Foster Leaders is an action committee that is on a mission to enhance the lives of adolescents in foster care and adults who have been significantly impacted by foster care. The foster care system is quite complex, with several individual segments that are worthy of the country’s focus. These segments include: the preservation of birth families, foster care service and placement, pre-adoption and post-adoption support, independent living, and multiple others. Our movement is focused on the independent living of adolescents and adults from foster care. We believe our efforts to enhance the lives of those who are pursuing independence after life in the foster care system will empower generations of former foster youth to make a positive impact on the other segments of foster care and to make a positive impact on the world in general.
After observing the gaps that existed between foster care and independence for the young adults he mentored, our founder started corresponding with other former foster youth and foster youth advocates to understand what he was observing. This correspondence centered around 3 factors – connection, learning, and leadership.
Shortage of Resources Supporting Consistent Connections for Foster Youth as they Transition from Foster Care to Independence
We believe that regardless of whether a young adult was in foster care or not, the key to them successfully transitioning from youth to adulthood is being connected to a strong support system of peers and positive adults who can walk with them as they navigate the initial years of independence and learn valuable lessons from the mistakes that are traditionally associated with young adulthood. Unfortunately, there are obstacles in the way of youth gaining these connections before they are set to leave foster care. Most of these obstacles can be summarized in the form of 2 key conflicts – preparation vs. protection and program survival vs. responsiveness to clients.
The conflict between preparation and protection is best exhibited in the decisions that are made for youth by their guardians. When a decision about normal childhood events, like going to a friends house, are to be made, foster youth must first ask their foster parents or other individuals who manage their residential setting. Once they approve, the foster parents or residential managers must submit paperwork to the child’s caseworker, and only when the paperwork is approved may the youth participate in a normal life event. With most of the same societal risks involved, parents of youth who are not in foster care are able to directly make decisions about the daily lives of their youth. Understanding the risks that youth face today, we understand the importance of protection, but at what level do we sacrifice the ability of foster youth to progressively learn how to make decisions on their own?
In these times where access to donations, grants, and contracts are so competitive, many organizations face the tough balancing act between contributing their time to the survival of their own programs, and their responsiveness to their clients. At the end of the day, if their programs do not survive, their ability to serve clients will be limited. For many organizations, programs rely on the support of donations, grants, and public contracts. Each additional donation, grant, or contract is usually attached to accountability standards that increase the amount of paperwork and the restrictions of who and how a program serves its clients. In addition to this increase in obligations to non-clients limiting the responsiveness organizations are able to maintain with their clients, the increase in obligations also limit the ability of organizations to form strategic partnerships where organizations are able to share resources, services, and best practices in the pursue of the common goal of enhancing the lives of foster youth.
Inadequate Training Opportunities for Foster Youth and those who are in the Position to Guide Them
According to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, teenagers (adolescents) experience “identity formulation” and “role confusion,” as they are preparing for the independence of adulthood. When you introduce separation from birth families and changes in other environments where youth typically find their identities and their places in the world, it is no wonder that adolescence is an especially difficult time for those in foster care. Unless a foster youth was wrongfully removed from their birth family, one can assume their biological environment did little to nothing to contribute to their ability to establish their identity. Consequently, it is crucial to ensure that as foster youth progress through their adolescent years, they are connected with opportunities to identify and nurture their personal, professional, and community service interests.
Just like the imbalance between curriculum-focused learning and individual-focused learning has resulted in the United States education system falling behind the education system in other countries, this imbalance has resulted in an additional risk for negative outcomes in the lives of foster youth as they enter into the independence of adulthood. Foster Leaders was inspired by the strength, resilience, and courage of foster youth, and we believe that if a focus on these factors was integrated with the curriculum/evidence-based learning that already exists, foster youth would be better equipped to make an impact on their respective communities.
Understanding that it is hard to personalize large-scale programs to the individual needs and strengths of each foster youth, we believe that it is important to promote a collaborative learning process, where training resources are shared between organizations and individuals. As the level of collaborative learning grows, more empowering factors like strength, resilience, and courage can be integrated in the efforts of foster youth to establish their identity and to identify their place in the world.
With all of this said, we believe that it is important to note that the parent and guardian roles in the lives of foster youth move from a directive focus to a coaching focus, as foster youth approach their transition to adulthood. This will allow youth to have room to learn valuable lessons, while still having a supportive structure in place to get them back on track when they make the mistakes that are an inevitable part of adolescence. Understanding the vulnerability that still exists during adolescents, we acknowledge that a focus on curriculum and evidenced-based practice is still important, but believe this focus will produce limited results, unless there is more focus on blending resources that nurture the individuality of foster youth and the ability of foster youth to make long-term connections that will support their ongoing learning as they navigate the initial years of their adult lives.
Foster youth are not the only individuals in the foster care community who have inadequate access to resources supporting their ongoing learning. Families, professionals, and advocates are exposed to a significant amount of information, without any efficient way to recall or sort through that information. Consequently, these individuals are limited in their ability to provide personalized guidance to foster youth in a timely manner, and are also unable to connect foster youth to all of the information and resources that are available to their specific situations. Also lost in the shuffle, is the ability of these individuals to access resources that help them cope with the stress of tireless service and fully understand the mental and physical obstacles that exist in the lives of foster youth.
Lack of Balance in Promoting Outcomes to Create Urgency, and Promoting Foster Youth Leadership Potential to Inspire Hope
Traditional efforts to reach out to community-conscious individuals and professionals to become positive connections in the lives of foster youth have often placed a substantial amount of emphasis on the limitations and negative outcomes in the lives of current and former foster youth. Even when the emphasis is placed on the foster care system and those who provide services within the foster care system, the stories are just as alarming and severe. We understand that these stories are real and provide unique insight that creates a sense of urgency to get involved; however, we believe that placing too much focus on these stories, without sharing stories about the inherent leadership potential that exists within foster youth and about the dedication of those who work tirelessly to enhance the lives of foster youth, creates a sense of hopelessness and reservation in the minds and hearts of those inside and outside of the foster care community. This imbalance in perspectives also places undue stigmas on foster youth as they are seeking employment and navigating their initial years of independence.
We believe that promoting the creativity, resilience, and unique leadership potential of current and former foster youth, while maintaining public awareness about the obstacles that are faced by foster youth and those dedicated to serving them, will create a complete perspective on the “foster care story,” and will be more effective in encouraging more opportunities for foster youth to thrive in their adult lives, more effective in connecting them with qualified families and advocates who guide them through their transition to independence, and more effective in gradually reducing the need for foster care until foster care is not longer needed.