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Science in Action: A Research-Informed Intervention that Supports Youth in Foster Care

April 29, 2021

Filed in: Learning & Education | Family | Peers

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Developmental science has helped us understand a lot about what young people need to be able to thrive. This research is especially important for those of us supporting youth who faced adverse experiences earlier in childhood or who may be struggling now.

At a recent talk at the University of Oregon’s Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, Dr. Leslie Leve, a member of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence, gave an example of how principles of developmental science helped shape a program for youth in foster care.

The Treatment Foster Care Oregon program is a research-informed alternative to placing youth in group care settings. The program involves weekly meetings for foster parents that teach positive parenting strategies, crisis support and respite care for foster parents, one-to-one mentorship for youth with a young adult to promote social skill building, and family and individual therapy for caregivers and youth.

And it works. In randomized control trials, this program has been shown to cut in half the arrest rate of both boys and girls. In addition, girls in the Treatment Foster Care Program experienced half the rate of depressive symptoms, a third less drug use in their early to mid-20s, and about half as many teen pregnancies.

The program’s effectiveness seems to be related to the support it provides for some important developmental needs of the adolescent years.

Dr. Leve highlighted these “key ingredients” in the success of this program:

  1. Peers! During adolescence, our friends can influence behavior in both positive and negative ways. The Treatment Foster Care Program provided distance from peers with similar behavioral problems, allowing room to form more positive relationships, which reduced the risk of re-arrest.
  2. Positive support from caring adults. Adolescents still need adults, and supportive relationships can help build resilience, even after earlier trauma. The program helps foster parents learn positive parenting strategies, like reinforcing good behavior (not just correcting the negative).
  3. School engagement. The Treatment Foster Care Program was better than group care programs at promoting school attendance and homework completion. This increased focus on setting aside time each day for school work resulted in fewer problem behaviors.

For the close to 200,000 adolescents who are currently in the foster care system in the U.S., science-based interventions such as the Treatment Foster Care Program can help build positive trajectories, even after earlier trauma. But it doesn’t work for every young person it serves. More recently, Dr. Leve has been studying other factors, such as genetic or biological markers that may help pinpoint WHY interventions work better for some youth than others.

This new research may help us create even more effective programs, to meet the goal of helping every young person flourish.

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