Over the years I have spent a lot of time pondering the ways foster youth, specifically teenagers, can be better prepared for entering the adult world. This is a Life Skills group idea I came up with.
Professionals working in the field of child welfare have spent decades amassing countless research which indicates the social outcomes for individuals who age-out of the foster-care-system are catastrophic. The research reveals that adults who resided in foster care during their childhoods are more likely to become involved in criminal behaviors (Barth, Duncan, Hodorowicz & Kum, 2010; Courtney, Hook, & Lee, 2012; Krinsky, 2010), have low rates of employment (Stewart, Kum, Barth, & Duncan, 2014), have high rates of homelessness (Dworsky & Courtney, 2009), hold low levels of educational achievement (Blome, 1997; Courtney & Dworsky, 2006; DiSanto, 2014; Pecora, 2006; Westat, 1991), and utilize social welfare systems to a high degree (DiSanto, 2014; Dworsky, 2005).
The poor social outcomes of adults who spent time in the foster care system is not an isolated problem maintained to only a few individuals. The former foster youth with poor social outcomes do not minimally affect only the communities they reside within. In 2012, ten percent of children in foster care, 23,439 youth, aged out of the system (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System [AFCARS], 2013). The United States spends an average of $300,000 per former foster youth that age out of the system (DiSanto, 2014; Stangler, 2013). With an average of 27,000 foster youth leaving the system each year (Stein, 2012) the estimated cost that all former foster youth, who aged out of the system in 2015 alone, will have on the United States is $8,100,000,000.
Studies indicate that the key to reducing the poor social outcomes of foster youth can be achieved by enrolling the youth in courses which will teach them like skills (Lips, 2007). The purpose of this paper is to design a life skills course by combing current evidence based methods with best practice research for the current and former foster youth population. The following sections of this document outline a 10 week life skills course that could be used by a professional working with former foster youth who are transitioning out of foster care.
Environmental History of Foster Youth
Individuals in the foster-care-system entered into foster care after the state determined one of the following: that the child’s original place of residency was unsafe, the youth was a danger to individuals in his/her original home, the youth’s primary caretaker was deemed unfit to care for the child due to death or a physical/mental disability, the child’s guardian relinquished rights for personal reasons (Federal Register, 2014; The Porch Light Project, 2014). Youth aging out of the foster system have been in the care of the system for less than a year to more than 5 years (AFCARS, 2013). The youth who have been in care have resided in 1 to 5 or more homes (AFCARS, 2013; Federal Register, 2014).
The presentation of the qualifying criteria for individuals who enter into foster care presents as simplistic, yet the bio-psycho-social experiences of each youth who entered the foster system are complex. Some of the children who enter the foster system have experienced years of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse (Federal Register, 2014 The Porch Light Project, 2014). Some foster youth have witnessed abuse, some were taken from their families due to unsafe living situations, some were given to the system by parents that no longer wanted them, and others became foster youth due to the death of their guardian (Federal Register, 2014 The Porch Light Project, 2014). These varying environmental differences amongst foster youth amount to individuals in the foster system experiencing distress symptoms ranging from minor depression to major mental health complications as well as physical complications and behavioral issues.
The population served by this proposed life skilles group will be of current foster youth ages 16-19. The group will be open to all individuals within the foster system which indicates the group compositions could include individuals who identify as male, female, transgender, intersex, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, and other. Other demographic characteristics of current foster youth who may participate in the group include individuals from a variety of cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Due to the types of chronic stress and environmental traumas these participants may have been exposed to, a high probability exists that many of these youth will be struggling with a form of mental illness, anxiety or depression.
Purpose of Group
In 1999 the 106th Congress passed FCIA (P.L. 106-169) into law after reviewing evidence which suggested that providing former foster youth with transitional living services and financial help as they entered into adulthood would decrease the likelihood of these youth becoming criminals, social welfare dependents, homeless, and from dropping out of school (Carroll, 2002; H.R. 3553, 1999). Though 15 years have passed since the passing of this law, in Green Bay Wisconsin minimal transitional living services exist to that work to help current and former foster youth transition into adulthood. According to social workers who work with this population in the Green Bay area, there is a need for programming which educates current and former foster youth about life skills such as budgeting, cooking, and more (M. Burnikle, personal communication, April 5, 2014; S. Konitzer, personal communication, April 5, 2014).
