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Foster Care Settings

Tailored experience for youth-serving professionals in foster care settings

Reaching Teens Portal for Foster Care Settings

Jennifer Rodriguez, J.D.

Executive Director, Youth Law Center


I have been waiting for just about my entire life for a tool like Reaching Teens to land in the hands of those who work with youth in foster care. Growing up in foster care, I wished the various professionals who were charged with my care could see beyond my foster care label and understand my need for connection and opportunities. Now, as a lawyer who has spent nearly two decades working to transform foster care systems across the country so every child and youth can thrive, I see the systemic impact of lack of practical resources that allow the adults working with youth to understand and use the power of a strength-based approach and strong relationship to transform youth’s lives. While this approach is important for all adolescents, it is literally a lifeline for healthy development for system-involved teens. This is because practices and policies in foster care often inadvertently undermine the elements needed to develop resilience in adolescents: nurturing relationships, positive enriching experiences, and individualized supports and planning.

This is where Reaching Teens is a game changer. This resource was designed to support you, whether you are an agency director, educator, foster care professional or health professional, in developing the knowledge, skills, and wisdom to support the innate resilience of youth in foster care and support their transition to a healthy and happy adult life. The trauma-sensitive approach outlined in this toolkit provides a strength-based perspective informed by insight into normal adolescent development and behavior to see beyond the labels and experiences documented in youth’s foster care case files.

Youth in foster care have big and small needs: making and maintaining family connections; identifying unique talents and opportunities to develop; educational and postsecondary planning; career and employment skills and planning; ensuring stability and planning for safe, stable, and affordable housing in adulthood; learning basic life skills and self-advocacy; and developing the positive connections and relationships with peers and adults that will prepare them to make healthy and wise choices. The chapters that follow help you understand these needs, and give you the tools you need to offer effective support to allow youth to forge successful transitions to adulthood. Supporting a youth who is living in foster care to see their own strength and potential is likely to be one of the most meaningful and influential experiences you will have in your life and opportunity to make an impact.

Foster and resource parents remain the primary intervention of the foster care system. Stable, nurturing, attuned, empathetic parenting is vital for healthy development for adolescents who have experienced trauma and adversity. In recognition of the critical role foster and resource parents play in raising teens, a forthcoming portal will provide information tailored directly to meeting their needs.


A Strength-Based Approach to Agency Leadership

These chapters are designed to help leadership grasp the philosophical and practical underpinning of a strength-based approach. While staff can certainly read these selections, these chapters do not benefit from the group process of practice sessions, feedback, and reflection. Therefore, they are recommended for the leadership who will set the tone of the intervention.

Setting the tone here is critical. Many of us work, nearly by definition, in crisis. Shifting to a strength-based approach is about prevention. It is about making things run more smoothly, preventing disruption, and having more effective outcomes. It is about having adults who work with youth deserving of most-focused attention becoming the kind of people young people need and deserve in their lives. This means it is an investment that will pay off in ways that are sometimes immeasurable and intangible. On any given moment, it may feel like it makes more sense to focus professiona- development sessions on crisis intervention—de-escalation, punitive, or even controlling measures. People operating in crisis may not feel the logic behind intensive preventive work. It is for the leadership to set the tone that reinforces each staff member to stay committed to preventive work.

Leadership can also create reflective opportunities for staff to debrief with others about how their interactions change with youth once they implement strength-based strategies. Listening to young people, recognizing them as experts in their own lives, and addressing risk behaviors by building on their existing strengths will create palpable differences in relationships. For this approach to take hold, people need opportunity to reflect on, and share, those differences.

Section 1: Orientation to a Strength Based Approach


  • In “Creating Healthy Biocratic Organizations,” (Chapter 92) Dr. Sandy Bloom, author of multiple books on the subject, speaks to those organizational structures and processes that can be healthy or unhealthy. Without the scaffolding of healthy organizations, none of us can reach our potential to serve others while remaining whole ourselves.


