Supports to improve outcomes for youth in foster care

Strategy overview

  • Addressing the needs of youth and parents: Youth aging out of foster care experience poorer economic mobility-related outcomes than their peers in the general population. A range of interventions exist to better support foster children, including direct supports for foster youth, training programs for prospective foster parents, foster care models, and programs aiming to preserve and reunify families.
  • Building children’s skills and relationships: Youth development programs for foster children help participants build the skills and relationships necessary to improve their wellbeing. Programs often pair group sessions focused on skill-building with coaching or mentoring components that focus on addressing individual needs. Typically, programs work with a narrow age range and offer supports relevant to that age group (e.g., preparation for postsecondary opportunities for youth aging out of foster care).
  • Providing parents with the tools to be successful: Training programs for incoming foster parents are designed to prepare parents to support and care for children who have experienced relational trauma, abuse, and other forms of adversity. Topics addressed may include strategies for creating a safe home environment; teaching children prosocial skills, like self-regulation and cooperation; and ways to manage their own stress associated with parenting. Programs may be designed to meet state-mandated pre-service requirements or as stand-alone modules.
  • Matching model with context: Foster care models typically emphasize training and supporting foster parents and providing children with comprehensive case management, clinical services, and other supports. However, a model's goals can vary significantly, including leveraging non-parent relatives to care for children, keeping sibling groups together, or meeting the needs of youth with severe behavioral problems.
  • Keeping families together: Family preservation and reunification programs work with families with children returning from or at-risk of out-of-home placements. By providing services to strengthen parenting skills and improve child behavior and overall family functioning, these programs aim to prevent future out-of-home placements. Programs may be focused on a specific sub-population, like families involved in drug court, and have supports tailored to meet the needs of that sub-population.

A range of individual practices used in a foster care setting demonstrated significant, positive impacts on children’s health and wellbeing when rigorously evaluated in multiple settings.

  • A 2018 research synthesis found that kinship foster care — an out-of-home arrangement for full-time care by relatives — is associated with improvements in child behavior and mental health.

  • A 2016 research synthesis found strong evidence that My Life, a support program for foster youth, improved psychological and educational outcomes.

  • A 2015 randomized controlled trial found that YV LifeSet, a support program for foster youth, increased earnings and improved housing stability, economic well-being, and health outcomes.

  • A 2019 research synthesis found strong evidence that Keeping Foster and Kin Parents Supported and Trained, a foster parent training program, decreases foster placement disruptions, child emotional and behavioral problems, and foster parent stress.

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in supports to improve outcomes for youth in foster care. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in these interventions could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

One indicator in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in this strategy. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Childhood experiences: Percentage of individuals with fewer than three adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
  • Tailor programs to developmental needs: Foster children’s needs change as they age. Offering programs targeted at specific age groups (e.g., a program on post-secondary opportunities for youth in late adolescence) increases their relevance and builds greater interest and buy-in from youth.
  • Use active learning methods: When conducting classes for foster youth or parents, use active learning methods like classroom discussions and role playing. By requiring participants to apply their learning, they will often better remember the content and instructors can provide them with immediate feedback.
  • Provide comprehensive services: Ensure foster youth and parents have access to comprehensive services to meet their physical, psychological, social, and other needs. Such services might include intensive case management, mental health counseling, mentoring, or behavioral interventions.
  • Employ trauma-informed strategies: Foster youth and foster parents may have experienced multiple forms of adversity. Trauma-informed strategies aim to avoid triggering trauma symptoms or re-traumatizing an individual by making support services accessible and appropriate for those who have experienced trauma.
  • Identify a champion: Providing direct supports to foster youth and their families often requires significant resources. Identify a leader in a public child welfare agency who can devote resources and ongoing attention to the implementation of the intervention.

Evidence-based examples

Providing high school students in foster care with coaching sessions to determine post-secondary goals
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Intensive, one-on-one support to help young people transitioning out of foster care become successful, independent adults
High school graduation Supportive neighborhoods