What the Experts Say: Improving Outcomes for Youth in Foster Care

Author: Brendan Perry

Approximately one in 20 U.S. children experience foster care at some point in their childhood. Those who have experienced foster care have a higher risk of living in poverty, having a teenage pregnancy, engaging in alcohol and drug use, being arrested, having long term mental and physical health problems, and are less likely to enroll and complete college than the general population.

“It would be fair to say that youth exiting foster care have the worst outcomes of any population in the United States,” says LEO Research Sarah Kroeger. “Yet, despite the challenges faced by these youth, there is very limited rigorous evidence on which interventions improve their outcomes.”

Sarah and a team of LEO research assistants recently surveyed the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse as well as prominent papers in the field of foster care, cataloging studies that explore the effectiveness of programs aimed at improving outcomes for youth in the child welfare system. This exercise left the research team with more questions than answers.

Only a handful of programs have been evaluated through large, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and shown to be successful. Foster care prevention programs like Positive Parenting Program (Triple P), Parent Management Training-Oregon Model, and SafeCare, are among those with promising evidence. Evaluations of other models that focus on supporting the youth while in foster care through mentoring, coaching, and or clinical support, such as Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC), also find some evidence of success. While these findings are important, these interventions are not available across the country, leaving most case managers in a poor position to make evidence-based decisions about program referrals. More program-level impact evaluations are needed to build out the knowledge base of effective child welfare programming.

Through partnership with Friends of the Children, a national nonprofit committed to empowering youth, Sarah and the LEO team are looking to contribute to the knowledge base by designing a randomized evaluation of Friends of the Children’s new 2Gen approach. The 2Gen intervention includes mentor support to caregivers to build protective capacities, navigate social service programs, and build social capital while helping children focus on creating goals and developing social-emotional skills. LEO is collaborating with the national office and five Friends of the Children chapters (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Fargo-Moorhead, and Tacoma) to launch a study this fall.

While conducting more impact evaluations is an important piece of the puzzle, as we look forward, there are several big questions in the space of child welfare. Sarah and her team identified the following:

  • Can we identify interventions that decrease the need for foster care?
  • Which programs improve outcomes for foster alumni at various life stages?
  • How can foster care best support kinship placements? 
  • How much does kinship placement matter and what makes kinship care more successful?
  • What is the impact of privatization of foster care?
  • What are the effects of services on objective child welfare outcomes?

In the coming months and years, LEO is eager to collaborate with counties, states, and nonprofits to answer these questions and build evidence to support youth and families in the child welfare system. 

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