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Creating Foster Care Connections

By Maura Keller

Few connections are harder to establish than trust. For many foster families, gaining trust and making strong connections between the foster child and other family members can be challenging.

A recent study at the University of Washington School of Social Work is exploring ways foster families could benefit from a program called Staying Connected With Your Teen, initiated to strengthen family functioning and enhance family connectedness in an effort to reduce adolescent drug use and other risky behaviors.

Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the three-year study began in November 2010 and is designed to evaluate the feasibility of disseminating an evidence-based, self-directed, family-focused substance abuse prevention program within the foster care system.

According to study coauthor Kevin Haggerty, MSW, PhD, assistant director of the Social Development Research Group, there is an increasing demand to implement evidence-based programs for children in foster care. “Few evidence-based programs have been tested with this population, especially teenage youths,” he says. “And research is needed to understand what works, with whom, and under what conditions.”

Since 1993, Haggerty has been the project director for the Raising Healthy Children study, a school-based approach to social development. He is an early implementer and trainer of the Guiding Good Choices parenting program and is principal investigator of the NIDA-funded Family Connections study, testing the Staying Connected With Your Teen program and the Focus on Families study.

As Susan Barkan, PhD, a study coauthor and clinical assistant professor of epidemiology, explains, Staying Connected With Your Teen is an evidence-based prevention program that has been found to reduce risky behaviors of teens in the general population. “We’d like to see if an adaptation of the program could be helpful and effective with child welfare-involved teens and their caregivers,” Barkan says.

To do this, the researchers are conducting three sets of three focus groups with a total of 63 participants. These groups include three groups with young adults (n = 20) aged 19 to 21 who were in residential foster care placements during their adolescence, three groups with foster parents/relative caregivers (n = 16), and three groups with Children’s Administration staff (n = 27).

“The findings from the focus groups [so far] indicated that there is a need for evidence-based parenting programs for families involved in the child welfare setting,” Haggerty says. “One of the significant barriers to program implementation is the lack of meaningful connection between caregivers and youths in their care.”

Specifically, the researchers learned that former foster youths felt no bond with their foster parents or the relationship felt fake; foster parents had a tendency to stigmatize the youths in their care; foster children felt excluded from the family and treated differently than biological children; and foster parents lacked parenting resources and needed more specific parenting skills.

Based on feedback from the focus groups, the research team made the some key adaptations to the Staying Connected With Your Teen program materials, including changing the name to Connecting With Your Teen and altering the language throughout the workbook to make it applicable to foster families.

“We also modified the program to be implemented with 11- to 15-year-old youths instead of 13- to 17-year-olds and added content and activities aimed at creating a connection between foster youth and caregivers,” Barkan says.

They also added activities to guide caregivers and foster teens in discussions on topics such as family values, similarities and differences in these values, and important traditions. And they added content to provide caregivers with information on typical adolescent behavior and challenges, including information on adolescent brain development and how this impacts teen behavior. They included more information about independent living skills, too.

“In April 2012, nine caregiver-foster teen pairs participated in a feedback session,” Haggerty says. “The researchers described the Connecting program, and each caregiver and youth was asked to do some of the program activities in pairs, separate from the group. After completing each module, they were asked to complete a feedback form and, as a group, share their opinions and ideas about how this program could be used with foster families. Overall, the responses were very positive. One foster parent wrote that they got more out of that day than they had in a full year of therapy with their foster teen.”

Currently, 30 families have agreed to participate in a trial of the program, and the researchers are continuing to recruit families into the study through January 2013.

Key Findings
The team findings have not been finalized because the research is ongoing, but Haggerty says the researchers have made three critical conclusions thus far:

• Caregivers fostering teens are seeking more information about parenting.
• Teens and caregivers need opportunities to genuinely connect with each other.
• The Connecting With Your Teen program has the potential to help these families.

Program content, which is modified for foster families, includes the following:

• Roles: relating to your teen. Parents and teens identify their visions of the teen’s life at age 25. Parents learn to talk with their child about changes in development and identify their role as “letting go” of control and helping the child make decisions.

• Risks: identifying and reducing them. Parents and teens learn the factors that put them at risk for problems and what they can do to reduce them. Parents learn the difference between controlling and influencing behavior, how to provide opportunities for decision making, and strategies to encourage their teen’s ideas.

• Protection: bonding with your teen to strengthen resilience. Parents and teens learn the factors that help protect teens from risky behaviors. Parents identify clear standards for healthy behaviors, learn to listen to their teen’s ideas about health and safety issues, and learn to initiate proactive problem solving to prevent and respond to problems.

• Tools: working with your family to solve problems. Parents and teens learn how to conduct family meetings. Families review effective parenting styles and learn strategies for family decision making, skills for communicating effectively, skills for anger management, and steps to solving family problems.

• Involvement: allowing everyone to contribute. Parents and teens learn to identify skills they need to make meaningful contributions to the family and how they will be recognized for these contributions.

• Policies: setting family policies on health and safety issues. Parents and teens identify clear family policies on health and safety issues. Families learn how to establish a behavior contract for consequences when rules are broken.

• Supervision: supervising without invading. Parents learn about parent monitoring and the influence of peers. Families learn and practice refusal skills and ways to ask for help.

“We look forward to continuing to test the adapted model with foster families,” Haggerty says. “While this study and the Connecting program is geared toward teens, there are more appropriate programs, such as Guiding Good Choices, for foster families with younger children.”

— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.