Children who have been abused or neglected have typically had few, if any, trustworthy adults in their lives. Then they enter a child protection system that is challenged to provide the kinds of childhood experiences that are essential to healthy child development. Without smart, evidence-based interventions, it is no surprise that these children may lack confidence in their ability to succeed. The result is huge wasted potential, at a huge cost to the public.
These foster youth are probably more susceptible to the damaging effects of adverse childhood experiences because they have often experienced more of them, and more of them associated with immediate family connections. There is strong evidence that "bad events have stronger and more lasting consequences than comparable good events. Close relationships are more deeply and conclusively affected by destructive actions than by constructive ones."
Research on trauma-informed care tells us the consequences of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including lack of goals, poor problem solving, a shortened sense of the future and school failure in teen years. Researchers are also increasingly aware of the potential negative and positive impacts of different mindsets.
The nature of foster care in the United States creates at least two mindsets that are particularly damaging to foster children. These do not arise from anything inherent in the children, but from their experiences within the system, and from adult perceptions, that focus on failure.
The "Nothing But A Paycheck" Mindset
There is a public mindset that foster parents are in it only for the money. Because most people have no direct experiences with foster care systems, this mindset persists even when it is not the reality. Some studies have found that the primary motivations for becoming a foster parent often have to do with caring, community service, and helping children, although financial support may be an additional consideration. And in most states, basic foster care rates are less than the estimated cost of caring for a child -- in several states, less than half the cost. So if foster parenting pays, it doesn't pay very well.
When it comes to financial motivations for caring for foster children, either the reality or the perception can create a mindset that can be damaging to the children. In her testimony to the US House of Representatives, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew described how the "nothing but a paycheck" theory leads young people to devalue themselves, making them more vulnerable to traffickers.
The Trashbag Mindset
There is another foster care experience that seems particularly ubiquitous and equally disturbing: putting all of a kid's belongings in a trash bag when they have to move from one home to another. It's bad enough that foster kids have to move repeatedly. Foster youth move an average of 2.8 times during each stay in foster care. In 2012, states met the federal standard for placement stability for children in foster care over 24 months only 35 percent the time. Kids can easily get the message that they do not deserve a permanent home and they are no more valuable than rubbish.
Improving children's lives by changing mindsets
So our foster youth have experienced severely adverse childhood experiences that are further reinforced by the ways they experience foster care. Fortunately, new research can help us overcome these difficult circumstances. Two key strategies are to reduce the adverse childhood experiences and strengthen relationships that protect children from the effects of stress. Among key protective factors are positive role models and consistent, stable and appropriate relationships with adults. In particular, having a relationship with a caring adult outside the family has a meaningful impact on an at-risk child's well-being. These relationships can help children learn to stay calm, be interested in learning, care about school, get more exercise, join after school activities, and avoid bullying.
One of the most promising ways that consistent, caring adults can help foster youth is by helping them get out of the hopeless mindset and into a success mindset. At the recent HOPE Global Forum, I was struck by a comment by Ricardo Semler, Chairman and Non Executive Partner of Semco Partners: "without hope, there is very little statistical chance life will ever work out."
In my work with CASA and guardian ad litem volunteers over the last 21 years, I have frequently seen the corollary to Semler's comment: a hopeful, success-oriented mindset is a key ingredient in overcoming a history of serious maltreatment. Research over at least a decade has shown just how important this is. Carol Dweck has written about the key differences between "fixed" mindsets--in which failure becomes permanent trauma--and "growth" mindsets, which accept failures as challenges to be overcome. The approach Dweck and others suggest is not just simply telling kids to be hopeful. There are evidence-based ways to help children develop a growth mindset. The evidence of this approach's impact on educational success is particularly encouraging.
Conversations with young people served by CASA volunteers confirm to me that for decades, this approach has been an inherent part of the way our volunteers work. Themes like consistency, support, caring listening, guiding--these are what the young people think were the most impactful part of the volunteers' work. Clearly, while the court work is important, it is the relationship and its positive and consistent motivation that means the most to the children.
Within the CASA for Children network, we have been specifically applying research about mindset and positive self-identity in our work with older youth for several years. Because CASA volunteers are often the most trusted and consistently present adult in a foster child's life, they are in an ideal position to apply the evidence-based mindset approaches. The particular research we have used had shown positive and sustained impacts on at risk youth in academic initiative, test scores, grades, depression, school behavior and absences. Applying this evidence-based approach to foster youth, we believe we can help them rise above the negative messages given by the system, help them understand they can be successful, while recognizing that they will face challenges and can learn to deal with them.
One of the great strengths of this approach is that it does not foster further dependency. In her testimony to Congress, T. Ortiz Walker Pettigrew described how foster care often "normalizes the idea to youth that other people are supposed to control their lives and circumstances." The mindset and "possible selves" research counteracts this by fostering protective factors and a more positive identity in the young people themselves.
Every child under the care and protection of the state due to abuse or neglect deserves to have a caring adult whose commitment is to say "I am for the child®". An adult whose very presence will convince a child that he or she is no trashbag kid, no paycheck kid. I invite you to be part of this movement.