Permanent Adult Connections
A few years ago, we did two focus groups: one was with youth aging out of foster care and one was with adults who had been in foster care. In both groups, I listened as they talked about what it felt like to only have adults in their lives who were paid to be there. The deep sadness in their voices tugged at my heart. They recognized the importance of the paid staff for helping them get what they needed, but they longed for connections outside of that relationship.
It has made me wonder if the system has worked hard enough to help them stay connected to meaningful adult relationships in their lives. Foster parents, coaches, teachers, neighbors, aunties, uncles … these are people who have cared about the young person while they were together. When I ask about this issue, I find there are many barriers to helping retain the connections to caring adults in the young person’s life across the expanse of their involvement with the system.
I learned that when a child first enters the child protection system, some counties send a letter to relatives telling them they have 30 days to claim the child before they go into stranger foster care. When asked why they don’t use a more personal approach such as phone calls or door knocking, I was told the caseloads are too high for that level of effort. This means that children are going into stranger foster care because our system isn’t equipped to handle the cases in the best possible way for the child. For most children, being placed with a relative is far better than being placed in a home with a stranger. Some counties may be doing this well, but some counties are not and children in those counties will suffer. This is a first step for child well-being.
I have also wondered if family finding is done after the child has been in child protection for a number of years. People change, they go through treatment, leave abusive relationships, etc. I am hoping the counties have workers or teams that can do further family finding for children “stuck” in the system. Foster families are temporary by definition and more needs to be done to connect children with permanent, supportive adults. This should be seen as the number one goal.
Kevin Campbell, whose organization is called Family Finding, believes that foster families are now seen as the solution instead of the temporary landing while family are located. For very few children, foster families before adoption may be the answer. He believes a child should never be in a foster family (or a number of foster families) for years and it is common sense that this practice is doing damage to children’s healthy relational development. Children need stability and permanence in order for trust and relationship skills to blossom. We need to take a closer look at family finding for the children and youth in child protection and foster care.
Recently, Jacqueline White, Director of the MN Host Home Network, prepared a white paper called “Adults Youth Can Count On.” In the discussion, there seems to be a tension for youth and youth workers between helping youth get to independence and facilitating nonpaid, supportive, permanent adult connections. Research has shown that supportive adults are more important for this population than specific life skills, but there are barriers for youth workers in doing the connecting work with youth. Lack of training seems to be the biggest barrier for youth providers. Some organizations believe that finding mentors for youth is the answer. However, research has shown that almost half of the mentor/mentee relationships end prematurely. This means that at some point, the staff person has to move on to new youth coming into the program and if the mentor also moves on, there have now been more disrupted relationships in the young person’s life causing more trauma.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has identified four “core outcomes” for ending youth homelessness by 2020 and permanent connections is one of them. I am excited to see the strategies they recommend for achieving this outcome. The Jim Casey Initiative recently released a report that also named permanent connections as important for foster care youth aging out of care. I would like to build a coalition of people in Minnesota doing this work. It is time to lift it up and spread best practices so we know our young people have permanent, supportive, loving adults in their lives. We know there is nothing more important for their future success.