Can Youth Voices Improve Foster Care Outcomes? Lessons from the UK

Can Youth Voices Improve Foster Care Outcomes? Lessons from the UK

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In the United States, 26,000 youth age out of foster care annually. More than a third never completed high school, with most ill-prepared for the job market. As a result, many wind up on the streets or in jail. A similar scenario prevails in the United Kingdom where over 40 percent of former foster youth are not in education, training, or employment.

With many youth who have experienced foster care joining the ranks of disconnected young adults, what role can young people play in creating solutions?

Youth with experience in foster care are uniquely equipped to inform efforts to improve the system, affirms Luke Rodgers, the 25-year-old founder of Foster Focus in the UK. And he should know. Beginning at the age of 10, Luke transitioned from one foster family to the next—nine in all—and two residential facilities. “By the time I was 15, I realized I had a lot of ideas for changing the system,” says Luke, “but I felt like I was never listened to.”

For Luke, amplifying youth voices is critical to transforming a system that he views as largely deficit based and focused on young people as problems. At the heart of its mission, Foster Focus seeks to reframe the personal narratives that youth who have experienced foster care hold about themselves. At the same time, it works to dispel the negative stereotypes perpetuated by society that such youth don’t fit in or can’t be trusted.

A social enterprise, Foster Focus operates as a youth-led consulting firm. Former foster youth receive training in public speaking, facilitation, and communication skills, and in turn, market their services as consultants and advisors to organizations engaged in the foster care system. In 2016, Foster Focus-trained youth delivered over 120 speeches at conferences, seminars, and classes, reaching over 100,000 teachers, students, social workers, funders, and government officials.

“A lot of times, youth aren’t consulted because people don’t know how to engage them,” says Luke. “We’ve developed a framework for involving young people in service delivery that’s proving youth participation works.”

“Fostering services tend to be adult centric and focused on supporting foster care providers,” says Martin Kelly, Head of Children and Young People’s Resources within the North Yorkshire City Council. “Luke brings real life stories to change the culture within our system so we can become more child focused.”

Foster Focus also seeks to demonstrate that youth-informed services can be more cost-effective and efficient. “Two questions guide any project we pursue,” says Luke. “Does it have social impact, and can we create cost savings or generate income to ensure the impact is sustainable and scalable?”

Two questions guide any project we pursue: does it have social impact, and can we create cost savings or generate income to ensure the impact is sustainable and scalable?

Luke Rodgers, Founder, Foster Focus

Since 2015, the organization has applied its consulting model to influence key stages of the foster care system—from improving how prospective foster parents are recruited to ensuring they have adequate support, from shifting how social workers assess youth in foster care to taking steps to ensure a smoother transition for young people aging out of the system.

Luke’s ultimate goal is to create a culture shift in the way individuals and organizations engaged in the foster care system perceive, interact with, and support youth.

A Youth-Led Campaign to Recruit Foster Parents

As in other parts of the UK, the demand for foster parents in the Kirklees District of West Yorkshire often exceeds the number of families registered to provide care. To help bridge this gap, Foster Focus collaborated with Inspired Youth, a nonprofit media team, to engage foster youth in co-creating an online marketing campaign.

The campaign centered on a three-minute video (see below) highlighting candid testimonials by foster parents and youth. Each shared their experiences and challenges, the importance of entering into foster care relationships with realistic expectations, and what foster youth need most: to feel listened to and wanted.

FosterMe—What's It Like Fostering a Teenager?

Foster Focus helped to incorporate youth voices into this video campaign aimed at recruiting qualified foster parents in the Kirklees District of West Yorkshire.

The Kirklees campaign attracted national media attention, recruiting 75 foster care families in just 3 months, a big increase over the Council’s goal of recruiting 20 placements in 12 months. The campaign also saved the government money by shortening the recruitment period and eliminating the need to rely on private contractors to satisfy placement needs. Beyond these statistics, the campaign—with its youth-informed message—will ideally result in improved foster care relationships that withstand the test of time, says Luke.

Foster Focus engaged youth perspectives to inform a similar campaign to combat bullying, often directed at foster youth, at primary and middle schools. The campaign—which included a video, posters, and banners—not only led to a significant reduction in youth intimidation and violence, but demonstrated the abilities and potential contributions of foster youth within educational settings. 

Rewriting the Narrative of Youth in Care

Foster Focus knows well that the negative labels associated with foster youth can seriously impact their self-esteem and agency in life; yet labeling—both positive and negative—is implicit in how youth are tracked through the foster care system. The UK relies on a profile system to register, document, and refer youth for various services.

“Your profile is your passport to opportunity—within the foster care system, the educational system, and elsewhere,” says Luke. But for many youth, their profile becomes a lasting record of what are often poor choices and negative outcomes that create a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s frequently missing, Luke adds, is an understanding of the context and root causes that contribute to certain behaviors.

