Foster Youth Give Each Other a Helping Hand

CWLA helps agencies launch peer mentoring programs

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There has been growing concern and attention in the child welfare community on how youth transition from the child welfare system to self-sufficiency and adulthood. While some youth develop life skills that support positive outcomes such as adequate educational achievement, successful employment, avoidance of contact with the justice system, and a network of community, adult, and peer support, the outcomes for others are not as positive. Too many youth--while in the child welfare system and when transitioning to adulthood--do not have a network of support. Peer mentoring initiatives aim to change that by helping youth who have achieved positive outcomes serve as a support for other youth in the child welfare system. Peer mentoring values include the belief that:

  • Peers can serve as positive role models.

  • Older youth can have a guiding and teaching relationship with younger youth.

  • Youth with similar experiences bring a different level of credibility to the relationship.

  • Older and younger youth can form supportive networks and relationships from which each benefit.

In 2007, CWLA sought support from the New York Life Foundation to demonstrate the benefits of peer mentoring through a three-year grant. The Fostering Healthly Connections Through Peer Mentoring initiative was based on a pilot program implemented by Boys' and Girls' Haven, a CWLA member based in Kentucky. Additionally, FosterClub, with its expertise in youth engagement, served as a resource.

The overarching goal of Fostering Healthy Connections was to develop an evidence-informed peer mentoring program model that supports positive outcomes for youth in out-of-home care that can be replicated nationally, and provide support in launching new peer mentoring programs in geographically diverse CWLA member agencies. A specific project implementation goal was for CWLA project agency partners to create at least 10 mentor-mentee matches each year of the project, equal to a total of 240 matches by the end of the project. Outcomes identified for youth through the mentoring relationship concerned educational progress and achievement, positive behavioral trends, and stronger interpersonal relationships.

The goal of the project was to reach youth like Clayton, a mentee paired with Lorisha at one participating agency. As part of an evaluation of the peer mentoring project, a staff member described the progress Clayton was able to make with Lorisha's help. "What Clayton needed most was a family, and he found that in his mentor Lorisha. Lorisha herself grew up in foster care, changing placements at the drop of a hat, so she identified with the young man's need to feel connected to something or someone. Clayton was frustrated with the system, felt he could do better on his own, so he ran from the group home," the staffer explained. However, Clayton found that he did miss the "family" he had found in Lorisha and others in the peer mentoring program. "After two months and an incident that threatened his life, he contacted his mentor, re-entered foster care, enrolled back in high school, worked as a DJ at a local radio station, and plans to move into his new apartment."

Program Design

The Boys' and Girls' Haven pilot program set an example of group activities that still allowed one-on-one interaction between mentors and mentees, like bowling.

All CWLA member agencies were invited to submit proposals for the creation or enhancement of a peer mentoring program. Agencies could choose to focus on a specific population within foster care, such as youth needing academic development, pregnant and parenting teens, or sexual minority youth.

Eight CWLA member agencies within the New York Life Foundation geographic regions were selected to participate in the project. CWLA supported five agencies in developing new peer mentoring programs and provided support to three agencies with existing mentoring programs to include a peer-to-peer mentoring component. The National Committee for Grandparent's Rights and the Public Children's Services Association of Ohio were unable to continue with the project to its conclusion. In addition to the pilot program, six agencies remained involved in the project throughout the three-year grant period. These agencies were:

  • Children's Home Association of Illinois, Peoria, Illinois

  • Children and Families of Iowa, Des Moines, Iowa

  • Community Based Care of Brevard, Inc., Melbourne, Florida

  • Northeast Parent and Child Society, Schenectady, New York

  • Pathways Pennsylvania, Holmes, Pennsylvania

  • Rhode Island Foster Parents Association, East Providence, Rhode Island
  • Technical Assistance

    CWLA made site visits to agencies to evaluate each program and give technical assistance. Monthly conference calls with the agencies provided ongoing support and relationship building. Examples of discussion topics include mentor and mentee training, strengths and challenges of various program models, evaluation of program progress, and shared lessons learned. CWLA, Boys' and Girls' Haven, and FosterClub participated on calls and provided technical assistance.

