervention strategy.
Because we are committed to understanding the impact of everything we do, we have partnered with LEO to launch our second rigorous research study to learn the impact our 2Gen approach has as a trauma mitigation strategy for caregivers and their families. Specifically, we want to show that our approach helps families develop protective factors that decrease instances of involvement with the child welfare system–factors such as parental resilience and skill-building, support for social, emotional, and physical needs, and economic mobility.
Research doesn’t just “happen,” and so we are just as intentional about setting our organization up to be as research-ready as we are about designing our services. This requires focusing on both processes and people. How do we do this?
- We ensure our board and staff leadership are committed to evaluation: From our founding 30 years ago, our leadership has budgeted for and invested in evaluation to understand our impact and ensure fidelity to our model. In every new community where we launch Friends’ services, we put data-driven board and staff members in place to lead the local chapter.
- We invest in a network-wide program data management system: All Friends chapters commit to using our data system to record program service information and track youth outcomes.
- We commit to train and support our program staff: We budget resources nationally and locally to support those closest to the work–our program directors and our paid, professional mentors. This includes providing training so they understand how data can strengthen and improve our services.
- We use an established system to recruit youth and families into our program: Baked into the design of our original program model was a partnership with local researchers to help identify children who are the best fit for our services and a process for inviting eligible families into our program. As a result, when the time came to commit to research, our staff were prepared for the rigor of study participant recruitment and enrollment.
- We recognize both the benefits and limitations of any one particular research study: Our network understands that our first research study was designed specifically to examine whether our program has a long-term impact on youths’ high school graduation, self-sufficiency, instances of teen parenthood and juvenile delinquency. As a result, they also realize that our second study with LEO is an opportunity to assess something different–our impact on caregivers and families.
- We engage in preliminary exploratory research to build stakeholder buy-in: Before asking the network to commit to our study with LEO, we worked to strengthen our partnerships with local child welfare organizations and participated in exploratory studies of our impact. A key first step was securing funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation for a qualitative study with child welfare-involved caregivers that had promising findings about our impact helping families build protective stabilizing factors. In another preliminary study, independent evaluators found that children selected into our program from foster care experienced significantly shorter lengths of stay in care over three years than a comparison group of children. The study also found that 92% of caregivers surveyed believe Friends connected them with concrete supports that enrich and stabilize their family and 77% believe Friends promoted their ability to navigate systems and build community connections, including mental health services and career opportunities. The promise of these exploratory study findings led to network-wide confidence that positioned us to successfully implement a second rigorous study of our 2Gen outcomes.
- We leverage outside interest in evidence-based practices: Policymakers are keenly interested in seeing whether our 2Gen approach should be incorporated into the child welfare systems being designed across the country. We want to leverage stakeholder interest in evidence-based practices to ensure our model is seen as best practice and included in state and federal evidence-based clearinghouses.
Just as we are committed to helping youth and families build the support and skills needed for a healthy life, no matter what, we are all-in on evidence-building, no matter what. Research takes planning and hard work and forces an organization to take a deep look at itself–its processes, its people, its toughness, its heart and soul. But we’ve seen how research makes us better, and so we can’t turn back now. We’ll continue using these strategies to hone our organization to be ready for the next study, and the next one, and the next one. The youth and families we serve deserve nothing less than our absolute best.
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