Orientation to New Staff

There are certain critical skills staff need prior to interacting with our young people, because inappropriate interactions can cause harm to young people who have endured hardships in their lives. Whether we help them develop self-regulation skills or trigger their well-earned reactivity is tightly linked to our calming presence.

Working well with our young people takes skill-sets to be developed over time. However, for new staff to even begin interacting, they need to understand the strength-based and deeply respectful care our young people deserve. They also have to understand the critical importance of well-boundaried interactions that support youth to become their best selves without our engaging in rescue fantasies

We recommend the following chapters for all staff as orientation to our practices. They can be read by individuals who engage with them in a self-reflective manner. Ultimately, these topics will be revisited in ongoing professional development sessions with their colleagues. :


Understanding the Unique Circumstances and Needs of Youth in Foster Care

It is critical that all new and existing staff understand the unique issues faced by youth in foster care within the context of the child welfare system that has control over many aspects of their lives. Youth living in foster care have been impacted by many experiences both in and out of foster care, but they have the unique shared experience of growing up with an agency responsible for ensuring their care and supervision. Foster care may impact youth’s immediate and long-term needs, available opportunities, and potential supports. The following chapters are designed to provide an overview for all staff so they understand the needs and challenges that are specific to youth in foster care.


Core Ongoing Professional Development for Staff

Organizations that serve youth who have endured profound hardship need to develop staff with very specific skillsets. Rather than viewing these skillsets as adequately represented by one chapter, it is important to know that many different ideas and strategies, together, build the skillset. Further, a skillset requires reflection and practice. It also requires safe and constructive feedback from colleagues. Although this practice and feedback among colleagues can at first feel uncomfortable, we need to build agencies where it is seen as supportive. When staff develop their skillsets in the safe setting of practice with colleagues, it allows the interactions that really matter—those with youth—to proceed more smoothly.

Staff can certainly navigate the chapters on their own. However, remember this is designed to be a toolkit. People organizing professional-development sessions can draw key elements or films from different chapters. They can also decide how many sessions to devote to each skillset. Further, the units or skillsets do not need to be presented sequentially. It is expected that most agencies will work on various units simultaneously, perhaps drawing from Unit “A” on odd weeks of professional-development time and Unit “B” on even weeks. We suggest to you the units and you decide which skillsets your agency would most benefit from.

You will note that many of the chapters are found in more than one unit. That is intentional, as these are chapters that contribute to different skillsets and are worth revisiting. Each time they are revisited, they will be reinforced with less investment of time. Further, as you look at these units, you’ll notice that there is overlap among them. They, however, are framed differently and you can choose which angle better fits your organizational culture. Specifically, there is a great deal of overlap between “Helping Young People Learn Self-Regulation Both to Calm Their Minds and to Improve their Behavior” and “Maintaining Your Cool Amidst Chaos So You Can Better Co-regulate with Youth and Settle their Behaviors.” Similarly, there is a lot of overlap between “Creating Effective Professional Boundaries” and “Preventing Professional Burnout.” This should not be surprising since effective boundaries are protective both to youth and staff well-being.


Resources to Access on an As-Needed Basis

The following chapters can be of great use to those of us who serve youth enduring homelessness, unstable housing, human trafficking, or other forms of exploitation.

In particular, if you do not have extensive experience with youth who are LGBTQ+, it is imperative that you familiarize yourself with respectful, dignified, and non-judgmental service to them. Those chapters feature young people telling you what they need. Youth who are LGBTQ+ are overrepresented among our youth, and our full acceptance and absolute respect, not just tolerance of them, is critical to them.

Young people experiencing a range of behavioral health challenges may present with unique needs, as is the case for young people who have been involved with various systems (e.g., criminal justice, foster care, etc.).

All chapters in this grouping can be accessed on an as-needed basis. Explanations are offered only for those chapters whose titles are not self-explanatory.

