What do youth in foster care need most?

Child holding hands with foster parents

The chief finding of Amy Salazar’s research is that meaningful connections are essential to help youth achieve independence when they leave foster care.

As a psychology major at the University of Miami, Amy Salazar had a particular interest in trauma and PTSD. Not until she began graduate school at Portland State University did she start learning about foster care, her current area of expertise. “I learned about this whole population of kids who’d been traumatized,” she said, “and society was not doing a very good job of supporting them. It seemed like a good area to focus on.”

Indeed it was. While earning her master’s and Ph.D. degrees, Salazar had many opportunities to work with youth in foster care. She went on to a research position in the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington in Seattle and in 2016 joined the faculty of WSU Vancouver, where she is now an assistant professor of human development.

The need for her experience is great. A patchwork of federal, state and county programs spends billions of dollars a year on various aspects of foster care, yet there is little evidence to verify what spending works. Salazar is especially interested in studying how best to help older youth get ready for adulthood. “There are very few evidence-based practices for how to help older youth in foster care prepare for the transition to adulthood,” she said. “Federal support is available in every state, but those programs don’t have good evidence of effectiveness.”

Salazar is helping to fill that gap. For example, she was instrumental in creating Fostering Higher Education, an intervention program designed to develop ways to support youth with foster experience who wish to go to college. She is the lead author on a study about building financial capability as youth transition from foster care to adulthood. She helped develop a curriculum for foster families to support LGBTQ+ youth in foster care that the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families has made available as online training for foster caregivers. And she has led another study on how older youths in foster care define and achieve permanency—that is, ongoing relationships with caring adults, who may be parents or others who help instill the sense of belonging that is key to the transition to a confident adulthood.

Aging out

At any given time, Salazar said, more than 50,000 youths age 16 and older are likely to age out of foster care. There are more who have already aged out, many of whom still need transition support services. And there are still more who want nothing more to do with the foster care system. It’s a large population with a big impact on society.

“Aging out” means that children don’t get reunited with their families nor adopted. They may stay in foster care “until they’re too old to be in it,” Salazar said. Many states let young people sign back in voluntarily up to about age 21, as long as they meet specified criteria. But after that, they’re on their own, for better or for worse.

For those who go to college, there may be support programs on campus. In Washington state, for example, almost every campus has such a program for youth in foster care. WSU Vancouver has such a program. Salazar has been helping to get the word out, including adding a session to Preview Day where those with foster care experience or unaccompanied homelessness can learn about funding specifically for them.

A pilot study of the Fostering Higher Education program in Washington state resulted in expansion to two more states—Georgia and Iowa—and research is ongoing as those states implement the program. “The goal is to assess whether Fostering Higher Education really makesFostering Higher Education really makes a difference,” Salazar said. “If it does, it would be one of the first evidence-based practices for helping older kids in foster care.”

What’s been learned so far, she said, “is for a program to be successful, it comes down to relationships and the intentionality of how you’re delivering information. You have to build trust and good relationships and think about how you’re delivering important and sensitive content.”

"[Youth in foster care] have often (and many times, repeatedly) been failed by the adults responsible for caring for and protecting them." —AMY SALAZAR

Youth in foster care have good reason not to trust adults. They “have often (and many times, repeatedly) been failed by the adults responsible for caring for and protecting them,” Salazar and co-authors write in “Fostering Higher Education,” published in 2016 in Children and Youth Services Review. Study after study has found an association between life skills and connections to caring adults who help youth transition successfully to independent living. “It provides evidence that investing in those sorts of support can be worthwhile,” Salazar said.

A related interest of Salazar’s is financial capability. “If you think about all the things young people need to learn about and prepare for, finances are a big one,” Salazar said. “They need to do things like open checking and savings accounts—but that can be tricky in foster care because who’s going to co-sign? Who will teach them how to understand a credit report? We should be helping youth learn about these things, but how that happens varies a lot across states and counties.”

Informing policy and funding

Salazar’s research is used by state agencies, governments, colleges, nonprofits and other funders and policymakers. Salazar has been invited to a couple of congressional panel presentations—along with other researchers, practitioners and youth in care—for giving recommendations about new support and reauthorizations, such as the Chafee Act, which gives money to all states to help provide independent living services.

Most recently, she has been on the evaluation team for large projects funded by the Federal Children’s Bureau. One project is to develop a new foster parent training curriculum and evaluate it. She is also on the evaluation team for a $40 million project that involves a huge team of people with the goal of developing evidence-informed practices to help with building engagement in youth permanency.

At WSU Vancouver, Salazar teaches in the Prevention Science doctoral program as well as undergraduate classes. She was attracted to the opportunity to build on her strengths and help educate the next generation of researchers in her field.

“In Human Development, we have a lot of students interested in becoming social workers, but we don’t have a school of social work,” she said. When she teaches a class on child maltreatment, she tells students she appreciates that they are opening themselves up to learn about the subject, “because a lot of people experience it, but we don’t educate ourselves about it. We talk as if child maltreatment is rare, but it’s pretty common. Most people don’t know anything about foster care, so we talk about how children end up there, starting with allegations of maltreatment and mandatory reporting, all the way through to what the path through the foster care system might look like, what expectations are on parents to get their children back, what kind of training foster parents have to have.”

Salazar is committed to continuing to build a base of evidence for practices with foster care—what youth need and what’s working. “I hope it’s all important,” she said. “It’s hard to help vulnerable populations when you don’t know anything about them.”

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