May is National Foster Care Month, a time to raise awareness about the hundreds of thousands of children and families across the United States who are involved in the foster care system. As explained in Negotiating the Curves Toward Employment: A Guide About Youth Involved in the Foster Care System, youth in foster care represent one of the most vulnerable populations in our society. While estimates vary, youth with disabilities are over-represented in the foster care population, which adds to the complexity of the situation. Large percentages of these youth receive special education services. Nearly four in five adults formerly in foster care have significant mental health disabilities. Youth in foster care are also more likely than their peers outside of foster care to become involved in the juvenile justice or adult corrections systems.
The best way to understand the challenges that any youth, including those in foster care, face and what they need for success is to provide them with opportunities to share their experiences and become self advocates and leaders for change. The Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program, run by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, is doing just that. This annual Congressional internship brings a small group of former foster youth to congressional offices in Washington, DC to conduct research and participate in retreats, advocacy trainings, and various networking opportunities with experts in the child welfare field.
Throughout the internship, the youth share their unique perspectives with federal policy makers on what it’s like to spend time in foster care and develop policy recommendations for improving the foster care system. The interns’ recommendations are shared in the program’s final report, The Future of Foster Care: A Revolution for Change. The following are just a few recommendations that former foster youth made at the conclusion of last summer’s internship program:
Foster Youth in Special Education
“In addition to being systematically mislabeled, foster youth are more often underserved by the special education system once labeled.”
While one study estimates that 20 to 60 percent of young children entering foster care have a developmental disability or delay, FYI intern Lakeshia Dorsey argues that not all foster care youth enrolled in special education are in need of these services. Often a student in foster care is mislabeled as needing special education services because the instability in their personal lives has affected their ability to learn or their ability to get the proper supports to learn. She advocates for all states to provide intervention services before enrolling foster youth in special education. She also recommends that teachers receive training on the unique needs of foster youth in order to avoid misidentification for special education services.
“Not only are foster youth being misdiagnosed as needing special education services, these youth are also falling even farther behind because they are not receiving the appropriate services they are entitled to by law.”
Dorsey points out that since foster families are eligible for more funds if their foster child receives special education services, the foster parent does not always have the educational interests of the child in mind. She advocates for the removal of the fiscal incentive for special education and recommends that an educational advocate be trained and assigned to every foster child in special education.
Career Development for Foster Youth
“Youth do not receive the full support and guidance that they need in order to move toward their professional careers.”
Intern Richard Terrell believes that employment is “ultimate level of success” for foster youth who have transitioned or aged out of the foster care system. Unfortunately, he explains, the current system does not provide the necessary supports and guidance that youth need to develop professionally. Terrell proposes a federally funded career development and mentoring program that would target foster youth, ages 16 to 21. According to Terrell, too often foster youth follow a life path of “instability, low expectations, poverty and lack of direction.” Career development programs could change this limited trajectory.
Mentoring for Foster Youth
“One option for ensuring the success of foster youth is to provide them with a consistent and stable mentoring relationship.”
Building a similar case as Terrell, Melanie Roberts believes that mentoring is essential to foster youth success. She cites research that shows that foster youth with structure mentoring relationships experience fewer behavioral problems and have more positive attitudes in school. Their social skills are improved and there is less experimentation with drugs. Roberts argues that “it makes good policy sense” to invest in foster youth by providing them with trained mentors.
There are many similarities between these youth-driven policy recommendations and NCWD/Youth’s Guideposts for Success for Youth involved in the Foster Care system. Career development opportunities, mentoring, and individually tailored educational support are all components of the Guideposts as well as opportunities for youth to participate in self advocacy and leadership roles.
Youth service professionals, policy makers, youth, families, and other advocates can find more guidance and recommendations for supporting the success of youth in foster care in the following publications:
- Negotiating the Curves Toward Employment: A Guide About Youth Involved in the Foster Care System
- Guideposts for Success for Youth in Foster Care
- The Future of Foster Care: A Revolution for Change, Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI)
- Youth with Disabilities in the Foster Care System: Barriers to Success and Proposed Policy Solutions, National Council on Disabilities
By Margie Hatch, Special Assistant at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.