January 08, 2019

New research: For families impacted by foster care, Friends of the Children’s model is promising solution

“They’re not just there to help kids. They’re there to help the family unit.”

Portland, Ore. – One of the most traumatic experiences a family can go through is a child being separated from his or her parents. Entering the foster care system becomes yet another traumatic event in the life of a child, but a new study funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that Friends of the Children’s long-term mentoring model is a promising solution for families impacted by foster care. The national nonprofit, which has 15 locations around the country and in the U.K., selects children ages 4-6 from foster care and high-poverty schools and pairs them with a salaried, professional mentor (called a Friend) from kindergarten through graduation—12 ½ years, no matter what.

“The Friend relationship provides an avenue for promoting family stability, permanence and child well-being by providing holistic support to child welfare system-involved caregivers, families and children,” said lead author Amy M. Salazar, M.S.W., Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Washington State University Department of Human Development. The study was conducted at the University of Washington School of Social Work Social Development Research Group and Washington State University Vancouver, and was published in the Child & Family Social Work journal.

With more than 437,000 children in foster care nationwide, a number that has seen a 10 percent increase since 2012, organizations like Friends of the Children, which is funded primarily through private philanthropy, are coming to the table with innovative solutions.

“The Friends of the Children model is clearly aligned with [Annie E.] Casey’s priority of making sure that all kids have the opportunity to thrive, but the appeal of this study in particular was its interest in improving services to the whole family — which we know produces better results than a single-generation approach,” says Suzanne Barnard, director of Casey’s Evidence-Based Practice Group.

Four global themes emerged from the research, providing more insights into why the model works:

--Advocating and connecting: Friends advocate for families by empowering them with tools to navigate complex systems, connect with needed services and supports, and build connections among providers and stakeholders in families’ lives. They also connect participants to various resources such as counseling, youth programs, transportation assistance and basic needs such as food and clothing.

--Knowledge and skill building: Friends empower children and caregivers to strengthen social-emotional skills that promote positive behavior and family stability. They also coach children and caregivers about their rights within systems of influence, such as schools and child welfare.

--Relational support: Friends are role models, providing consistency and continuity. When children are transitioning homes and caregivers with frequency, Friends are a valuable resource to help caregivers understand a child’s strengths, needs and interests. Friends are good listeners and help caregivers feel supported in promoting their child’s well-being.

--General support: Friends provide emotional and logistical support through crises and challenges, education-related support, opportunities that build social capital, and parenting assistance such as collaborating on goals and supporting behavioral challenges.

One Friend expressed their role as “just being their supporter, so they feel like they have a friend in the room when they’re trying to problem-solve.” A caregiver shared, “They’ve helped me with summer programs for my kids and resources for me…It’s a whole array of things. They’re not just there to help kids. They’re there to help the family unit.”

The research included data analysis and interviews with caregivers (biological and foster parents), teachers, case workers and professional mentors from the Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash. and Tampa Bay, Fla. chapters of Friends of the Children.

Since beginning to select children directly from foster care systems across the country, child welfare agencies including Los Angeles County, which has the highest number of children in foster care, are looking to the model as a promising solution. The nonprofit is piloting a new “Two-Generation” approach in Los Angeles and New York City where they are selecting the children of parents who have been impacted by foster care.

“We want every child in foster care to have a Friend,” says Terri Sorensen, CEO of Friends of the Children. “We hope this research will open more doors to partnering with child welfare agencies across the country. Our new approach of selecting youth directly from foster care is going to be key to expanding to 25 cities by 2025, which is our goal.”

The study also included recommendations for strengthening, expanding or adding “more” of something that a Friend was already doing, rather than suggesting new responsibilities. One example was providing parents/caregivers the opportunity to connect with other parents/caregivers whose children are in the program. The recommendations will be used to inform continuous program quality improvement, particularly around training and supervision, through a trauma-informed lens.

“The findings contain many valuable insights that could be helpful for other mentoring programs or therapeutic settings interested in providing more holistic family support within the mentoring context,” said Salazar.

Researchers said a critical next step will be implementing cited recommendations to strengthen practices and conducting evaluations of outcomes for youth selected from foster care systems. Currently five Friends of the Children locations select youth directly from foster care, and more than 40 percent of youth in the program have experienced formal foster care or kinship care at some point during their time in the program.

A review of Friends of the Children data shows that youth in the program who have experienced foster or kinship care achieve the program’s long-term outcomes at the same rate as youth who have not experienced care: 83 percent graduate from high school; 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system; and 98 percent avoid early parenting.

Other authors include co-primary investigator Kevin Haggerty, M.S.W., Ph.D., Director of the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington; Susan Walsh, J.D., Ph.D., Director of Research and Strategic Impact at Friends of the Children; Bailey Noell, B.A., Research Assistant at Washington State University Department of Human Development; and Erinn Kelley-Siel, J.D., Chief Officer of Public Funding and Policy at Friends of the Children.

Access the media toolkit and the accepted version of the paper here.