Working to Improve Foster Kids' Lives

Foster children may build closer relationships to foster families with new program

(RxWiki News) Moving from one family to the next in the foster system doesn't leave much opportunity for building relationships with individual foster families. A new program aims to help this.

A recent paper described the process of converting a successful family relationship-building program for eighth graders into a modified version that can be used to address the disconnect between foster teens and their foster families.

"Talking openly with your teen is best for building relationships."

Heather Storer, a doctoral student in the University of Washington's School of Social Work, led a study exploring whether a social program aimed at preventing non-foster teens' risky behaviors could help foster teens as well.

The 10-week program is aimed at strengthening family bonds and functioning by having parents talk about their hopes and expectations for their child and what the child's strengths are.

This kind of communication and family functioning is an area where foster children and their foster families often struggle the most.

"The biggest problem is the lack of connection. They don't trust each other," said Storer. "Foster parents have good intentions, but they need better training on how to nurture relationships with their foster children."

Toni Heineman, a licensed clinical social worker, said building relationships is among the toughest challenges for foster children. Dr. Heineman is the executive director of A Home Within, a non-profit which matches volunteer mental health professionals with foster children for long-term treatment.

"Of course, it's hard for a teenager who has been moved multiple times to be open to new relationships," Dr. Heineman said. "In addition, teenagers become wary of adults in the normal course of development."

This struggle is key to Storer's reasons for adapting the program, called "Staying Connected with Your Teen," for foster children. When the self-guided curriculum was used with the target population of eighth graders not in the foster system, it reduced the teens' drug use, early sexual activity and violent behaviors.

Storer adapted this program to be used for foster families and their foster teens by holding a series of focus groups including foster parents, former foster youth aged 18 to 21 and state child welfare workers.

The challenges Storer found the program would need to help overcome included a variety of attitudes and feelings between foster children and their parents.

Foster youths often feel "no bond" or only a "fake" relationship with parents who were "getting paid to pretend to like me," Storer found. Parents also often stigmatized the foster youths living with them, especially if poor behavior was observed.

The stigmatization led foster children to feel like outsiders in the family who didn't receive the same treatment as the parents' biological children received.

Family activities like going out for movies, ice cream, games and similar activities, however, could help foster youth connect more to their foster family.

Struggles related to the lack of cultural awareness among parents and the parents' lack of training and resources as foster families also came up.

"Many foster parents couldn't tell the difference between normal teenage 'pushing your buttons' types of behaviors and troubled adolescent behavior due to past life traumas," Storer said.

The focus groups also pointed out that eighth grade may be too late to prevent some of the risky behaviors that foster youth often engage in.

These findings all ultimately went into the creation of a new curriculum, adapted from the original one, that includes 51 exercises for foster families to use with teens to strengthen their relationships. It will be used soon in a controlled trial.

Dr. Heineman said the program looks like it could benefit foster families and children.

"This is an interesting approach to stabilizing placements," she said. "What I like about this program is that it recognizes that it's also risky for the foster parents to open themselves up."

Dr. Heineman said extra support is already lacking too much with foster placements.

"What's unfortunate is that we don't give foster parents and kids this kind of support from the very minute they meet each other," Dr. Heineman said. "Kids and adults both thrive on stable relationships. Both feel responsible and miserable when a placement fails. We need to offer support sooner, rather than later."

The study was published June 12 in the journal Children and Youth Services Review. The research was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. No conflicts of interest were noted.

Review Date: 
June 29, 2012