To illustrate his point, Luke shares the example of his own profile at the age of 15, which cited low school attendance, disruptive behavior, and attachment issues as key characteristics defining his journey through adolescence. What his profile failed to acknowledge was the influence of his early life experiences, multiple home placements, and other disruptions that affected Luke’s ability to form trusting relationships (see video below). 

Profiling and Foster Youth

Luke elaborates on a Foster Focus initiative that supports youth transitioning out of care.

To improve the profiling process, Foster Focus’ youth consultants advise social workers, teachers, and government officials about the factors that contribute to negative behaviors and how the current system can erode a young person’s sense of possibility and chances for success. “Changing how you write a referral can change the way you feel about a young person, how you act toward a young person, and how they feel about themselves,” says Luke, who emphasizes the importance of recognizing the positive attributes (e.g., resilience, adaptability, and perseverance) that many foster youth develop as a result of their experiences.

As part of its effort to reframe the narratives influencing foster youth, Foster Focus offers a range of consulting services and products. Among these is a youth-led master class that teaches foster parents and social workers how to interpret and write profiles of youth in care. Youth also lead workshops for teachers on attachment, behavior management techniques, and how to better understand and meet the needs of foster children and youth.

We create a platform for [foster] children to share and reframe their experiences and build their confidence. They need to know they’re not just failures who’ve been on a journey of negativity.

Karylle Phillips, Director of Education, Foster Focus

“The biggest difference I feel I’m making is knocking down stereotypes,” says Karylle Phillips, Foster Focus’ Director of Education, who creates and facilitates many of its trainings. “We create a platform for [foster] children to share and reframe their experiences and build their confidence,” she says. “They need to know they’re not just failures who’ve been on a journey of negativity.” Having experienced 16 foster placements by the time she was 6, Karylle, now 29 with a degree in social work, knows the system well. Through the organization’s narrative-based training, she guides youth in chronicling their past, assessing their strengths, and identifying the positive consequences of negative experiences.

As important as shifting the narrative around foster youth, according to Luke, is transforming how youth workers and case managers within the system perceive it—and themselves. The dominant story is one of chronic funding shortages and failed youth, he explains, with social workers caught up in a cycle of feeling they can’t be successful. Such attitudes merely reinforce themselves, says Luke, who seeks to nurture positive, life-affirming relationships between caregivers and youth.

Improving the Transition from Foster Care to Independent Living

Recognizing that many young people transitioning out of foster care experience a harsh new reality with limited education and employment prospects, Foster Focus is developing what Luke calls “opportunity architecture” to better prepare and place youth in jobs. 

A crucial first step is empowering young care leavers to select the person(s) charged with helping them make the transition to independent living. Typically, youth are assigned a dedicated ‘leaving care worker,’ but if the personality isn’t a good fit, the consequences can be devastating, says Luke. As an alternative, Foster Focus advises local councils to empower youth to select their own transition ‘guide’—be it a teacher, foster parent, or social worker. Foster Focus then offers training and support to prepare that person to be successful in their role. 

Focusing on Foster Youth

Luke describes his work to empower youth to rewrite the negative narratives that they often experience in the foster care system.

The organization is also collaborating with municipal councils in North Yorkshire and Croydon to create greater employment opportunities for youth transitioning out of the system. Through one initiative, local companies that do business with the North Yorkshire Council are encouraged to create jobs for foster youth as part of their corporate social responsibility. Foster Focus is also creating a database of individuals and organizations in both communities that have jobs of potential interest to care leavers.

“Luke’s passion and drive totally aligned with what we were trying to achieve,” says North Yorkshire City Council’s Martin Kelly, who contracted Foster Focus to help design curricula for use in training youth as restorative justice practitioners, capable of leading conflict resolution efforts among youth who have experienced foster care and their peers outside the system. Foster Focus is also involved in advising the Council’s No Wrong Door service, which combines residential care with fostering. 

Changing Cultures and Mindsets One Step at a Time

Over the last 18 months, Foster Focus has expanded its reach through partnerships with local and national organizations. In particular, it’s benefited from the launch of the Department of Education’s Children’s Social Care Innovation Fund, which spurred increased funding and demand for its youth engagement strategies from the Spring Consortium, University of Oxford Rees Centre, and The Fostering Network, among other organizations.

Word is also spreading abroad, with the organization poised to begin a new consultancy with Australia’s Department of Education and Training to support the design and delivery of youth-led programs benefiting foster children within the educational system.

Reflecting on Foster Focus’ work over the last three years, Luke is proudest of its efforts to demonstrate the impact of authentic—versus tokenistic—youth participation. “We’re seeing changes in culture and mindset, and a reduction in negative stigma through implementing effective youth participation frameworks,” he says.  While acknowledging that some of its efforts are in the more nascent, pilot stage, Luke is committed to testing and refining Foster Focus’ youth engagement strategies to achieve greater impact—and systemic changes—in the years ahead.

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