The Importance of Mentors in Lives of Foster Youth
Understanding the significance of a mentorship program for youth in foster care may be most impactful if we first examine the unique challenges that foster youth face.
The role of mentors consists of forming close, trustworthy relationships with foster children to offset the stress and dysfunction of the foster children’s families and ever-changing environments. In addition, mentors may instill skills required for living independently; serve as role models for different races and ethnicities; and provide career development resources along with job opportunities.
Commonly Faced Challenges of Foster Youth
In the United States, over 500,000 children currently reside in foster care. 30% of those children have severe emotional, behavioral or developmental problems, and the most common reasons for their placement involve some form of neglect or abuse within their family of origin.
The majority of foster youth tends to move through life without a sense of stability because their journeys often include multiple stressful life events. These include the removal from their families and numerous foster care placements. They can more frequently experience feelings of grief as they transition, losing touch with friends, neighbors, teachers, pets, and sometimes their belongings. Coupled with any other traumas they may have experienced, they may exhibit challenges within their development, mental and emotional stability, education, employment, and their transition to independent living.
Elementary-age children may face struggles with forming relationships, exhibiting excessive attachment with adults or becoming very dismissive of any interaction. As they reach early adolescence, they likely develop friendships with other youth their age, but remain distant from family. Without the guidance and strong bonds with adults who have their best interests in mind, they may seek more recognition within peer groups, even peer groups of a negative nature.
As foster children reach the ages of 15-17 years, they become more reliant upon their peers. Multiple placements can interfere with their ability to form long-standing, positive support from friends and increases their likelihood of influence from negative peer groups. Once foster youth reach the ages of 18 to early 20s, their chances of understanding effective boundaries within relationships and what healthy relationships look like are low. This may result in more behaviors that involve risks of unplanned pregnancies, drug use, and/or abusive relationships.
Education, Employment, and Transitional Challenges
Children in foster care have likely been placed into numerous homes before they age out of their programs, in which case, they change schools multiple times. They may have experienced a delay in academics and poor motivation to perform well in school because of their lack of supportive relationships with school staff members. Just under half of all students in foster care will graduate high school, and of those, only about 3% will attend college.
If youth in foster care are not equipped with work-related skills, their employment options decline. Of the 20,000 kids who age out of the system every year, most will remain unemployed. Only a small percentage of those who do find and maintain jobs will have full-time employment.
Finally, foster youth who age out of their program will likely enter their independence without financial support, resources, or positive peer relationships, increasing the odds that they return to their original high-risk environments.
The Role of a Mentor to Foster Youth
Research suggests that mentees of natural and program mentors report they experienced positive, life-changing informational and emotional support from mentors while in foster care, and believe it helped them better navigate many challenges.
Other available research indicates that the top positive impacts observed as a result of mentorship programs were in the areas of mental health, educational functioning/attainment, peer relationships, placement outcomes, and satisfaction with life.
Foster youth tend to be resistant to more professional help, but are open to mentoring relationships. One of the key benefits is maintaining a stable relationship with a trustworthy adult, even when the child changes placements. It opens up opportunities for the child to participate in activities that once were limited for logistical reasons, like transportation options or time constraints of the caregiver.
While social services has its place in addressing issues within the family unit, mentorship is a more individualized approach that involves a primary focus on the child, encouraging his or her growth and development, nurturing interests, and bridges the resources available to them once they transition to independence.
V2 National Association of Foster Youth, Inc. recognizes the need for local long-standing mentor/mentee relationships for foster youth, and provides a holistic approach for multiple parties of the foster care system. Not only does there involve mentorship of foster youth, there are also resources for the foster parents to more effectively serve the children in their care. Contact V2 today to learn more about our mission and how you can make an impact in the lives of foster youth.