The purpose of this group is to fill a gap in services provided to current foster youth in the Green Bay area by providing individuals in this population with a 10 week life skills training course. The expected outcomes for this group are for a reduction in poor social outcomes of former foster youth in the Green Bay area. According to Green Bay’s Youth Transition Coordinator about 40% of the areas foster youth become homeless within the first 6 months of turning 18 due to unpreparedness for the demands of adult life (S. Kontzer, personal communication, April 5, 2014). The goal of this group will be to reduce the percentage of foster youth who become homeless, in Green Bay, during their first 6 months of independence. This outcome will be met by giving the individual participants in this program the life-skills-tools necessary for them to successfully transition into adulthood.
Type of Group
The proposed life skills group will be a psycho-educational support group focused on healing from trauma and learning life skills needed to live successful and independent adult lives. Former fosters who aged out of the system have been found to struggle with a variety of undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues which result in them often being terminated from their places of employment and utilizing hospitals and psychiatric clinics at a high rate (Courtney & Dworsky, 2006; Lo & Wo, 2011). The rationale for making this group a support group with a focus on mental health and life skills is based on the ecological theory perspective which adheres to the idea that when groups work together towards a mutual goal they are more likely to meet that goal and survive (Robbins, 2011).
During the 10 weeks the participants spend in this group they will be able to form close bonds with individuals experiencing similar struggles, form relationships with positive role models, and be connected to community resources which can assist them during the aging out process. Research suggests that the formation of these positive relationships and community connections will lead to the youth feeling strong ties to their communities and others which will motivate them to work towards self-improvement and goals such as higher education (Lee, 2012; Montgomery, et al., 2006; Sommer, 2013).
Participants will be chosen through a referral process set up with local foster parents, social workers, and area group homes and juvenile detention centers that work with this population. In order for all the members of the group to benefit from the sessions it is pertinent that the participants in the group wish to participate. When a foster youth is referred to the program the program director will conduct a brief assessment of the child through a personal interview with the client, as well as with the child’s guardian and social worker. If the child is found to lack the skills needed to be successful as an adult, have a history of abuse or trauma, is diagnosed with a mental illness, or is suspected to have some form of mental illness, they will be eligible to receive services. The client will be admitted to the program if he or she shows an interest and/or motivation to learn from the program, and does not suffer from an untreated mental illness which may cause him or her to pose a threat to the group.
This group will be a closed group. Participants will be referred to the program by local agencies, foster parents, and social workers in the weeks leading up to the first session. Individuals can be added to the group at any time during the enrollment period. Once the group begins new members will not be allowed to join. The rationale behind using a closed group is structured upon the success of the group being based upon members building close relationships with mentors and each other while sharing personal stories of traumatic experiences while learning life-skills-techniques. Introduction of a new individual into the group once it had begun could potentially disrupt pre-established relationships and group dynamics which could negatively affect participants. Since each week of the educational portion builds upon the previous week, new individuals may struggle to comprehend the material and would not benefit from the life-skill-training.
Two weeks before the first session all participants will be mailed a packet of information and assessments which they are required to mail-in, or deliver to the program facilitator, two days before the first session. The packet will include a MAPP Career Assessment (Assessment.com, 2014), a Daniel Life Skills Assessment (Daniel Memorial Institute, 2004), and a Life Plan questionnaire which will ask the participant to list what their plans are in the areas of education, work, where they want to live, and who they want to live with when they emancipate from foster care. The Career Assessment will be used to help each participant in creating life goals. The Daniel will be used as an assessment for group effectiveness in teaching life skills by comparing the before group scores to the post-group scores. The Life Plan Questionnaire will be used in individualized life simulations which will help each group member understand the monetary costs of life choices.
