Opinion

Mentoring Foster Youth in Rural America Is Harder But Badly Needed

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Though mentoring has existed in my community of Dickinson, North Dakota for the past 23 years, youth in foster care, although most in need of a stable influence in their lives, were often left out. Although mentoring programs didn’t intentionally exclude them, it was often cumbersome and, truthfully, puzzling to try to work within the foster care system and all its requirements related to confidentiality, court processes and the number of caretakers involved.

Recently, I relaunched a mentoring program for youth in foster care. This program had been attempted before but with marginal support from the county’s social service agency. Without support from case managers, who work directly with the families, it was almost impossible to get referrals for children in foster care.

This time, our team used a different approach: I reached out to the regional foster care coalition, which is made up of foster parents, social services professionals and other youth workers in the eight-county area of southwest North Dakota. I planned to gain insight, form relationships for future referrals and tell them about mentoring opportunities. I was able to give them information about the importance of providing a child in foster care with a stable, consistent adult role model.

As I was informally interacting with the coalition members, I was hit with an epiphany: Referrals don’t have to come from the case managers, they can come directly from the foster parents, who can gain approval from the case managers!

Mentoring helps foster parents

Best Friends Mentoring program and volunteer coordinator Emily Gran (headshot) in red jacket. Through the connections I made with individuals in the coalition, I learned that the case managers hadn’t understood that referring a child would add only a few minutes to their already stressed and overworked days. Many social workers were already at capacity with their workloads.

As foster parents started talking to their case managers, advocating for mentoring for their foster care children, case workers at social services began to understand that mentoring meant another important support for a child in foster care. Once everyone got on the same page, referrals started to come in.

Some of our mentors who had been trained in general mentoring principles indicated interest in mentoring a child in foster care, so I called three and held a special, in-depth training session for mentoring these children who really needed them. Today, those matches are showing a great amount of success for both the mentor and the mentee.

This initiative is small, but is growing. Being in a rural area, resources are limited when it comes to recruiting volunteer mentors, especially for children in foster care because of the extra training and personal commitment it requires.

Wait can be long

One of the first children in foster care to receive a mentor was John. His foster parents were April and Nathan, and he was in their care for about 13 months. April learned about Best Friends Mentoring through John’s previous foster parent, who saw the positive impact mentoring was having on John. They were committed to continue with the program. April said Best Friends Mentoring is a great service to have in the area; however, the waiting time for a child to be matched can be very long.

The time a child spends waiting for their mentor is another obstacle we face. Recruiting mentors, especially male mentors, can be very difficult. Overall, rural populations have a smaller overall population to draw from. With our area having an abundance of male-oriented occupations, such as energy-related employment, their schedules often don’t allow the flexibility needed for mentoring a child.

Why the push to provide mentors to specifically children those in foster care? Children in foster care need someone who can be a stable and consistent influence in their lives. They need someone to be with them through the different transitions in/out of foster care, and someone who can be there just for them, with no other agenda. Youth in foster care face unique challenges, regardless of the reason for or the length of their stay in the foster care system.

A major factor many face is the family environment. Most children enter the foster care system due to parental abuse or neglect, often involving drugs and not delinquency. After being removed from their homes, they may change placements multiple times. Young people in care have suffered multiple losses (family, friends, pets, toys, neighborhood, teachers, etc.) in addition to the reasons for bringing them into foster care.

Because of the trauma they have experienced, children in foster care are more likely to have physical, mental, behavioral, emotional and substance abuse problems, to engage in risky sexual behaviors and to experience early pregnancy. Young people in foster care often face challenges with learning and are often behind their peers academically due to preplacement factors, changing schools numerous times or mental health concerns.

Many find it difficult to form relationships with school staff. According to the Education Development Center, nationally only 60 percent of children in foster care graduate high school; only 3 percent attend post-secondary education.

Many face transitional challenges with approximately 20,000 adolescents aging out of foster care each year, transitioning from foster care placement to independence. This can happen anytime from ages 18 to 21, depending on state policy. Without early interventions such as mentoring, these youth often return to the same high-risk environment they came from.

Mentoring is a proven prevention program, providing an intervention before a child gets into trouble. Mentors are needed to help prevent future problems, situations or challenges such as homelessness, educational challenges or even involvement with law enforcement by giving a child one more positive adult they can depend on. Mentors can help prevent children in foster care from becoming negative statistics and help children graduate from high school and become successful contributing members of their communities.

Emily Gran is the program and volunteer coordinator with the Best Friends Mentoring Program. She is a Dickinson North Dakota 2016 Special Olympics Coach of the Year.

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