Friends of the Children: Mentoring to Empower Youth in Foster Care and Strengthen Families
Founded in Portland, Oregon in 1993, Friends of the Children is a national nonprofit that works to break the cycle of generational poverty by empowering youth to change their own stories. What began with three salaried, professional mentors and 24 children has grown to serve thousands of children in 15 communities nationally and in the U.K. Fueled by federal grants – including grants from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – and private philanthropy, Friends of the Children is positioned to double enrollment in the next four years, with the ultimate goal of expanding to 25 cities by 2025.
Friends of the Children selects children who are experiencing foster care or are in high-poverty schools and pairs them with a salaried, professional mentor (called a Friend) who mentors them from kindergarten through high school graduation – 12 ½ years, no matter what.
The children who qualify for the program are youth whose exposure to multiple compounding risk factors and adverse childhood experiences has already begun to manifest in behavioral and other challenges. Friends spend 16 intentional hours per month with each child in the classroom, at home, and in the community. Friends ensure the social and emotional development, safety, well-being, and educational success of the youth under their care.
Over the past 25 years, Friends of the Children has developed a strong reputation based on the achievement of proven, measurable outcomes for youth facing the greatest obstacles. An evaluation of program graduates showed that:
- 83% of youth graduate from high school, though more than 60% have a parent who did not have the necessary support to complete high school themselves
- 93% of youth avoid the juvenile justice system, though 50% have a parent impacted by the criminal justice system
- 98% of youth wait until after their teen years to become parents, though 85% were born to a teen parent
- 92% of youth go on to enroll in post-secondary education, serve our country, or find employment
Historically, greater than 40% of the youth served by Friends of the Children have experienced out-of-home placements, either through the formal foster care system or through informal placement with kin. Youth who graduate from Friends of the Children achieve these long-term programmatic outcomes at the same rate as their program peers – remarkable results considering the national statistics for youth aging out of foster care.
Incorporating the Elements of Effective Practice for MentoringTM
In order to meet the needs of the youth served, and to ensure that the program is both trauma-informed and culturally responsive, the organization has been working to not only meet, but exceed the Benchmarks and Enhancements under Standard 3 in the Elements of Effective Practice for MentoringTM.
Friends of the Children incorporates the Elements by:
- Providing 40+ hours of comprehensive pre-match training
- Using training practices and materials that are informed by empirical research or are themselves empirically evaluated
- Supporting mentors to advance their ongoing professional development in topics such as child development, being trauma informed, and employing culturally-responsive mentoring practices
Support from OJJDP
Since 2015, grants from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) have enhanced Friends of the Children’s training curriculum in critical topic areas, such as family and school advocacy, navigating systems and child welfare, and supporting youth whose caregivers have been incarcerated.
Most recently, OJJDP funding is supporting Friends of the Children to develop a more robust Program Quality Improvement system to enhance, track, and monitor the effectiveness of all training and professional development activities for mentoring and supervision across its national network.
Connections to Evidence-Based Practice: Child Neglect and Abuse Prevention
Friends of the Children is working to build its evidence-base as a child neglect and abuse prevention and intervention program. The program is proven to build protective factors, which are conditions or attributes that mitigate or eliminate risk in families and communities. Meaningful relationships with a positive adult role model have been shown repeatedly in scientific studies to be a protective factor, even for youth who are growing up in very difficult circumstances (DuBois, & Silverthorn, N, 2005).
According to the Children’s Bureau, there are six protective factors that are shown to strengthen families and help parents who may be more likely to make poor decisions that can lead to abuse or neglect (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2018). Third-party evaluations of the Friends of the Children program to date are showing evidence of impact in five of the six areas that build assets and lead to safer, stronger families.
In a recent study by the University of Washington, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, biological families, foster, kinship and adoptive caregivers reported positive impact from the Friends of the Children program in the following four areas: (a) Advocating and Connecting, (b) Knowledge and Skill Building, (c) Relational Support, and (d) Other Types of Support. Concrete examples of these themes include:
- Friends acting as advocates and liaisons for youth and caregivers as well as helping them navigate complicated systems, including education and child welfare
- Friends connecting participants and their families to various resources such as counseling, youth programs, transportation assistance, and material resources, such as food and clothing
- Friends providing various types of support in relation to youths’ education and empowering caregiver participation in school-related activities, such as supporting special needs and attending Individualized Education Program (IED) meetings
- Friends providing parenting assistance to caregivers, such as working together on common goals, supporting caregivers with youths’ behavioral challenges, and providing insights about the youth caregivers
In addition to these qualitative findings, early findings from the Friends of the Children ongoing multi-site randomized control trial (RCT) evaluation found that parents/caregivers involved in the Friends program are significantly more likely to have a positive perception of their child’s behavior in and out of school - another protective factor for successful parenting (Eddy et al.,2017).
Recognizing the power of the model, cross-sector leaders in Los Angeles and New York City have invited Friends of the Children to pioneer a two-generation (“2Gen”) pilot initiative. In those cities, the program is partnering with community-based organizations’ serving parents who have experienced foster care to create a pipeline for youth enrollment.
Parents and their 4-6 year-old children are joining as participants in the program, receiving peer-to-peer support and connections to resources aimed at advancing economic mobility such as housing, education, and workforce development. Third-party evaluators will test whether the Friends of the Children 2Gen approach strengthens family stability, builds stronger networks of family support, improves system access and navigation skills, and creates opportunity for school and career success for both youth and their parents.
As part of its national expansion, Friends of the Children is also working more closely with child welfare agencies around the country to advance its proven model as both a foster care intervention and child abuse prevention innovation that has the potential to create not only life-long change for youth and families, but lasting systems change. In order to help youth and families thrive, Friends of the Children continues to build protective factors that mitigate trauma and improve their safety and well-being.
Related Resources and References
- Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2018). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2P10LrE
- Dubois, D. L., & Silverthorn, N. (2005). Natural Mentoring Relationships and Adolescent Health: Evidence from a National Study. American Journal of Public Health, 95(3), 518-524.
- Eddy, J. M., Martinez Jr, C. R., Grossman, J. B., Cearley, J. J., Herrera, D., Wheeler, A. C., … Seeley, J. R. (2017). A Randomized Control Trial of a Long-Term Professional Mentoring Program for Children at Risk: Outcomes Across the First 5 Years. Retrieved from https://friendsofthechildren.org/uploads/resources/fotc_austin/SPR_Published-Manuscript.pdf
- Salazar, AM,Haggerty, KP, Walsh, S, Noell, B, Kelley‐Siel, E. Adapting the Friends of the Children programme for child welfare system‐involved families. Child & Family Social Work. 2019; 1- 11.