If they are part of the state system, these “foster alumni” are ushered into independent living programs and assisted with some job placement services and training. A lucky few may continue to be supported by foster parents and/or go to school, but the majority face life decisions and goal planning for which they may be ill-prepared.
As difficult as it is for all young people to enter the workforce, it is significantly more challenging when they come from unsupported backgrounds. Youth in foster care are among the most vulnerable and diverse of the population, often having physical and mental disabilities, psychological challenges, and histories of post-traumatic stress and trauma. Their chances of growing into happy adults with a good quality of life are compromised, not surprisingly, by their experiences in foster care.
Most children are placed in foster care after suffering physical or mental trauma, and therefore have a higher incidence of physical impairments and mental health disorders than their peers in the general population. Foster care alumni are three times more likely to experience depression than other youth in the same age group. Higher incidence of drug addiction, pregnancy, incarceration, and unemployment are all factors. Faced with these challenges, planning for the future takes a back seat to day-to-day survival.
Preliminary studies indicate that better access to mental health services, career guidance, and life-skills classes can have a profound impact on foster children and foster alumni. But which services should be offered, and to whom? Professor Tina Anctil, in the GSE’s Department of Counselor Education, is conducting new research that seeks to answer these questions. Dr. Anctil was able to explore the unique transition issues of young adults with foster care backgrounds through access to the Casey Family Programs National Alumni Study. In her work, she observed a higher incidence of physical, social, and emotional impairment in this population. Dr. Anctil’s experience as a rehabilitation counselor and school counselor educator gave her unique insight into working with this group, but there is scant research available to identify best practices.
“After leaving foster care, these youth are focused on managing their basic living needs, such as housing, food, and employment, rather than exploring their long-term career goals. Since many youth also have mental and physical health impairments, coupled with inadequate academic skills resulting from multiple school changes, the transition into adulthood is quite challenging.”
Dr. Anctil believes that foster alumni have great capacity for resilience and the outlook for their lives can be positive. A recent study she conducted with colleagues at Casey Family Programs (2007), suggests that the impact of negative factors experienced by foster children can in many cases be mitigated by subsequent mental health supports provided to them as young adults. The study also suggests that youth with fewer risk factors stand a better chance of success than youth with multiple factors, but both will benefit from additional services.
Dr. Anctil is working on a project called Career Possible Selves for Alumni of Foster Care. Using a $5,000 grant provided last year by the PSU Office of Research and Sponsored Projects’ (ORSP) Research Stimulus Program, she had the opportunity to further investigate and develop approaches to improving outcomes for this high-risk population. Her work included an evaluation of the needs of this population, as well as an assessment of current systems and practices in order to determine best practices for rehabilitative treatment. The long-term goal is to help foster alumni set goals, plan for their future, and thus be able to envision success.
Last year, Dr. Anctil interviewed 15 youth who “aged out” of foster care in a project funded by ORSP. Many of the youth had dropped out of high school and were working on their GEDs. A few were already young parents, focused on not repeating the mistakes of their own parents. All of the youth were focused on their career goals, but few had adequate career decision-making skills, such as knowledge of the working world, an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and an understanding of the college application and financial aid process.
One young woman’s story
A 21-year-old woman shared her story of being in four foster care homes between the ages of two and 18. She is now a mother of a three-year-old who lives with her boyfriend’s mother, “until I get more stable and I’ll be able to have her,” she says. She has spent time in juvenile detention for selling drugs and is currently focused on passing her GED exam. This is difficult because she reported living in three different places in the last three months, the last of which was with her biological mother. She has a dream of owning a day care center. When asked what kinds of support were available to her in order to reach her goals, she said, “I just always like my family around. If they’re supporting me, I feel like I can just get through it.” She went on to share that she hopes to take child care classes at the community college, and that she would get help from her independent living case manager to apply for and, hopefully, receive some financial help.
These studies have positioned Dr. Anctil well for future funding. A grant from the GSE Research Advisory Council will allow her the time to develop and submit proposals for funding to the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the Institute for Education Sciences. “I am grateful for the grant provided to me by the GSE Research Advisory Council. It has enabled me to more fully focus on this important work,” says Dr. Anctil.
Clearly, many changes to the child welfare system are needed, including adequate mental health services and career development services in order to make a difference in creating happy, thriving adults out of those who start life in the foster care system. Dr. Anctil’s work aligns perfectly with the GSE’s mission to “enhance the intellectual, social, cultural, and economic qualities of urban life” in our community.