    Boys' and Girls' Haven had served as a pilot site for peer mentoring. The program staff were able to share their experience and offered insight into potential barriers to successful implementation and strategies that were used to overcome those barriers. They also were able to bring the youth perspective to activities that were considered most helpful. FosterClub has a history of working effectively with current and former foster youth. The agency leadership was able to provide guidance on the general practice principles of youth engagement and strategies for identifying and building on the strengths of youth.

    A program implementation guide, Fostering Healthy Connections: A Peer Mentoring Program Guide for Youth in Foster Care, provides information on the overall program development for a peer mentoring program that focuses on the specific needs of children and youth in the foster care system. This guide provides suggested materials and information needed to design an effective peer mentoring program and is useful to sites with existing mentoring programs as well as those starting initial programs. While sites had some local flexibility, the overall structure of the program elements was consistent across sites and consistent with the guide.

    Additional technical assistance was provided through three face-to-face meetings held over the duration of the three-year project. These meetings provided an opportunity for agency mentoring program staff, mentors, and mentees to interact face-to-face to engage in peer-to-peer sharing and learning. The final meeting was structured in a summit format and held in Arlington, Virginia, last fall. Invitations were issued to a variety of CWLA member agencies, as well as other organizations and advocacy groups serving youth.

    Mentoring Program Structure

    Initially, approximately half of the agencies planned to use a one-to-one model of peer mentoring; however, several decided early in the project to revise their approach to a group setting model. This decision was made after considering the safety of mentors and mentees, as well as liability issues. A group setting did not prevent mentors from interacting with their assigned mentees on an individual basis.

    In some programs caseworkers or other adults identified mentees to support some aspect of their growth and development, or to address a specific area for improvement such as truancy or difficulty adjusting to behavioral requirements. Children like Adam benefitted from a purposeful, targeted relationship, an agency staff member said: "Adam, who was adopted as an only child, has gained 11 siblings by joining his new family due to his father's engagement to a woman who is also an adoptive parent. Adjusting to the dynamics of this situation has been a life-changing experience and his mentor, who is also his new sister, has guided him through the rough patches."

    Other programs advertised the opportunity to participate in a mentoring program to the general youth population. In this case, the design of the program focused on activities that promoted social interaction skills. In either case, participation was voluntary. All mentors were required to attend training sessions that provided an orientation to the concept of mentoring, benefits, program design, and expectations.

    The characteristics of mentors varied depending on the focus of the program. In some programs mentors were young adults with whom the mentee had a previous acquaintance or relationship. In other situations the mentors were older youth still in the child welfare system and preparing for transition to adulthood, or young adults who had recently left the system and were living independently. Mentors also received training that focused on the objectives of the program, roles and responsibilities, and strategies for resolving or addressing sensitive issues that could arise during the relationship.

    Examples of mentoring activities included workshops delivered by mentors in a group setting at the agency with additional time for one-on-one discussion and follow-up, recreational activities, group field trips (e.g., movies, museums), summer picnics, and resource fairs. Mentors monitored a goal plan created by their mentee and discussed the progress of that plan.

    Program Evaluation

    A quasi-experimental evaluation developed for this project to monitor and track ongoing activities and final project outcomes was used. In total, four tools were constructed to measure outcomes across project sites and provide interim feedback to site administrators.

    The Boys' and Girls' Haven pilot program partnered mentors and mentees in activities that foster shared experiences and strong interpersonal relationships.

    The first tool, the Peer Mentor Curriculum Pre/Posttest, had two purposes. At its most fundamental, this tool informed project administrators and the evaluation exactly how many prospective mentees received the peer mentor training. In addition to this count, the pre/posttest tool also informed the evaluation and program managers about whether training was successful by testing prospective mentees' knowledge of material both before and after receiving the training. Program managers were able to use this tool to determine if a prospective mentor was knowledgeable enough in the requisite areas to be assigned a mentee.

    Once a mentee was assigned to a mentor, the second tool, the Goal-Setting Worksheet, was brought into play. In addition to its significant utility from a programmatic perspective, the worksheet helped the evaluation track both retention and progress.

