Fostering Healthy Futures Program

*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the Crime Solutions website.

In considering the key takeaways from the research on this program that other mentoring programs can apply to their work, it’s useful to reflect on the features and practices that might have influenced its rating as “Promising” (that is, a program that shows some evidence that it achieves justice-related goals when implemented with fidelity).

Blending mentoring with more clinical forms of support can be effective for children with serious needs.

As with other mentoring programs reviewed for CrimeSolutions, Fostering Healthy Futures (FHF) provides youth with a blend of one-to-one mentoring and more direct clinical support, in this case a series of manualized and clinician-led skill-building group activities over 30 weeks. These skill-building group sessions provide some very targeted and important prevention strategies to youth who have been removed from their home and put into an often stressful foster care placement. Each week, groups of 8 children work with clinicians, trained facilitators, and mentors to engage in activities that build cognitive and behavior skills, with a particular emphasis on topics relevant to their current circumstance (e.g.; coping with loss, dealing with worry, forming healthy relationships, etc.).

Having this kind of focused clinician-led skills group training in addition to mentoring allows for mentors to focus on, well, mentoring. FHF asks the mentors to serve as more of the connective tissue of the program: providing recreational and fun-focused activities, helping youth navigate and get what they need from the other systems of care they find themselves in, reinforcing the skill-building, and even providing logistical support like transporting youth to the weekly skills groups.

In this model, mentors focus on making sure the child’s needs are being met during at least the initial stage of their journey through the child welfare system while also modelling healthy relationships and providing some moments of joy, positive interaction, and normalcy. The program may provide a weekly skills topic for the matches, but mentors have discretion in coming up with an activity that both provides opportunities to practice the skill and engages the mentee. Although the program uses social work and psychology graduate students as mentors, FHF is still allowing them to be mentors in the traditional sense. By doing so, the mentors are the glue that binds youth to the program to ensure that the group work is scaffolded by a caring, personal relationship.

However, it’s also worth noting that these mentors bring some skills that other programs’ mentors may not. As social work and psychology graduate students, these mentors may be more comfortable taking on some of these skill-building activities, advocacy, and service referral roles. Other programs that want to use mentors to support clinical work should think carefully about how to match the mentor role with the volunteers’ skills and abilities.

The power of a simple meal and a chance to feel normal.

One of the most potentially powerful aspects of the FHF model is that the group sessions end with a meal. The children, mentors, and clinicians all gather for a group meal where youth can talk about how they are doing and interact with other youth the same age going through the same thing. One can imagine that the chance to be around other children who have recently been placed in foster care must really normalize the experience and foster a sense that they aren’t in this alone. The meal replicates a common “family” experience while also providing an opportunity to talk with other youth who may be very much missing a sense of family. Reducing stigma and normalizing the experience of being in foster care are two of the main ways that FHF tries to mitigate the negative impact of being a ward of the state. It can be easy to overlook something as simple as a group meal among all the other compelling aspects of the program design of FHF. But in this case, and with these children, that group meal may be a critical part of the intervention and one that may well set the stage for the rest of the program components to work as well as they appear to.

Serving youth in the child welfare system requires a lot of mentor knowledge and support.

Although FHF does a good job of letting mentors be mentors, that doesn’t mean that those students are on their own. Mentors in the program, each of whom work with two mentees, get four hours of in-person support a week. Along with helping to ensure that the skills being taught are effectively reinforced, this support time can help mentors problem-solve around situations that have come up with their mentees, particularly around helping them navigate the many systems of care and institutions that the child is now dealing with as part of their placement. The mentors’ supervision also allows them to better understand what might be precipitating some of the children’s more challenging behaviors. Not every program serving youth in foster care will be able to provide this level of training and support. Yet, the design here is a reminder to those programs that mentors working with foster youth will need lots of support and guidance around helping youth navigate systems and access other supports. Regular meetings with clinicians or other support specialists can help ensure these mentors are up to the challenge of being there for these vulnerable youth.

Reducing placements and supporting permanency is a laudable goal for programs serving foster youth.

Based on initial evidence that the program reduces mental health problems including posttraumatic stress among foster youth, FHF next evaluated whether the program, in turn, produced meaningful differences in youths’ time and experience in the child welfare system. Based on the second evaluation referenced in the profile, it appears that the program resulted in meaningful reductions in placement changes as well as placement in residential treatment centers, especially for youth who were placed with a non-relative when entering the program. There was also some evidence that participating youth were also more likely to have found permanency (either through adoption or reunification with their family).

These findings have important implications from a policy perspective. The study authors note that the average cost of the typical residential treatment center placement in Colorado is over $30,000; the typical foster care placement over $12,000. If FHF can reduce the number of placements a child endures in the system, and by promoting permanency solutions, the program has the potential to save the state of Colorado (not to mention, of course, others in which it may be implemented as well in the future) considerable money over time. (Although it should be noted that there is some speculation that family reunification can also increase a youth’s exposure to risk over time, thus offsetting at least some of the cost-savings down the road.)

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of FHF is that it has achieved these positive outcomes without having any aspect of the program specifically directed at the youth’s parents or family. Although mentors interact with both caregivers and families of origin on a regular basis, there is no formal parent-training component. This intervention is built on the belief that preventing the mental health issues, feelings of stigma and isolation, and the emotional and behavioral problems that often accompany being a ward of the state will lead to changes in the overall child welfare experience. These are outcomes that any program serving foster youth should aim for and it is exciting to see a prominent role for mentoring in an intervention that clearly shows promise for achieving them.

For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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