Brain Research Points to Better Results for Foster Care Youth

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

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 1425 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.”

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