Helping Youth in Care Feel Connected and Empowered
By Alix Mammina
In 2019, our researchers launched a five-year study following youth in foster care as they enter adulthood. Our interim report from the first year of the Texas Foster Youth Permanency Study (TYPS) centers the voices of youth participants and fills critical knowledge gaps about empowering youth in foster care.
From June 2019 to March 2020, we recruited an initial cohort of 197 youth at child welfare courts across Texas. In the following months, our researchers conducted surveys and interviews with youth participants to assess the impact of three key protective factors in their day-to-day lives: school connectedness, participation in case and permanency planning, and knowledge about healthy and unhealthy relationships.
We collected rich data and candid reflections from youth on each protective factor. Three key themes arose from our findings:
Connections with Peers in School Contribute to Academic Success and Wellbeing
Although 60% of youth participants reported feeling successful and connected at school, frequent placement and school changes left many participants isolated from both their peers and school staff. Over a quarter of youth participants changed schools more than three times in high school, resulting in disrupted friendships and negative impacts on academic achievement. “I went into foster care when I was 14 and literally […] moved every three months,” one youth participant shared. “So, anytime that I did make friends, it was gone.”
Youth emphasized the need for both supportive, long-term relationships with caring adults and normal adolescent experiences. “Most of my relationships are very distant because of foster care,” shared a participant in an interview. “I barely ever get to see any of my friends or talk to them. Having my case worker approve them and have them on my contact list before I can call them. It’s pretty frustrating, honestly.” Participants who had more stable placements and lived with foster or kinship families tended to experience more “normalcy” and were able participate in typical teenage activities which correlated with enhanced emotional wellbeing.
Empowering Youth Starts with Active Listening
From interviews with youth, we found that the opportunity to be heard and make decisions was an important aspect of supportive relationships with caseworkers, judges, and other adults involved in a legal case. “I just want to know that I have a voice and that my voice will be used,” one youth participant shared.
Youth perceived adults as more supportive when they were given the opportunity to advocate for themselves. Youth who felt empowered to share their thoughts, concerns, and ideas and work alongside adults in permanency planning, expressed a more positive view of the child welfare system and a stronger sense of themselves and their future.
Healthy Relationships Conversations Are Essential
Most youth reported receiving sexual health and healthy relationship education, but many received inconsistent or limited information on dating, consent, birth control options, and STI prevention. Although the majority of participants talked to either their foster or birth parents about sexual health and relationships, almost a third reported not having these conversations with caregivers.
Specifically, youth who experienced frequent placement changes often missed out on these necessary discussions with trusted adults and demonstrated less understanding of warning signs of dating abuse putting them at increased risk for future victimization.
Across all protective factors, youth participants expressed the need for meaningful and lasting relationships with supportive adults. Our recommendations center this need for relational permanency by encouraging the child welfare system in Texas to promote placement stability and normalcy for youth in care.
As we embark on the next steps of this study, we’re looking forward to continuing to elevate the voices of youth in foster care and document their transition from foster care to independence.