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  • Writer's pictureAnn Wrixon

Building Relational Skills for Foster Youth

Ann Wrixon Article on Foster youth relational skills

A study released in late 2017 examined four programs around the nation that instituted interventions to improve relational skills for foster youth. The study’s background noted the importance of relational skills in allowing youth to successfully transition to adulthood, which is a challenge for most foster youth aging out of the foster care system. Although some of the research showed positive outcomes none of the studies was able to prove a causal link between the interventions and the outcomes but did highlight the difficulty of such research in the child welfare system. The Brookings Institute’s Center on Children and Families released the study, “Care and Connections: Bridging the Relational Gaps for Foster Youths,” in September 2017.

All of the studies were intended to be Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT), which is the gold standard for proving a causal link between an intervention and an outcome. Unfortunately, three of the four studies had to abandon the RCT research design because of the high attrition rate and low enrollments. The one study that was a RCT did not show any statistically significant difference between the intervention group and the control group, which may have been because of the relatively small sample size, or because the intervention was not any more effective than no intervention.

The study that used an RCT was the DREAMR Program in Clark County, Nevada. The program contained the following elements:

  1. 3-5-7 Model, which is an evidence-based program to help youth to grieve trauma

  2. Mentors from Big Brother/Big Sister

  3. Reproductive health class

  4. Parenting classes for foster youth who were parenting

The program measured the following outcomes:

  1. Improved relational competency

  2. Improved psychological well-being

  3. Prevention of teen pregnancies

As noted, earlier, the group that participated in the DREAMR program did not have any better outcomes than the control that did not participate in the program. It is important to note that Big Brother/Big Sisters is a very different mentoring model than the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) so no conclusions about CASA can be drawn from this study.

The other three programs which had different interventions than DREAMR and did not use an RCT design, but rather a pre-test/post-test design did see improvements in outcomes for their participants. Unfortunately, their pre-test/post-test research design does not prove that the interventions caused the outcomes, and if they had had a control group there may not have been any statistically significant difference between the intervention and control groups.

The researchers noted the challenges of research in child welfare stating, “In social science research, using RCTs has become the norm as it represents the most reliable type of research design. But RCTs are hard to successfully conduct in child welfare, as the experience of these four projects shows. In particular, high attrition rates were a common challenge across the various projects.” (p. 16)

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