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.

Providing supports for youth in foster care has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are access to health services, housing stability, and safety from trauma.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring access to health services in your community: Examine the ratio of residents to primary care physicians. These data are available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Area Health Resource File.

  • Measuring housing stability in your community: Examine the number and share of public-school children who are ever homeless during the school year. These data are collected by local public school districts.

  • Measuring safety from trauma in your community: Examine the number of deaths due to injury per 100,000 people. These data are available from the National Center for Health Statistics’ Mortality File and the CDC’s WONDER database.

  • 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