    The final two tools, both surveys, were developed to garner feedback from targeted project participants. Summit attendees completed the Youth Summit Satisfaction Survey at the event's conclusion in order to learn more about how attendees perceived their experiences at the summit, its content, and its overall impact on their lives. The Closing Questionnaire for Project Managers was an online survey given to the project managers at each of the seven data collection sites to learn more about their subjective experiences, lessons learned, and what legacy this project will leave behind following its conclusion.

    Each one of the four data collection tools was a targeted tool tailored to collect data on a specific aspect of this project. Together, these tools allowed for a systematic and thorough evaluation of the project.


    Some programs saw clear results with their mentor-mentee pairs. "Melissa and Zach, two of our youngest mentees, both faced school issues when they began," one agency staff member explained in an evaluation of the project. "Changing schools had left huge gaps in their learning and affected not only their academic performance but also their self-esteem. Private tutoring filled in the educational gaps and raised their self-esteem, but the relationship with their mentor taught them how to make friends, form relationships, and celebrate success."

    By the numbers: seven project sites were tasked with recruiting, training, and matching 12 mentors with no fewer than 12 mentees each year. In total, 109 matches were made according to the project directives. Of these, 12 were matched to a group mentor setting, dropping the count of one-to-one matches down to 97. All but one project site had at least some matches. One project site had zero matches despite efforts to recruit and train prospective mentors.

    When averaged across the six sites that succeeded in matching mentors with mentees, the mean number of matches was 13.8. On the high end, one site made 35 matches. Excluding the site that had zero matches, the lowest number of matches made at one site was eight.

    Youth Summit

    A total of 46 people attended the final meeting, a youth summit last November. Of the participants, 24 were program administrators, speakers, and event organizers, and 22 were youth. In total, 26 evaluation surveys were collected from attendees, exactly half from program staff and half from youth. On three of the four questions, all participants indicated high levels of satisfaction with the content and usefulness of the information provided at the summit. When asked to rate the summit overall according to how useful and informative they found it to be, on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 equals strongly disagree and 5 equals strongly agree, 25 participants marked either agree or strongly agree. Only one person, a program staff participant, indicated neither disagree nor agree.

    While program staff and youth participants differed on the extent they perceived it to be, overall participants indicated that they found the youth summit to be a positive and informative experience.

    Lessons Learned

    The lessons learned during the three-year project have come from the wisdom of the youth involved, the challenges that agencies experienced, and the successes that they celebrated. Lessons included:

    • Communicate clearly the roles and responsibilities of mentors and mentees, especially the level of commitment that will be required to be a mentor.

    • Conduct an assessment of and engage community resources. Several sites were able to obtain community buy-in that resulted in free tickets to recreational and educational events.

    • Ensure that all staff are aware of the program and provide a comprehensive orientation to caregivers. Establish policy and practice that requires and encourages their support.

    • Demonstrate awareness of the needs and supports of the youth mentors. Youth in foster care have experienced the trauma of separation from their families. Build a network of support for the youth mentors.

    • Be aware of the implications of engaging college students. College students from out of state, for example, may return to their home community or seasonal job for the summer, which can lead to a break in the relationship.

    • Changes in placement setting can impact the mentor/mentee relationship. Distance and change in agency affiliation can limit the frequency of contact or terminate contact.

    • Staff turnover can impact the continuity of the program.

    • Structured activities appear to work best with the target population, youth.

    Ten points for consideration in developing and implementing a peer mentoring program have been created as a result of lessons learned:

    1. Determine program goals and objectives.

    2. Define the population to be served.

    3. Define desired outcomes.

    4. Establish safety, confidentiality, and boundaries for engagement.

    5. Educate and prepare caseworkers and other staff. Clearly articulate their role in supporting the mentors and mentees.

    6. Educate and prepare caregivers.

    7. Design an orientation to the project and training. Conduct a pre- and posttest.

    8. Make outreach to and cultivate connections with community resources.

    9. Develop an evaluation plan.

    10. Create a plan for youth and staff recognition.

    Several agencies that participated in the peer mentoring project have verbalized a commitment to continuing the effort to support youth development through peer mentoring. Eight matches established in the fall of 2008 remain intact; two additional matches established in the winter of 2009 continue to exist today. Overall the peer mentoring relationship proved to be a positive experience for the majority of mentees.

    Meghan Williams contributed to this article.

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