How Science Can Help Us Measure and Improve the Well-Being of Foster Youth

The three key goals of child welfare policy in the United States are the child's safety, permanency and well-being. Of these three goals, the child's well-being often seems to be the most elusive goal.
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Multi-ethnic teens in kitchen making school lunches. Adopted or foster home teens.
Multi-ethnic teens in kitchen making school lunches. Adopted or foster home teens.

The three key goals of child welfare policy in the United States are the child's safety, permanency and well-being. Of these three goals, the child's well-being often seems to be the most elusive goal. Class action lawsuits filed in several states -- including Texas, South Carolina, and most recently, Arizona -- demonstrate the depth of concern about how we care for children who cannot live safely at home. The nation's overwhelmed systems for the care and protection of abused and neglected children are not well equipped to promote the healthy development of these most vulnerable children.

The federal government does set standards for how well states perform this important task. From 2009 to 2012, states improved their performance on the two safety-related child welfare outcomes monitored by the federal government. The rate of maltreatment in foster care dropped to about 0.3 percent. That's lower than the rate of about 0.9 percent in the general population, although it still represents about 2,000 children who were supposed to be kept safe while under the protection of the states due to maltreatment at home.

Unfortunately, while child welfare data systems do track where foster kids are and whether they are safe, many aspects of child well-being just are not part of the federally mandated child welfare outcomes reports. One that is tracked is going in the wrong direction. The percentage of children under age 12 who are placed in group settings increased between 2009 and 2012. This is an upward trend that urgently needs to be reversed. Children should live with families if at all possible, and especially so for children in this age range. In rolling out their Every Kid Needs a Family state policy work, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has said "We must make finding safe, nurturing families for every child the highest priority to reflect what the medical and social research shows: children do best in families. Families -- whether birth, foster, kin or adoptive -- have been proven best for children and youth in virtually every way. They are essential to a child's healthy development. For example, research shows us that kids who live with relatives move less often, are more likely to live with a permanent family when they leave foster care and have better behavioral health outcomes."

The movement to track the well-being of foster youth also needs to accelerate by taking into account new scientific information on healthy child and youth development. Not yet tracked at the federal level, but of great significance for a child's healthy development, are opportunities for foster youth to have the age-appropriate experiences that contribute to a child's well-being. This includes things like extra-curricular and social activities that both enrich their lives and give them experience in interacting with others and making some decisions for themselves. The "normalcy" movement has been helping promote this in legislation and practice.

A glaring hole in the foster care data on well-being is information on the number, quality, and consistency of adult relationships for children. For years, it has been understood that a consistent and appropriate adult presence is a key factor in a child's well-being. More recently, research has added to the understanding of what such a relationship should look like, how it can affect healthy development, and why children should be surrounded by multiple relationships that contribute to his or her healthy development. The Search Institute, well-known for its excellent work in identifying the key developmental assets in a child's life, is now looking into the importance of what it calls "developmental relationships" for children. These are relationships that are caring, supportive, inspire growth, share power and expand possibilities for children and young people. For foster youth, these characteristics can typically be found among CASA and volunteer guardian ad litem programs, and in well-designed mentoring programs.

Research elsewhere has begun to confirm that children's well-being may be dramatically improved if the adults who have these developmental relationships with children also help them develop a "mindset" that is oriented toward growth and success. The key point is this: mindsets can be changed. Developing a growth mindset can allow you to move beyond adverse experiences and help you follow strategies that are in your best interest according to Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

We also know that when young people, particularly adolescents, develop a balanced understanding of the positive and negative futures they might face, they are much more likely to be able to work around the negative and back to the positive. These "balanced possible selves" can lead to improvements in academic success, behavior, and rates of depression.

What is particularly exciting about this research is the potential it has for positively affecting the educational success and mental health of foster youth, even in the absence of large scale system reforms. By strengthening relationships that protect foster youth from the effects of adverse childhood experiences, we can help them build on their own strengths so that the trauma they have experienced does not become a permanent barrier in their lives.

Every abused or neglected child in the nation's foster care systems should have a well-trained, caring adult to speak up for them and help assure their healthy development and well-being.

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