Mentoring youth in care

According to a study by the EMT Group, the national outcomes of youth leaving foster care are as follows:

  • 75% work below grade level
  • 60% of girls have a child within 4 years
  • 50% do not complete high school
  • 45% are unemployed
  • 33% are arrested
  • 30% are on welfare at ages 18–24
  • 26% spend time in jail or prison
  • 25% are homeless
  • 10% are on probation

If handled properly, a mentoring relationship can boost the outcomes for youth who have been in the foster care system. Though results are uneven, researchers have indicated that youth who have been mentored for at least two years between the ages of 14 and 18 are more likely than their unmentored peers to report overall health, and are at a lower risk for STDs, violence, suicidal thoughts, and other dangers. Statistics for participation in higher education and vocational training also seem to promise a significant monetary ROI for mentoring programs.

Here is the caveat you knew to expect: program managers should tread carefully, for a mentoring relationship can cause significant harm if set up improperly.Because youth in care have already experienced—sometimes repeatedly—ruptures to significant relationships, inconsistent mentoring can be detrimental to their wellbeing. Experts go so far as to say that a poor match is worse than nothing at all.

The National Mentoring Center at Education Northwest provides a list of best practices for strengthening mentoring programs for at-risk youth:

  • recruiting youth who actively desire a mentor;
  • knowing what youth want, need, and hope to gain from mentoring;
  • conducting rigorous recruiting, screening, and training for mentors;
  • providing mentors with ongoing support;
  • setting very clear goals, expectations, and parameters for the relationship;
  • having both parties check in regularly with a third party tasked with monitoring the relationship;
  • involving a parent, caretaker, and/or case manager that supports the mentoring relationship; and
  • coordinating with other programs and services.

I am trying to figure out how to relate all this to the needs of four young people who hold leadership positions on a Youth Advisory Board. I tossed around the idea of having board members of the parent organization (a non-profit) mentor the youth for the duration of their office, and the program coordinator loved it. But we now have to figure out exactly what that would entail, and how we could go about it. I envision the relationship to be of a very specific nature: “board member to board member,” so to speak. I don’t want it to be a logistical burden—it’s challenging enough for youth to attend their monthly meetings—but I also think it’s very important for there to be regular and significant contact with their mentors. Last year I was fortunate to speak to someone who developed a mentoring curriculum that relies largely on weekly email prompts to get conversations going between mentors and youth. I look forward to speaking with her again tomorrow for more advice on mentoring practices.

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2 thoughts on “Mentoring youth in care

  1. One obstacle I have found to becoming a mentor, and something that is very obvious in the book about Wilder, is that the people who have the time and energy to be volunteers mentors are typically in a fairly transitional stage in their lives: 20/30somethings, not yet married and/or with kids, first “real” jobs. And professional mentors are in high stress jobs which they are likely to leave. So you have a population of kids who are struggling with abandonment and trust, and a population of mentors who, as good as their intentions may be, are almost guaranteed to leave (and in the kids’ eyes, abandon) them. How do you find a way to use the energy and love and time that those possible mentors have without setting kids up for yet another abandonment?

  2. What do you mean by “professional mentors”? If you mean people who are paid to be mentors, I think that would defeat the central purpose of mentoring, which is to have an adult who doesn’t have any material obligation to be there be present in the life of a kid.

    You’d be interested to know that in Brian’s group all the mentors are well into their adult lives. Outside of the facilitators, I’m pretty sure are no 20 somethings in the group. I think his case is pretty typical: he waited till he felt his career was stable and believed he’d gained enough perspective on life to have something to give back to young people.

    That isn’t to contradict you, because I can’t say it’s a common situation. There does seem to be a shortage of good mentors out there. And I think it’s tougher to find male mentors, in particular.

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