The Oregonian: Portland State University foster care project nationally recognized for helping youths transition to adulthood
Author: Melissa Binder, The Oregonian
Posted: February 4, 2014

Read the original story here in The Oregonian. 

A Portland State University project that helps teenagers transition out of foster care won national recognition this month from the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, DC.

The My Life project supports young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood by teaching them how to problem solve, build relationships with adults, plan and "schmooze," said Laurie Powers, a PSU professor and co-leader of the program.

"A lot of these young people experience what we call 'instant adulthood,'" said Sarah Geenen, the other co-leader and research associate professor at PSU. "They're typically having to do it on their own with few resources."

Often times, the only adults in the youths lives are foster parents and social workers, Geenen said, and those relationships end when the kids leave the foster care system between 18 and 21 years old.

The youths are less likely than their peers to graduate high school, attend college or find a job, Geenen said. They are more likely to be homeless.

My Life's goal is to help the kids become self-sufficient. Lots of programs around the country help these youths find jobs, apply to college, learn how to manage finances and more, Powers said. But instead of teaching them a single skill, she said, My Life teaches them how to think, plan and achieve.

Coaches interact with the youths in the real world, Power said. Coaches go with the teens on job searching trips, college visits or to get a license, she said, and help the youths deal with challenges that arise. Coaching is centered around the teen's personal goals, not a preset curriculum. Powers calls it "self determination."

The project is proactive, Powers said, and seeks out teenagers in the Portland area between 16 and 18 years old that are under the guardianship of the Oregon Department of Human Services. About 90 percent of the teens they approach agree to participate, she said.

My Life isn't just a social service. It's an experimental study. Participants are randomly selected to either be in the intervention group or the control group, Powers said. The intervention group receives coaching for one year, while the control group does not. Researchers follow both groups for two years.

The project's ultimate goal, Powers said, is to determine whether or not teaching foster care teens how to problem solve, build adult relationships and more (instead of teaching specific stills) is effective. So far, she said, preliminary evidence suggests it is.

"This way of thinking seems to stay with the youths," she said, and their abilities even increase with time after coaching has ended.

The program operates under five-year grants from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education. The last year of coaching ends in the fall, Geenen said. Researchers will then continue to follow-up with participants for one year before analyzing and disseminating the results.

If the study provides strong evidence that this "self determination" model is effective, Powers said, it could revolutionize the national approach to caring for youths aging out of foster care.

-- Melissa Binder