Vol. 13, No. 1• November 2008

Overcoming System Failure to Help Youth Find and Sustain Positive Relationships

by Joan McAllister

Despite improvements in foster care, most of us would not want our children placed in the custody of a county department of social services. Although foster care placement can be a lifeline, it can also permanently disrupt children’s positive relationships.

Too many times, children removed from their homes lose contact with relatives, neighbors, school friends, teachers, pets and others who make up the constellation of their natural support networks. As these relationships are disrupted or broken during the removal process, children are expected to form new relationships in unfamiliar environments—with the foster parent, the new school, the new social worker, the new teacher—sometimes in a new town or at least in a new part of town. These experiences can have a negative impact on children’s ability to form and sustain connections to family and other supportive people.

Five Caring Adults
Since 2001 the NC LINKS program has asked counties to focus on achieving seven outcomes for teens in foster care:

  • Safe and stable housing
  • Sufficient income to meet basic needs
  • Adequate educational and vocational training to secure stable employment
  • Avoidance of high risk behaviors
  • Postponed parenthood until emotionally and financially prepared
  • Access to medical care and use of preventive care, and
  • A personal support system of at least five caring adults in addition to professional relationships

Evidence suggests that despite our efforts, there is room for improvement. For example, of the 611 young adults who aged out of foster care in North Carolina in state fiscal year 2007-08, we can only be sure that 316 (52%) had a support system of at least five caring adults at the time they left care.

This is not acceptable. If an average group of adults are asked how many people are in their personal support system, most can list more than 40 people.

It’s not that people don’t care about youth aging out of care: many family members, friends, former foster parents, employers, teachers, coaches, and other caring adults would be willing to be a part of the youths’ lives—if they only knew about the need. Youth in foster care need at least the same opportunities as others to gain the supports they need to become successful adults.

Lisa’s Story, A Case Example

This fictional case example illustrates what can go wrong when we fail to help youth find and sustain positive relationships.

Lisa will be 18 on Monday. She has been in foster care for three years. She was sexually abused by her stepfather. Her mother did not believe her and stayed married to the stepfather. The relationship between Lisa and her mother was broken beyond repair. Parental rights were eventually terminated. Both of Lisa’s sisters have been adopted, but visitation has been discouraged because of Lisa’s “negative influence” on the younger girls. Lisa is angry at her mom, angrier at the stepfather, and angriest at the DSS system. She is in the last semester of her senior year. She has been offered the opportunity to remain in care on a CARS agreement until she graduates, but will not consider it. Lisa and her 20-year- old boyfriend have just taken Lisa’s belongings from the group home where she has been living. The couple’s whereabouts are unknown.

Support Networks at Risk
For children who, like Lisa in the case example above, are not reunified quickly, the damage caused by removal is often compounded over time. Foster care social workers may not be aware of the relationships that were lost and may not think to ask children about people who are or were important to them. They may rely on information in the child’s record, using other social workers’ judgments about the suitability of friends and relatives. In Lisa’s case, potentially untapped resources from her past include her sisters, their adoptive parents, her paternal relatives, and neighbors.

As youth remain in care, many miss out on opportunities to develop new supportive relationships. For example, some agencies have policies that require criminal records checks before youth in custody can visit overnight with families of friends. Liability concerns give rise to policies that prohibit use of reasoned judgment by foster families. Some agencies refuse to allow youth to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities because there is no approved means of transportation for the youth to return home, or because they are afraid that something bad might happen. Some youth are not able to attend their home faith community. Some youth are not allowed to work or to volunteer without overcoming many behavioral and attitudinal hurdles. Additional barriers are listed below.

Barriers to Building Support Networks

1. As a child becomes an adolescent, the biological and sociological need to become a separate, independent adult becomes stronger. Adolescents who have fragile support systems are often not interested in developing relationships with more adults, and lose some of the supports they have during this maturation process.

