Brain Research Points to Better Results for Foster Care Youth

Posted May 2, 2012, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Allstate insurance company has an advertisement picturing a model of a brain on a pedestal—the kind you might see in a doctor’s office—with a telltale chunk missing. “Why do most 16-year-olds drive like they’re missing a part of their brain?” it reads. “Because they are.”

Anyone who has raised teenagers knows they can be prone to outrageous and even foolhardy behavior. The ad makes the case for graduated driver licensing laws on the grounds that teenagers are more likely to take risks—and thus cause more crashes—because their brains haven’t fully matured. “The underdeveloped area is called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. It plays a critical role in decision making, problem solving and understanding future consequences of today’s actions. Problem is, it won’t be fully mature until they’re into their 20s,” states the Allstate ad.

The science that this ad is based on doesn’t just apply to teen driving behavior. It is also the driving force behind a campaign by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative to ensure that older youth aging out of foster care get the support and make the lasting adult connections they need to be successful and productive.

For many years, brain development was believed to be essentially complete by the end of childhood. But The Adolescent Brain: New Research and Its Implications for Young People Transitioning from Foster Care, a report released by the Jim Casey Initiative last fall, synthesizes neuroscience research confirming that in the teenage years, the brain undergoes a period of development—and a window of learning opportunity —similar to the early years. The report argues that young people’s experiences are critical in developing resiliency, knowledge, and skills that can serve them throughout adult¬hood. Because of the brain’s ability to be molded during this period, it says, the right interventions can help overcome the effects of early trauma.

These findings are especially important in shaping policies for young adults who have been in foster care, notes Gary Stangler, the executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. “We have a system that is designed for two-year-olds. We need to figure out how to connect older youth to families and other adults, jobs, and schools, and how to take advantage of the brain’s activity during this time, because this really might be the last chance.”

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative was launched by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs in 2001, fueled by the vision that every young person leaving foster care should have the opportunities and support needed for a successful transition to adulthood. Now a private operating foundation, the Initiative provides services to help young people aged 14–25 complete their education, prepare for employment, build savings and assets, and develop permanent family relationships. The Initiative, active in 15 states, forms partnerships with communities to improve practices for older foster youth, involves young people in decision making and advocacy, and brings evaluation results and research to bear in child welfare policymaking.

The adolescent brain findings provide a powerful platform for advancing the Casey position that youth do better in family settings than in congregate care, and that young people need permanent, loving connections with adults and connections to the right opportunities to exit foster care successfully.

The report argues that long-term congregate care doesn’t help young people form bonding relationships with adults or learn to take appropriate risks in safe settings—skills they need to navigate the world.

“There are individuals who need a more highly structured environment and some who need it for short periods of time, but by and large group homes are not going to promote the social connections to adults and community that living in a family provides. It’s not how people live, and you don’t learn how to interact appropriately with adults,” notes Stangler.

“Adolescence is a period of ‘use it or lose it’ in brain development,” the report states. “When young people are actively engaged in positive relationships and opportunities to contribute, create, and lead, they ‘use it’ to develop their skills to become successful adults.”

While the total number of children in foster care nationally has decreased every year for more than a decade, the number of youth aging out of foster care has continued to grow. More than 230,000 young people have aged out of care since 1999, ranging from 19,000 young people in 1999 to nearly 30,000 in 2008. Research shows that these youth are less likely to have a high school diploma, pursue higher education, or earn a living wage than other youth and more likely to experience economic hardship, have a child without being married, and become involved with the criminal justice system.

“The chemistry of the adolescent brain is what often causes young people to seek new excitement through increasingly risky behaviors,” notes the Jim Casey Initiative report. “Young people need positive youth development opportunities so that they can engage in healthy risk-taking via constructive, meaningful activities.”

The report offers several recommendations, including:

  • Continually providing young people with opportunities to connect with their families and communities; 
  • Encouraging them to build on strengths and talents; 
  • Helping them advocate for themselves and be active in their own planning and decision making; and 
  • Promoting practices based on an understanding that “just as early maltreatment and subsequent trauma can negatively impact brain development, positive experiences during adolescence can strengthen healthy neural connections and promote learning.”
  • The report recommends that all states extend “developmentally appropriate foster care” services to age 21, so that young people continue to receive support as they transition to employment, higher education, and more permanent living situations. The federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 appropriates funds for states to extend foster care beyond age 18. So far, however, only 11 states are exercising that option, and experts say improvements are needed in how the law is implemented.

Changing the Trajectory

Sixto Cancel, now 20, was removed from his home at 11 months old and moved in and out of foster homes, experiencing abuse, neglect, and isolation along the way. As he watched peers in the system age out and spiral downward without permanent relationships or supports, he took steps to change that trajectory.

Cancel chaired a leadership board for Connecticut youth in foster care and enrolled as an Opportunity Passport participant in the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, where he learned valuable skills to help him prepare for the future and save money for a car and an apartment. Cancel, now a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a Young Fellow for the Jim Casey Initiative and advocates for foster care reforms to benefit young people at conferences and policy forums. In February, he attended a Black Emerging Leaders Summit at the White House with True Colors, a program that does advocacy and training on lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender issues and helps mentor foster youth.

“What motivates me to do all these things is the fact that I grew up with a lot of anger, and this anger has manifested itself into the passion I have today to do better for my community,” says Cancel.

Thanks to his perseverance, the Jim Casey Initiative, and the fact that his home state of Connecticut extends foster care assistance beyond age 18, Cancel is managing his transition to adulthood without a legal family. Initiative staff members, who visit him at college and are a phone call away, have become his go-to network. “I absolutely couldn’t have done it without their support,” he says.

Adolescent brain development has been gaining media attention in recent months, with features in such publications as U.S. News and World Report and National Geographic. The Jim Casey Initiative has seized this opportunity to promote nurturing environments for youth with troubled backgrounds, who, the report’s authors maintain, still have a chance to make a better life for themselves.

“What we realized was that this knowledge was out there, but it hadn’t been applied specifically to youth in foster care,” notes Madelyn Freundlich, who heads Excal Consulting Partners and was a lead author of the Jim Casey Initiative report.

“We really worked hard to use the research to show that this is a period of dramatic development in the brain second only to early childhood, and that there are ample opportunities for adolescents to rewire their brains in very substantial ways.”

The report’s analysis resonates with audiences from parents to policymakers. “Anybody who has raised a teenager instantly understands,” notes Stangler.

A recent roundtable hosted by the National Governors Association explored how to make best use of the new interest in adolescent brain development. “If one believes that this research can help set the direction for states, the conversation needs to be broader” to include all vulnerable youth, notes Susan Golonka, program director for human services at the NGA Center for Best Practices. “The conversation has really shifted to how what we know about the brain and trauma can better inform practices.”

Legislators are taking an interest in this work, and states such as New York and Iowa have requested Jim Casey Initiative involvement in conferences to examine the implications for child welfare professionals, court officials, and the foster care system.

The Allstate insurance ad closes with a message youth advocates would love practitioners and policymakers to take away from these discussions: “Let’s help our teenagers not miss out on tomorrow just because they have something missing today.”