Young people who leave foster care—often at the age of 18 with little support and few skills—are at risk for a host of negative outcomes, including homelessness. “By age 26, 36% of young people who ‘aged out’ of foster care have experienced homelessness, according to the University of Chicago’s Chapin Center,” said Colby Swettberg, executive director of Silver Lining Mentoring formerly known as Adoption & Foster Care Mentoring. “Prevention is key. At Silver Lining, we offer long-term mentoring, life skills training, and matched financial savings for youth in foster care that prepare them to be self-sufficient in adulthood and avoid negative outcomes like homelessness.”
A Chapin-supported study of the adult functioning of former foster youth that estimated 25,000 to 30,000 young people leave foster care annually at age 18 (21 in some states). According to a 2013 study on homelessness during the transition from foster care to adulthood, these young people face enormous challenges in achieving housing stability. Factors that increased the risk of homelessness include having run away while in foster care, being male, having been physically or sexually abused, experiencing instability in foster care placement, or having symptoms of mental health issues. Factors that helped prevent homelessness included extending foster care to age 21, access to transitional housing programs for youth, helping youth build financial stability before they leave foster care, and training and support to develop the skills to live independently.
Silver Lining Mentoring
Silver Lining exists to provide just these types of supports to young people aging out of foster care. It is the only mentoring program in Massachusetts that focuses exclusively on youth in foster care. Jean Rhodes, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring, calls Silver Lining, “the pre-eminent mentoring program serving foster youth in the country.”
The program pays particular attention to the most disadvantaged of foster children; for example, those who have lost contact with their families of origin or the child who is the only one left in the group home with nowhere to go on Thanksgiving. Silver Lining’s mission is to provide whole-person support to these vulnerable young people through a trio of integrated supportive services that prepare them to transition to adulthood: mentoring relationships, intensive case supports, and financially incentivized life skills training.
At the heart of Silver Lining’s services is a community-based mentoring program that matches adult volunteers with kids in foster care. “We have a very rigorous screening and training program for volunteers. Consistency is vital for these kids, so we require mentors to spend at least eight hours a month with their mentee, and we ask for a minimum of a one-year commitment,” said Swettberg. “This is so important, because the mentor may be the only adult who has ever shown an interest in the child who was not paid to do so. These kids desperately need a sense of belonging. Our mentors have a terrific impact on their mentees. While the average length of a volunteer commitment in mentoring programs is about nine months, our average is 55 months. Our mentors and mentees develop strong relationships, and we have evidence that this makes a lasting difference in kids’ lives.”
Silver Lining’s program staff includes masters-level social workers who provide intensive support to both mentees and mentors. “These folks are skilled clinicians and are the glue that holds our mentoring matches together,” said Swettberg. “They are there for the kids when they are facing hard times, and they are also there for the mentors if the relationship with the mentee is going through a difficult phase. They also act as resource brokers with local human service agencies, linking kids to services like vocational training or housing.”
Life Skills Training
The third piece of Silver Lining’s trio of supportive services is a life skills training program called Leaders, which prepares young people ages 16 and older with the concrete skills they will need to transition from foster care to adulthood. When young people in foster care turn 18, in most states, they are considered adults and they abruptly lose their eligibility for foster care. Being completely on one’s own would be difficult for any 18-year-old, even one from the most supportive family, and young people who have experienced the kind of trauma, displacement, and loss that are common among foster children are in an even more vulnerable position.
Silver Lining’s life skills program works to prepare young people for this eventuality, helping them become self-sufficient, but not alone. Mentors stay connected to young people after they age out of foster care, and Silver Lining puts no age limit or time limit on young people’s involvement with their services.
Not only does the Leaders program teach young adults concrete skills like nutrition and healthy cooking, preparing a resume, finding affordable housing, and identifying career goals, it pays them to learn these skills. In addition, the program matches all the funds the young people earn, so they have a nest egg when they leave foster care. Young people use their savings for things like college tuition, rent, textbooks, laptops, and clothing for job interviews.
“We hope that young people are referred to us early, so we have time to work with them, connect them with caring mentors, and give them access to skills training,” said Swettberg. “Unfortunately, the reality is we sometimes get referrals just as young adults are about to age out of the system and, at that point, their needs are very acute and the stakes are extremely high. By starting our programs earlier, we hope that kids will develop the relationships, resiliency, and skills they need to thrive as adults.”
“It’s important to realize that this is a very solvable problem—a problem we can get our arms around,” she continued. “We know who these kids are, foster youth are tracked by the state, and we know what services and supports kids need to transition successfully to adulthood. But when we don’t intervene early with caring support, the problem gets more difficult to solve and more expensive to solve. We can put foster youth on a path to healthy, self-sufficient adulthood if we can make sure they get what they need early on and we offer them consistent support over time.”
This article was originally published as a Voices from the Field Blog post to highlight the theme of Children and Families. Find the latest SAMHSA Blog posts about behavioral health and homelessness.
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