Section 9: Mental, Emotional. And Behavioral Health
Section 10: Serving Young People Deserving of Focused Attention


Case Examples for Group Learning and Discussion/Personal Reflection

Each chapter offers group learning and discussion and/or personal reflection exercises to help develop specific skill sets. Knowing the broader context of young people's lives makes the difference in our ability to build on their strengths and support them to overcome their challenges. This is so central to our work that we should routinely consider youths' environmental contexts, strengths, and challenges as a first step to addressing any issue. Rather than having you need to go through this process with new youth in each chapter, we want you to be able to focus on the chapter-specific skill-set. Therefore, we suggest you get to know the youth described below and use them as consistent case examples. You may choose instead to substitute in actual cases if it helps you and your colleagues better learn the material.

Youth 1

Brittany is a fourteen-year-old white female who currently lives at a foster care shelter placement, awaiting a more permanent living situation, after running away from her last group home. She has three younger siblings who are also in foster care, although she has lost contact with the youngest, who was adopted at the age of three. Brittany is quiet and seems reluctant to form relationships with the adult staff providing her care, although she has been attending school on site daily and participating willingly in therapy and other placement activities. While she hasn’t talked much about her family or feelings, she has old pictures of her parents and siblings taped to her wall in her room.

Strengths: Brittany is incredibly kind and caring to other children and youth living at the shelter, and has been observed using her monthly allowance to buy younger children snacks and gifts. When other youth are upset, they often come to Brittany for advice and reassurance. Staff have rarely observed Brittany upset, and notice that she copes by writing in a journal and singing in private when she is given disappointing news or has conflict in the shelter.

Challenges: Brittany has experienced a lot of instability and difficult experiences over the past year that have impacted her trust in adults, her positivity about the future, and her academic progress. She moved through four different groups homes in the past 12 months, before running away from the last and being picked up in a sex-trafficking sting operation. As a result, it has been challenging to piece together her medical, school, and case history in order to provide her with appropriate supports. Brittany has expressed she dislikes the rigid rules in the shelter and considers many of them unfair.

Youth 2

Davian is a sixteen-year-old nlack male who has just received his third seven-day notice from a group home in six months. Although he is currently in out-of-home placement under probation supervision, he was originally under child welfare supervision. Davian’s grandmother raised him as a relative caregiver for twelve years before some of his behaviors at school became too much for her to manage.

Strengths: Although Davian’s grades have been poor in middle school and high school, Davian’s test scores show him to be extremely gifted. Davian is also charismatic and funny and makes friends wherever he goes (while sometimes exasperating teachers and staff with his humor and energy). Davian also is very entrepreneurial, and has developed and successfully executed several ideas that have generated some income for him (and also created some trouble for him). Davian has always sent some of his income to his grandmother and his mother, who is currently in a substance-abuse treatment program, to help them with groceries and bills.

Challenges: Davian was arrested twice previously for property damage in the group home and possession of marijuana with intent to sell. During his time in juvenile hall, Davian fell behind academically, and made a number of new friends who are involved with more serious illegal activities. After leaving juvenile hall to return to his group home, his former school refused to re-enroll him and he was forced to attend a half-day alternative school that focuses on behavior rather than academics. Davian reports that he is bored in the group home and can’t wait to leave “the system”.

Youth 3

Destiny is a seventeen- year-old Latina female who lives in a foster family with two of her three siblings. Destiny has been living with this family for the past five years, and considers her foster mom to be her “mom”. While her foster family has expressed interest in formally adopting her, Destiny has not been interested due to feelings of conflict about severing her relationship with her biological parents and concerns about losing eligibility for supports once she leaves home for college.

Strengths: Destiny is goal-oriented and determined, and has accomplished almost every goal she has set for herself. She has already identified colleges she might want to attend, and started doing research on the application process, financial aid, and housing. Destiny is also extremely devoted to her siblings, and also frequently helps them with homework and involves them in her social life. Destiny has been involved in a number of extracurricular activities, including high school basketball and a student-led LGBTQ GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) club.

Challenges: Destiny is experiencing anxiety about leaving the only stability she’s known with her foster family and moving away from her siblings to start college next year. Although she’s always done well in school, she is also starting to worry that she won’t fit in or be “smart enough” once she starts college since her social worker told her that only 3% of youth from foster care graduate college. Destiny is also unsure how she will afford to live on her own and pay for college. Lately, Destiny has been having trouble sleeping and has been fighting frequently with her foster family and friends.