Trauma, Job Seeking and Education Planing. Session one will begin with group introductions. The facilitator will introduce the group role-models and assign them to individual participants. The group facilitator will go over the rules of the group and explain the purpose and goals of the ten week sessions. The group facilitator will give a brief presentation on the different definitions of trauma and the potential mental health effects of experiencing them. The group facilitator will then list and describe the most common types of unrecognized trauma and their effects on mental health. Unrecognized trauma discussed will be psychological abuse (APA, 2014, Tracy 2015), diagnosis shock (Swack, 2008), childhood neglect including verbal abuse (APA, 2014; Salavitz, 2012), foster care (Heiger, 2014), divorce (Meyer, 2014; Getty, 2013), witnessing domestic violence (Edleson, 2011), and prenatal exposure to stress (Kong and Monk, 2009). A group discussion on unrecognized trauma will follow the presentation. The purpose of this activity is to normalize past experiences of group members, and to educate members of traumatic experiences and mental health symptoms they may have but were unaware of. The normalization of the traumatic experiences is done due to research which indicates such practice allows group members to feel more at ease with their life experiences which makes them more open to discussing their experiences (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2014).
The first group will end with each participant being given $500 in play money and an individualized packet with homework to be completed before the next session. Clients who expressed interest in college are required to contact a minimum of one college for enrollment information. Clients who want to work only after they turn 18 are required to research the average pay at the places they wish to be employed and find out the skills needed to work there.
Money Management, Interpersonal Skills. Group 2 will begin with the facilitator paying $500 in play money to each participant who completed their homework assignment. The participants will then break into small groups with their mentors to complete an activity about budgeting and money management. The final half of the session will be spent discussing interpersonal skills and the ways group members have found they are judged or treated based on the way they present themselves to others. Group members will be sent home with a homework assignment to write down everything they spend money on during the following week. This activity will be homework each week for the remaining 8 weeks of group.
Money Management, Transportation, Personal Appearance, Interpersonal Skills. Group 3 will begin with each participant that completed their homework being paid $500 in play money. Group members will then be split into smaller groups for an activity in which they will pick the type of transportation they would prefer to use. Clients will calculate the cost of owning the vehicle, riding the bus, etc. The group participants will then pay the group facilitator the cost of their chosen mode of transportation from their previously earned play money.
The remainder of the session will be conducted with a discussion on personal appearance and how clothing, hygiene, body posture, and the language used when speaking with others affects the ways they are judged by others. Clients will be sent home with homework to research the type of job they would like to have when they emancipate from foster care in order to learn the average pay and job skills requirements.
Education Planning, Job Seeking, Job Maintenance, Interpersonal Skills. Group 4 will begin with the clients who did their homework being paid the average weekly salary of the job they picked. The group will split into smaller groups where the participants will conduct mock job interviews with their mentors. Clients will be given information on the types of skills and education level needed for various types of jobs. Clients will be given a sample resume and instructed to complete a personal resume for next week’s group. The session will conclude with a large group discussion on the skills needed to find a job, obtain employment, and maintain employment and the thought or concerns of group members of all that is required to maintain a steady income.
Money Management, Food Management, Health, Housekeeping. Group 5 will begin with the clients who did their homework being paid the average weekly salary of the job they picked. Clients will then break down into small groups were they will create a menu of all the snack foods and meals they would prepare for themselves during a week living on their own. The group will then come together for a large group discussion about nutrition, health, and cost of food. The group will then move to a discussion about housekeeping, how to properly clean floors, toilets ect. This education in housekeeping will include information about the hazards to personal health and property when things are not kept clean. Members will be sent home with a homework assignment to find out what the cost of a weeks’ worth of food for them would be based on their individualized menus. Clients will also be asked to learn how to clean one thing they have never cleaned before.
Leisure Activities, Money Management, Housing. Group 6 will begin with the clients who did their homework being paid the average weekly salary of the job they picked. Clients will then break down into small groups where they will complete an activity in picking the type of apartment they would like to live in and find the cost of renting that apartment. Clients will also calculate the costs of participating in their favorite leisurely activities. When the activity is completed the group will come together to discuss what they learned during the activities and anything they found stressful about finding a place to live.
Money Management, Housing, Transportation leisure Activities. Group 7 will begin with the clients who did their homework being paid the average weekly salary of the job they picked. Clients will then be given a purse with all the play money they had earned over the last seven sessions and a list of all of the things they had stated they wished to have when they live on their own. Clients will pay the facilitator the amount of money they had calculated on their weekly budget sheets. Clients will then pay the facilitator the amount of money for the mode of transportation they prefer, the rent and security deposit for the apartment they want, and the amount of money they would spend in food for a month based on their weekly meal sheet. Clients who do not have enough money will have to change their choice of apartment or transportation. The session will conclude with a discussion on what the members had learned from the activity.
