- November 2020
- Vol. 21, No. 8
Mentorship as a Restorative Factor and Postpermanency Support
Written by Christopher Scott, foster care alumnus and executive director of SUN Scholars, Inc.
As an alumnus of foster care, I often reflect on the proverbial question of "What went right?" However, it's equally important to ask "What went wrong?" Answering these questions ensures that, as child welfare professionals, we do better by our youth. As the executive director and founder of SUN Scholars, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Connecticut that supports youth in foster care and youth who have been adopted after high school, I often use the answers to these questions as the foundation toward providing support to the next generation of youth.
I grew up without knowing my biological father. Instead, I spent my childhood with my mother, who—despite her love and compassion—had her demons and lost her battle with addiction. These conditions created the perfect storm for homelessness. I recall months of couch surfing, sleeping in cars, and living in the kitchen of a friend's one-bedroom apartment. Circumstantially, these were the factors that led to my placement in Connecticut's foster care system. While I was fortunate to be adopted, my particular arrangement led to a dissolved relationship after turning 18. (As an adult, I'm grateful to share that this relationship has been rekindled. Forgiveness is a powerful tool to actualize healing.)
I wouldn't change any event or outcome of my life. Instead, I've used my experiences to reflect on how we can best serve children and youth who experience foster care in the present. One positive constant in my life that I credit for my current success is the role of positive mentors and adult figures at every step: my former youth group at Plainville United Methodist Church; my high school theater teacher, Jeff; my mentor, Carlos; Steve at the Commission for Children, Women, Seniors, Equity & Opportunity; , and the list goes on.
We know that a child must have experienced significant levels of trauma to enter the child welfare system, most often quantified through measuring adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The average number of ACEs for youth in foster care is 3.6, with over half reporting having more than 4. This contrasts with the general population, in which only 7 percent report having more than four ACEs. ACEs and traumatic experiences at an early age have a direct correlation to premature death, reduced earning potential, and lower rates of educational attainment. While this paints a bleak picture, there is hope. Restorative factors and the development of resilience counteract the negative effects of trauma.
While research typically focuses on youth in foster care, it is essential to acknowledge that trauma history does not dissolve simply because a youth was adopted. As such, it is critical that we actively implement postpermanency resources for adopted youth, especially those adopted in kinship arrangements who may not be eligible for resources such as educational training vouchers, state-funded extended foster care, or other child welfare-related resources. While healthy adoptions can be invaluable to a youth, adoption in and of itself is not a silver bullet to combat trauma. To be "all in," services cannot stop once permanency is achieved; we must encourage restorative factors throughout the lives of those who have experienced traumatic upbringings and build resilience.
As evidenced in my own experiences, one effective strategy to develop self-efficacy, improve self-esteem, and improve outcomes for both those adopted and in extended foster care is to create structures that promote mentorship and healthy relationships.
Research consistently shows that healthy relationships are an invaluable combatant against the negative outcomes of trauma and contribute to the development of resilience. For instance, we know there is a correlation between the amount of genuine support and encouragement from professionals that a high school student receives and their likelihood of enrolling in a college or university.
While building SUN Scholars, Inc., mentorship and relationship building were the critical building blocks to our success as an organization. When I look back at my experiences at Tunxis Community College, I gratefully remember Professor Fierro, who encouraged me to get involved in the school newspaper (which was coincidentally called The Tunxis Sun). Can you imagine the impact this had? Unbeknownst to anyone at Tunxis, I was couch surfing, struggling with housing, and was almost last in my high school class. To know that someone had believed in me at that moment changed my life. These positive influences led to my graduation at Central Connecticut State University, AmeriCorps, and ultimately the opportunity to speak before members of Congress and the White House in 2019 through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's Foster Youth Internship Program.
Fast forwarding years into the future, it was my professional colleagues and mentors, such as Steve at the Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, who believed in me that allowed me to transfer to complete my master's degree of Liberal Arts in Government at Harvard University's Extension School and ultimately to fully actualize SUN Scholars, Inc. At every point of my life, I have sought out the guidance of mentors. These experiences do not need to be unique or exceptional; they are a result of the power that mentorship had on myself as a postadoption adult.
Professionals are welcome to emulate these ingredients that have allowed for success in both my life and the students we serve. At SUN, we are proud to show improved retention, graduation, and employment rates of our students. Uniquely, we have a staff comprised entirely of youth formerly in foster care and youth who have been adopted. We seek to create a family-like atmosphere, and our success is defined by the success of our community.
The power of mentorship and healthy relationships does not need to be confined to that of nonprofit programming. They can exist in adoptive homes, state agencies, and through the genuine support of allies within the community. Most of my immediate mentors did not have similar experiences to my life. However, they took me under their wing and treated me genuinely and with compassion. I wholeheartedly believe that these relationships changed my life and can be used to actualize the potential of all individuals who have experienced trauma. More so, these strategies can improve outcomes in postadoption youth and their adoptive families.