2. Foster care sometimes discourages potential relationships, as in Lisa’s situation with her sisters and other relatives. Some agency policies discourage youth from becoming involved in the very activities that can expose them to potential supports such as sports, clubs, faith communities, school activities, and employment. These activities may be seen as “frills” rather than as opportunities for growth and the development of resources.

3. Social workers are busy people. Youth who are resistant to new relationships with adults can be difficult to convince and engage. Social workers underestimate the impact that they can have on youth when they make time to build trust.

4. The names of people who might become support people may be buried in the records, in the information held by the family, or in the memory of the youth. Extracting and acting on this information takes time, effort, and prioritization. Potential resources may have moved away, with current whereabouts unknown.

Children entering foster care often lack basic personal supports; were that not true, many could avoid foster care placement or quickly move from foster care into the home of a relative or another caring, responsible adult. Those children who remain in foster care through adolescence face a combination of factors that, if not addressed proactively, are likely to lead to a lack of supports upon discharge.

What You Can Do
The most important thing that we can do for children and youth in foster care is to assure they have a consistent personal support network of at least five caring adults, in addition to those persons whose support is based on a professional relationship. If each of us makes the commitment to youth we serve to help them to identify and strengthen these relationships, we will literally help them survive the normal crises that everyone experiences in the transition to adulthood.

The following strategies are recommended to help youth build their personal support networks:

  • Ask the youth the names and contact information of people with whom they would like to re-establish or strengthen contact. With their permission, share information about potential supporters with the youth’s foster care or LINKS social worker.
  • Be particularly mindful of relatives and siblings as possible resources.
  • Give the youth opportunities to invite their personal supporters to their Permanency Planning Action Team (PPAT) or case planning meetings. Don’t screen anyone out unless there is a clear safety issue. Try to “screen in” invitees rather than screening them out.
  • Make every effort to assure that youth attend their court reviews and that they communicate their plans and interests to the judge.
  • Conduct “record mining” in your agency on the ten youth who have the most fragile or non-existent support networks. Talk with the youth about names that are found that might be possible support persons.
  • Use both free and for-charge internet search engines to locate missing relatives and friends. Child Support Enforcement may already have access to information that could be used to locate people. LINKS Transitional Funds can be used to pay for searches for potential support persons.
  • Keep your expectations, and those of the youth, reasonable. Your intent is to strengthen their support network, not to secure instant placement. If that happens, great—but people can be supportive in many different ways.
  • Enable youth to participate in activities that will, among other things, expose them to caring adults. Avoid denying participation in these positive activities as a punishment for unrelated offenses.
  • Remember that people can and do change. Immature parents often grow up and may become quite capable of being an adult friend to their young adult children. Stay open to the possibilities.
  • Accept the young person’s plans for their life and help them develop those plans while they have the resources of the agency to help process what they are learning.

If youth are to have the best chance of transitioning successfully from foster care to adulthood, DSS must make a concerted effort to assure that existing relationships are maintained and strengthened throughout the youth’s time in care. We would want nothing less for our children—and these are our children.

Robert’s Story A Case Example

This fictional case example illustrates what can happen when we succeed in helping youth find and sustain positive relationships.

Robert was almost 17 when the LINKS worker asked him who had been meaningful in his life. He mentioned foster parents that had taken care of him when he was eight years old, people who told him that they would have adopted him if they could. The couple moved out of state after Robert was reunified with his family. When he re-entered foster care, he lost touch with them. With the help of the Internet, his social worker located the family and let them know about Robert’s situation. They had no idea he was still in foster care, and no idea that he had become available for adoption when he was ten. They asked for a visit. LINKS funds were used to fly him to New York. Correspondence and visits continued, and the family and Robert decided adoption was still a great option. The adoption was finalized the day before his 18th birthday. Robert is enjoying getting to know his new extended family, as well as renewing his friendship with his older adopted brother.

Joan McAllister is State Coordinator of the NC LINKS Program


Copyright 2008 Jordan Institute for Families