Recent studies have found that youth today have low ability to restrain themselves from seeking immediate gratification (Thompson, 2013). The purpose of paying the youth who completed their homework over the first seven sessions and not rewarding them until week 7 was done to both teach life skills of hard work earning positive rewards but to also instill a lesson in delayed gratification.
Legal Skills, Emergency, Safety, Community Resources. Group 8 will begin with a group activity designed to teach youth the proper ways to handle emergency medical situations. The group will then do an activity that teaches the youth basic legal skills needed for independent living, and those that may be needed throughout their adult life. The session will end with a discussion about potential life emergencies and needs that may arise, such as emergency rental assistance or energy assistance vouchers. The participants will be given a list of all local agencies which can provide the types of needs and services they are likely to find themselves in need of (see Appendix A).
Education Planning, Job Seeking, Money Management. Group 9 will begin with a discussion about the education level and types of employment held by the participant’s families or origin and foster families. Clients will be asked to share how their guardian’s education level or type of employment negatively or positively affected their lives. The remainder of the session will be spent listening to a presentation from Fostering Future Makers representatives from North East Technical College, the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, and Saint Norbert’s about the benefits of a college education and the types of scholarships, free housing, and other financial aid available to college students who spent time in foster care. Youth will be given a homework assignment in which they must make a 5 year plan for themselves including educational goals, the type of employment they wish to obtain when the leave foster care, the type of transportation they plan to use when leaving foster care, and the type of apartment or living situation they will enter into when they leave foster care.
Money Management, Termination. At the beginning of the session each youth will be paid two months’ worth of the average salary of the type of job they wish to hold when they leave foster care. The youth spending budget sheets which they had completed each week will be totaled and the total amount spent will be subtracted from their two month salary. Each youth will then be expected to pay first month’s rent and a security deposit on their fictitious apartment and calculate our how much money they have left over for transportation and basic needs. When this task is complete the youth will be given a therapy memory bookwith a note inside from the group facilitator and their role model congratulating them on their growth during therapy. Participants will then be allowed to speak about how they feel about this being the last session and what they leaned in therapy. The session will end with each participant completing an exit Daniel Memorial Assessment.
The author of this paper chose what to include in the group sessions based on previously conducted research, her personal experience in working with foster youth, former foster youth, homeless former foster youth, and by integrating the types of skills assessed in the Daniel Memorial Assessment. The author chose to devote group-one to a training on trauma due to her experience in finding that clients from this population often do not recognize experiences from their past as abnormal or traumatic. The author has also found that many of her homeless former foster clients are “shocked” when they realize their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are normal for trauma survivors who have not had a chance to heal from their past abuse and neglect. The author has seen many young former foster adults sign themselves up for counseling and make dramatic life changes when they came to understand the causes of their behavior and the effect their past has on their present. For these reasons the author felt that starting the trauma life skills group out with this topic would be beneficial due to the discussion it would create and because if would allow youth who want to change to work with their peer mentor and facilitator in seeking help for their past trauma and mental health issues.
The author of this paper decided to include two life simulations into the group frame work in order to give youth a chance to see how money and expenses work in the beginning and then have a chance to apply what they learned in a second chance life–simulation at the end. The author chose to incorporate the use of play-money as a reward for completing homework in order to implement a lesson in delayed-gratification and to familiarize the youth with the idea of good choices having positive but not immediate rewards.
Over the last decade research has indicated that traumatic experiences are often the culprit of a variety of mental health and behavioral health issues (Mitchel, 2012; National Council for Behavioral Mental Health, 2014). This research has cumulated into a movement for all professionals working in the fields of medicine and mental health to have training specifically geared towards trauma (Mitchel, 2012; National Council for Behavioral Mental Health, 2014). Due to children in foster care having higher rates experienced trauma than the general population the group facilitators and peer mentors running this life skills group need to have extensive training in trauma and the manifestation of past trauma in an individual’s behaviors and mental health (Mitchel, 2012; National Council for Behavioral Mental Health, 2014; U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2014).
Due to the large diversity within the foster youth population it is important that the group facilitator and peer mentors receive training in working with youth from the lesbian, gay, transgender populations, individuals from different religious backgrounds, and individuals from different cultures (Rockville 2006; Sue & Sue, 2003). The author of this paper is a member of national former foster organizations. The author strongly suggests that one of the program staff be a member of the foster population due to resentment and biases of individuals within the foster population against professionals who have not experienced foster care.
This trauma and life-skills focused self-help group will be appropriate to any foster youth from any socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, and religious back ground as long as the staff remain culturally competent and the group members are selected with careful attention paid to potential biases. If the staff members are biased as to their religious preference, or hold various beliefs about specific cultures or racial backgrounds they may inadvertently cause harm to the group participants (Sua & Sue, 2003). If group members are not evaluated for racist beliefs or other biases against other racial cultural, and religious groups they also become a harm to other group members (Sue & Sue, 2003). If the staff are properly trained, group members properly assessed, and a no tolerance of open disregard for others is instituted during the initial group session the group should be a safe place for all individuals (Sue & Sue, 2003).
The type of evaluation which will be conducted to measure the success of the group will be a pre-experimental one group pretests/posttest design. The evaluation will be completed by having all participants complete the Daniel Memorial Life Skills Assessment before beginning the group and after they have completed the group. Any program operating within the state of Wisconsin that wishes to receive state funding for working with transitioning foster youth must use the Daniel Memorial Assessment to rate the program’s effectiveness (Department of Children and Families Wisconsin, 2014).
The Daniel Independent Living Assessment for Life Skills is utilized by numerous agencies throughout the United States in order to design individual-needs-specific-case-plans to teach life skills to youth aging out of foster care (Carpe Diem of Virginia, 2013; Department of Children and Families Wisconsin, 2014; Georgiades, 2004; Jackson County Developmental Center Inc., 2008). The Daniel Independent Living Assessment for Like Skills measures a youth knowledge in the areas of money management, food management, personal appearance, health, housekeeping, transportation, educational planning, job seeking skills, job maintenance skills, emergency and safety skills, knowledge of community resources, interpersonal skills, legal skills, and housing (Daniel Memorial Assessment, 2010) (see Appendix B).
The Daniel Independent Living Assessment for Life Skills allows the administrator to evaluate a client’s knowledge of basic life skills and then design a care plan which will teach the youth the skills they do not possess. For the purpose of evaluating the success of this proposed life skills group the Daniel Independent Living Assessment for Life Skills will allow the group facilitator to design each group session in such a way as to teach these life skills to the youth who scored low in specific areas. By using the Daniel as a pretest and posttest measure the facilitator will be able to measure the effectiveness of his or her life skills training sessions.
Though the Daniel Independent Living Assessment for Life Skills is being utilized by numerous agencies throughout the country evidence based research on the effectiveness of the measure is difficult to find. The most recent studies into the effectiveness of the scale are from the early part of the 21st century (Georgiades, 2004; Loman, & Siegel, 2000). Research conducted by Georgides (2004) found that the Daniel was adequate for measuring a youth’s interpersonal skills, job skills, money management skills, and job maintenance skills. This may be due to subjective questioning in the other areas of the test. Since the proposed group is a combination support group and life skills group the Daniel will be an adequate measure for assessing a youth’s improvement in basic life skills such as interpersonal relationships and money management.
The current research into the social outcomes of individuals who were formally in foster care shows bleak outcomes for these individuals (Barth et al., 2010; Blome, 1997; Courtney & Dworsky, 2006; Courtney et al., 2012; DiSanto, 2014; Dworsky & Courtney, 2009; Krinsky, 2010; Stewart et al., 2014; Pecora, 2006; Westat, 1991). Most research indicates a lack of education on basic like skills is the cause of former foster youth becoming homeless and relying on social service systems for support (Stewart, 2014). By developing a life skills group that can teach these youth the skills they need, while allowing them to obtain emotional support from other foster youth, our society may see a reduction in the negative social outcomes experienced by former foster youth in the years to come.
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