Too often, our child welfare system is perceived to be a massive, immovable force in which only youth-serving professionals can make a difference in improving the system and lives of the young people involved. Fortunately, that’s not true: there are ways for compassionate and committed people outside the system to make a lifelong difference for young people who need it most. One of those ways includes becoming a mentor.
The difference for so many young people, especially those in foster care is a reliable adult they can count on to help navigate tough situations so they can eventually learn to stand on their own. This is particularly true for current and former foster youth who spend a lot of their childhood moving between homes. As they grow older, they seek an adult who is not there as a professional or representative of the “system,” but rather someone who is open to giving advice and lending support unconditionally. In essence, someone who gets to know them, give them personalized attention, sees the best in them, and ultimately becomes a stabilizing force for someone surrounded by uncertainty.
To youth in care, a mentor can be a life changer, helping them navigate challenges in the most basic areas of life, including quality education, healthy relationships, and ultimately, a stable living environment. We have seen, through a myriad of outcomes, that we are not delivering adequate support and opportunity for youth in care and therefore, not fully empowering them to thrive. On the flip side, the facts are clear when it comes to mentoring as a solution in our midst – young people who have mentors are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college and 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school. Why? It’s simple: mentors provide an important, consistent, healthy adult relationship for a young person in foster care, who – through no fault of their own – may have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse.
In honor of National Foster Care Month, we plan to present to Congress an opportunity to come together on a bipartisan issue to reinforce programs that provide resilient youth with the social capital, resources, and support they need to develop positive relationships and valuable connections. The Foster Youth Mentoring Act will lift up the role of mentoring as an asset within the child welfare system.
The bill will authorize funding to provide support to mentoring programs that have a proven track record in serving foster youth. It will also incentivize training and technical assistance for adult volunteers who serve as mentors to foster youth to ensure they have an informed understanding of child development, family dynamics, the child welfare system, and other relevant systems that affect foster youth. Finally, it will increase coordination between mentoring programs and statewide child welfare systems by supporting the expansion of mentoring services for foster youth.
At an individual level, we don’t need to wait for legislation to pass. Becoming a mentor is a powerful way to get engaged, make a difference, and become part of something bigger than yourself. Some of the best solutions to the issues foster youth face are found even closer than your own backyard: the solution could be you.
It is critical that we raise awareness about the unique challenges young people in the system face. In all of our years working in child welfare, meeting thousands of children either in or out of care, we’ve heard their voices clearly. They want a consistent source of advice and support: they want someone that will be there when it matters most, and for all the moments in between.
It is our responsibility to support the critical needs of our nation’s most vulnerable young people. If not us, if not you, then whom? Solutions rest within changes to the system that can be achieved through common sense legislation. Urgently, we are all called to take action and to be part of the solution to one of our country’s most critical challenges.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, a bipartisan caucus boasting over 150 Members of Congress. David Shapiro is CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, the unifying national organization for expanding quality youth mentoring relationships and connecting volunteers to opportunities in their local communities. This year, the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth is celebrating its 6th Annual DC Shadow Day, during which over 100 current and former foster youth shadow their Member of Congress in Washington, DC.