Research in 2013 on a foster youth mentoring program in Texas shows that these programs need careful design, training, and support to be effective. Although the program had severe limitations due to the small sample size and because the outcomes were determined by satisfaction surveys of the youth and mentors as well as the subjective impressions of the mentors about how their youth fared rather than measurable outcomes, the findings have some valuable lessons, particularly for those of us involved with Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) programs.
Although Texas has the largest CASA program in the country, the Texas State Legislature mandated the pilot use Big Brothers/Big Sisters (BBBS) mentors. The program intended for mentors to spend 8 hours a month with their assigned foster youth. This rarely happened for a variety of reasons, including uncooperative foster parents, as well as busy schedules of both the mentors and the foster youth. In addition, mentors felt unprepared to deal with some of the behaviors exhibited by the foster youth. Importantly, mentors and foster youth of the same race had a significantly higher rates of success. This was also an important finding in other research reviewed on this blog about the wage gap between Black and White men. The researchers concluded that organizations should implement mentoring programs slowly and carefully, and that foster parents needed to understand and cooperate with the process. They also recommended training for the mentors, so they understood the challenges of foster youth.
This research confirms that CASA programs are set up to deal with the challenges identified in this study. Although CASA volunteers are more than mentors, there is also a strong mentoring element to the CASA program. CASA volunteers are highly trained and provided with ongoing support as they work with traumatized youth who have suffered abuse and neglect. In addition, most CASA programs inform foster parents about the role of the CASA volunteer, and because the Court appoints a CASA volunteer the foster parents must cooperate with CASA volunteer visits.
The one area that CASA could improve is having mentors who match the race and ethnicity of their youth. Although most of the foster youth in California are children of color, the majority of the CASA volunteers are white, though this is beginning to change for many CASA programs who have made a concerted effort to recruit in communities of color.