Constructive family

By Laura Putre

Ask a foster child what family means, and you’ll get unscripted answers. “Being able to get something from the refrigerator without having to ask,” one girl told social-work researcher Gina Miranda Samuels. Another defined family as the people she loved, even if they didn’t love her.

In her latest research Samuels, an assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration, studied a group of youths trying to build “families” from collections of friends, teachers, coaches—even caseworkers. The study, called “A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime: Relational Permanence Among Young Adults with Foster Care Backgrounds,” found that although foster children often list emotional support as the element most missing from their lives, too often the foster-care system does little to help them build meaningful relationships that will carry them through the rough patches ahead. State- and nonprofit-run “after-care programs”—meant to provide a bit of handholding before foster children are thrust out on their own—tend to emphasize practical training. Résumé writing, job hunting, and managing a budget are beneficial, but they give short shrift to a foster child’s social well-being. “That’s ironic, because the child-welfare system is set up to intervene in and reconstruct relationships,” says Samuels. “We’ve paid attention to basic important safety issues for kids but need to include, in our efforts going forward, how relationships affect their well-being.”

Photo: Worms

Published by the University’s Chapin Hall Center for Children, the interpretive study was done in partnership with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a foundation that helps of-age children make the transition out of foster care. Samuels and her research assistants conducted in-depth interviews with 29 randomly selected young adults across the country who participated in the foundation’s Opportunity Passport program. Passport provides a savings account, a debit account for short-term expenses, and how-to classes for 16- to 21-year-olds about to leave the system. (In most states foster children age out at 18; in Illinois the cutoff is 21.)

Interviewees ranged in age from 17 to 26 years old and had been in foster care for varying periods, some first placed in homes as toddlers and many as preteens. Fifteen had lived in three to six homes during their childhoods, while two had 11 or more placements. All were asked to name important people in their lives and categorize their relationships with them—from people they couldn’t imagine living without to those who were less close but still important. Parents, foster parents, and friends their own ages made the list, and so did pastors, doctors, and teachers.

The subjects were also asked to consider what was missing from their relationships and, similarly, what they were looking for in relationships to help them succeed. Overall, they hoped for lasting connections, but they weren’t confident they would have them. 

Gary Stangler, director of the Jim Casey Initiative, says that regardless of skills training, foster children with people to lean on fare better than those who are alone. “It doesn’t do much good to know how to put together a résumé if you’re a high-school dropout with no work experience. These kids need the support to finish school, have some stability and safety in their lives.”

Stangler says the initiative commissioned the study because its own data suggested that the Passport participants who seemed to have strong relationships did better on their own, “and we wanted to understand that at a deeper level.”

Some youths ranked caseworkers high on their lists of important people, an expectation that can be problematic given the job’s high turnover. Says Samuels: “Even if you show up and you’re a great caseworker, if you’re not there for very long, you’re yet another person coming in and out of that child’s life.” The caseworker’s challenge, she says, is to help the child form relationships without becoming the family for that child. “That’s a tricky thing to do for many reasons,” she adds. “There’s a lot of discussion yet to be had on what is the good caseworker relationship and how [to] prepare someone to do that job.”

To start, caseworkers should be trained social workers who actually have the desire to work with children, says Samuels, who as a small child spent time in foster care herself before a Hull House social worker adopted her. “At the most basic level, you need to like kids and know how to talk to kids and have some understanding of child development,” she says. And social-work schools should be training child-welfare workers “to think complexly about family relationships, and to navigate a group of people who sometimes by definition have competing interests.”

A former caseworker, Samuels says that social workers learning about the study are often surprised to hear that they rank pretty highly with the kids. She likens this to how “a parent parenting a teenager at the height of their teenage experience is surprised when a peer said their kid really values them and loves them. You don’t always directly hear that from your child.”

By contrast, the youths ranked the mentors assigned to them through mentorship programs as less important. “We need to look at how we expect strangers to serve roles that strangers normally don’t provide,” says Samuels. An effective mentorship program might connect children with people already in their lives who could play a larger role—an uncle, a neighbor, a teacher, a family friend.

The best mentorship programs “start by asking the kids,” says Stangler. “They’ll very often tell you” who they think their mentors should be. “This is something we have not done in child welfare historically. If you ask, ‘Are there people out there?’ you find out, ‘Yeah, I had an uncle, I had a cousin, I used to be close to this teacher or coach.’”

Samuels hopes the study will help convince administrators of transitional programs for youth leaving foster care to start paying as much attention to developing those connections with uncles, cousins, and teachers as they do to properly filling out a job application. “It’s not either-or,” she emphasizes. “They need to realize that if [kids are] struggling with emotional issues, relational issues, it’s going to affect their job performance. The trick is to find out how we include these other aspects that also affect a person’s very basic survival.”

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Gina Miranda Samuels’s study, “A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime”

Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative