The co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA), Don Bacon (R-NE), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), Jim Langevin (D-RI), and Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), have reintroduced the Foster Youth Mentoring Act (H.R. 3083), which would create a comprehensive federal grant program to provide foster youth with healthy volunteer and peer mentor relationships. The Children’s Defense Fund is grateful to the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth co-chairs for their leadership and is proud to endorse the Foster Youth Mentoring Act.
Mentoring is a crucial support for children in foster care. Children develop in the context of the relationships they have with caring adults from birth through full brain maturity at age 26. Unfortunately, the structure of the child welfare system severs the natural relationship children have with their parents, often fails to maintain healthy connections with relatives, and in many cases, fails to maintain the stability that is necessary for children to build the healthy adult relationships that are necessary for their well-being and successful transition to adulthood.
The relational permanency afforded by mentoring relationships is a protective factor that buffers children from trauma that they experience and acts as a valuable resource to help foster youth navigate the complexities of adolescence, school, work, and the transition to adulthood. Youth who have mentors are more likely to graduate from high school and college, less likely than their peers to engage in substance use, engage in fewer risk behaviors, experience better mental health, and have lower levels of justice system involvement.
This is crucial because, though youth in foster care aspire to postsecondary education at similar rates to their peers, the systemic barriers created by the system and by the underlying inequities that cause children to become involved with the system lead children in care to attain education at far lower rates than their peers. Only about 65 percent of all youth in foster care complete high school by 21, compared to 86 percent of the general population. Of those who do graduate on time, only 32 to 45 percent pursue higher education, compared to 69 percent of the general population. The number of children who actually complete postsecondary education is much smaller, with only about four percent of youth from foster care graduating college by the time they are 26, compared to 33 percent of the general population.
Coupled with lower educational attainment, the barriers impacting children in the child welfare system and precipitating their involvement in the system lead them to have worse outcomes across a broad array of metrics, from a high prevalence of mental health disorders to high teen pregnancy rates. As they transition to adulthood, foster youth experience extremely high rates of homelessness, unemployment, and involvement with the criminal justice system. This is particularly true for the more than 20,000 youth who age out of foster care without a permanent family and for Black and American Indian/Alaska Native Children, who are dramatically overrepresented in the child welfare system and who experience worse outcomes than their white peers. When the system fails to provide stability and permanency for children in care, it undermines the relational permanency that children need to thrive.
Mentorship provides youth with the healthy, consistent relationships that are crucial for their well-being. Studies have repeatedly shown that mentoring services for foster youth effectively promote improved mental health, educational functioning and attainment, peer relationships, placement outcomes, and life satisfaction. When youth aging out of foster care have strong relationships with adults that they can lean on, they do better across all measures of well-being, including being more likely to maintain stable housing, to be employed, and to avoid involvement in the criminal justice system.
To ensure healthy, consistent relationships for youth in care, the Foster Youth Mentoring Act would:
- Authorize $50 million to expand and enhance mentoring programs that serve foster youth and former foster youth.
- Provide intensive training to volunteers who serve as mentors to foster youth ensuring a strong understanding of child development, family dynamics, the child welfare system, education, and other relevant considerations that affect foster youth.
- Ensure that youth voice is included in program development, design, and implementation.
- Provide funding to support peer-to-peer mentoring relationships for young people with experience in foster care.
- Ensure that programs receiving a grant follow best practices for screening volunteers and matching mentors with mentees.
- Increase coordination between mentoring programs and child welfare systems.
While we ultimately seek to support families so that children do not need to enter foster care, it is crucial that, for children who do enter the system, we ensure the necessary supports to promote their healthy development and well-being, including promoting healthy adult relationships through robust mentorship programs. CDF is, therefore, proud to support the Foster Youth Mentoring Act.