As adults, we have autonomy in our relationships. Adolescents in foster care have much less control over theirs. Many of their relationships with adults—birth families, foster parents, teachers, social workers, and other professionals—are governed by policies and laws that set their parameters. It is not uncommon for young people emerging from foster care to find that the majority of their adult relationships are with paid professionals.
Adolescents in foster care are often limited in their autonomy or in their ability to maintain long-term relationships with adults. It can start with how they enter the system – according to a Casey Family Programs report based on 2019 data, 91% of young people ended up in foster care because of neglect or other reasons, while 9% of adolescents ended up in a foster family as a result of abuse.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the placement, youth may have a deep bond, intimacy, culture, and memories with their birth parents. Any adult attempting to assume a parenting or caring role, such as a foster parent, guardian, or group home worker, can evoke feelings of conflicting loyalty and painful memories of broken relationships. Mentors, on the other hand, do not seek to adopt a parenting role, and as such some youth may find it easier to talk to mentors, receive advice, or share feelings.
Frequent moves also make it difficult to maintain relationships. On average, youth in the Massachusetts foster care system are transferred more than five times every three years. The longer children stay in foster care, the more placements — and different beds, different schools and classmates, even different doctors — they can experience. A higher number of internships has been linked to academic difficulties and a difficult time forming healthy bonds in relationships.
This is where mentoring comes into play. A formal mentoring relationship gives youth the opportunity to practice maintaining long-term relationships, interdependence, healthy attachment, and self-defense, among other things. Healthy relationships help guide a young person’s life outcomes toward mental, social, and physical health, even in the face of adversity.
Deavonie Bowen, 24, is an artist and mentee with Silver Lining Mentoring and has experience in the nursing system. Reflecting on his experience with a mentor, he said, “When kids hear ‘mentor,’ they think, ‘This is just another adult who’s going to tutor me,’ but it’s more of a friend or buddy system. When I went in I was glad to see it [my mentor] wanted to work with me on what I wanted to do. It’s not just “hey, do that” and “do that,” they help with logistical things, but that’s good because we need that in the real world.”
In my volunteering and professional work benefiting youth in foster care with Silver Lining Mentoring, I have seen young people empower themselves to build a chosen support network. Young people can do this if they have the opportunity. A young person has a high degree of autonomy in a mentorship. The juveniles can decide whether they want a visit, what the discussion should be like, and usually juveniles are allowed to communicate with their mentor, regardless of their placement or detention conditions.
Mentoring helps knit a blanket of relationship support for youth in foster care that may not have been in place or may have been unraveled by the circumstances of government intervention.
I have been a volunteer mentor to several youth affected by foster care for the past seven years and I have also been a foster parent. I particularly appreciate that as a mentor, the power to dictate the path of the relationship is in the hands of the young person and the young person can determine what missing thread in their support blanket they want the relationship to fill.
Visit the Massachusetts Mentoring Partnership to find a mentoring program near you. Visit Silver Lining Mentoring to learn more about our local and national programs.
Christina Haines is Senior Director of Strategy and National Impact at the Boston-based nonprofit organization Silver Lining Mentoring. She is a former foster mother, mentor and currently a volunteer court-appointed special counsel for youth in foster care and child welfare. philanthropist.