Youth 4

Carl is a fifteen-year-old white male who first entered the foster care system at the age of eleven due to parental incarceration. After several moves, Carl and one of his siblings live with their maternal grandmother, and the other two siblings live in close proximity with a paternal aunt. The relatives have not wanted to adopt him due to their hope that Carl’s mother will be able to care for her children once she is released from prison. 

Strengths: Carl has a great relationship with his high school basketball coach and dreams of being a professional athlete. The coach says Carl is a natural leader, and named him the freshman team captain. Carl has spent many extra hours practicing basketball drills and helping the coach set up and clean up after games. He also has worked hard with a tutor to try to maintain his school GPA, which has been a challenge since some subjects are hard due to months of missed school in past years. Carl has a small group of friends, and they describe him as loyal and hardworking.

Challenges: Recently, Carl has become academically ineligible to play basketball because he was unable to achieve the required GPA for student athletes. Carl has become withdrawn and angry at both school and home and has been suspended after several physical fights at school. Additionally, Carl’s elderly grandmother has some serious health conditions which are inhibiting her ability to care for Carl and his brother. Carl’s social worker wants him to see a therapist, but Carl expresses he has no interest in talking about the neglect and abuse from his past.

Youth 5

Dakota is a fifteen-year-old Native American non-binary youth whose pronouns are “they/them/their”. They came to their current foster home a year ago after experiencing 20 previous placement breakdowns. Dakota’s case file has a long list of worker’s accounts of their challenging behaviors, difficulties working with them, and their special needs. Dakota has siblings, but has not had contact with them in several years due to their frequent moves.

Strengths: Dakota is thoughtful and insightful when they are feeling calm. One of the only positive entries in their case file is a letter from a Native American leader of a lacrosse program they participated in several years ago, who noted their interest in learning cultural traditions and values, their ability to keep playing even when struggling to learn skills, and their gentleness with teammates. The letter has an attached essay Dakota wrote about what they learned from the program leader and their hopes to one day change the world similarly. Dakota is also a very talented artist and frequently creates drawings on their school papers and materials.

Challenges: Dakota’s new foster parent reports that Dakota does not trust him, refuses to engage with other children in the home, and frequently acts out and breaks house rules. This behavior is creating conflict in the home, and the foster parent is not sure how much longer he can manage. The foster parent expresses frustration in not knowing how to develop a relationship with Dakota. Dakota regularly skips school, and when they do attend school, they sleep in class or don’t pay attention. Dakota has not made any friends at their new school, and the school has had to intervene several times due to other students’ bullying.

Youth 6

Anaya is a seventeen-year-old black and Latina female who is currently living in a maternity group home with her 6-month-old baby after spending time in several foster homes, group homes, a residential treatment center and juvenile hall. Anaya is hoping to return home with her baby to her biological mother soon, and has run away to her home several times. Currently, Anaya’s lawyer reports that she is unsure if the court will approve reunification between Anaya and her mom.

Strengths: Anaya loves her baby fiercely and wants to do everything possible to support her daughter in the way she wishes she had been supported. She has eagerly sought out parenting books and information, and signed up for baby massage classes she learned about from another mother at the doctor’s office. Anaya is also a strong, vocal self-advocate and advocate for other youth, and has reported violations of youth rights in her living situations to her lawyer and the state several times. Recently, she has become involved in a social-justice advocacy group for other young parents.

Challenges: Anaya is having challenges in her current maternity group home, which have resulted in her taking her baby to her mother’s home without permission several times. Anaya is frustrated that the facility won’t allow her baby’s father to visit and spend time with her daughter, and feels that the number of moms and babies creates an environment that is often more dirty and chaotic than she feels is acceptable. Anaya’s social worker has threatened that since the agency has not found her mother’s home to be safe for reunification, Anaya’s custody of her own baby may be jeopardized. Anaya currently struggles to complete independent study coursework while caring for her baby, and is behind on credits to graduate on time.

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