Guy Sack, Master’s Graduate (2013)
TC, Columbia University
Department of Organization & Leadership
Foster youth, removed from their families and placed in state care due to abuse and neglect, miss out on essential developmental bonds and assets necessary to help them thrive in an increasingly complex and volatile world. Healthy transitions from state foster care to independent adult lives, enriched by education and full-time employment, are rare. Studies show that youth aging out of residential placements, like the Hibiscus Children’s Village, located in Vero Beach, Florida, are at great risk for falling well behind their non-foster peers (Hook & Courtney, 2010). Hibiscus Children’s Center is a residential facility that sleeps up to 68 youths, monitored around the clock. The children reside in one of several group homes and are grouped together on the agency’s campus.
Educational achievement and employment success are missing building blocks that this at-risk population need and crave in order to become productive citizens. Therefore Career Pathways to Independence Program was designed in order to meet these needs. Career Pathways to Independence (CPI) is a comprehensive and innovative intervention currently being implemented to give foster youth, ages 15 to 17, experiences, skills, and resources, as they develop into adults, while restructuring the way they think about their futures. Hibiscus Children’s Center is one of eight Florida partners helping to implement this Indian River County community initiative. The other seven partners are: Workforce Solutions, Indian River State College, Indian River Chamber of Commerce, PNC Bank, Treasure Coast Builders Association, Indian River Sheriff’s Department, and the Kiwanis Club of Vero-Treasure Coast.
The odds for a promising future are stacked against foster children in state custody due to abuse and neglect. Researchers in the state of Washington found that foster youth were 54% less likely to graduate high school than their peers (Burley & Halpen, 2001). Only 8% receive 2 or 4-year post-secondary degrees, despite the availability of full-tuition vouchers and state and federal grants (Courtney et al., 2011). Former foster youth are employed at lower rates, especially in USA’s current economic climate. Courtney et al. (2011) found that only 46% of 26-year-old former foster youth in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin were employed, compared to 79% in the general population. An abundance of similar studies show dismal and alarming outcomes, such as high rates of: incarceration and court involvement, violence, welfare dependency, homelessness, poor medical care, and teen age pregnancy after emancipation from state custody at age 18.
At Columbia University’s Center for Social Policy and Practice in the Workplace, Sheila Akabas and Lauren Gates (2006) highlight the need for job development and community networking programs to help combat the above problems. Their research states that agencies must form relationships with community employers, in order to facilitate job placement and future employment. Akabas and Gates also indicate the need for strong senior leadership guiding these innovative programs, especially for preparing the agency’s staff and environment for change from simply “taking care” of foster children and providing a safe haven to initiating programs that prepare foster children for emerging adulthood, independence, and self sufficiency. This involves reframing the role of the foster care agency to include labor market intermediary. Hibiscus’ CEO, Tom Maher, has accomplished this through his outspoken support and leadership for the Career Pathways to Independence initiative.
Despite the best efforts of similar programs to train at-risk populations for eventual employment, research found that providing only pre-work training can decrease the likelihood that youth will obtain jobs (Gowdy, Carlson, & Rapp, 2003). CPI takes a novel approach, as coordinated job internship placements are the cornerstone of the program and the added resource that sets it apart from other youth transition programs in the country. In addition, CPI offers a number of holistic services, including life skills training, money management seminars, self sufficiency skills training, group problem solving experience, career counseling, along with therapeutic and educational counseling.
Kirk and Day (2011) highlight that real world experiential learning is uniquely beneficial, above and beyond traditional pre-work workshops and training. CPI achieves real world work experience by guaranteeing each participant several 2-3 week job internship placements, funded by the Indian River Impact 100 Grant. Some internships have led to permanent, paid, part-time employment. The Program Coordinator, Lisa Deleon, works with all Hibiscus’ staff, the seven partners, community organizations, and community businesses in order to ensure that the entire Hibiscus organization and Indian River County community is committed to giving each youth a fruitful CPI experience.
Researchers and policy professionals state the need for in-depth interviewing in order to examine the dynamics of adult transition programs where youths’ behavior, program outcomes, and cognitive processes can be compared. The following study is in response to these requests. In order to gain an understanding of what it feels like to live in a 24-hour-a-day residential foster care facility and to be a foster child, an initial round of interviews was conducted during the summer of 2011, before implementation of the CPI Program. This initial interview allowed for comparisons with the attitudes and the kinds of conversation that Hibiscus’ youth articulated once CPI became part of their treatment plans. Conducting “before and during” interviews showed which aspects of youth experience and attitudes changed with the inclusion of the CPI program. The interviewer worked at Hibiscus during the first summer, as a Mental Health Technician, in order to acquire some familiarity with future program participants and to gain day-to-day insights into this foster care agency’s organization, culture, and operation.
Twenty semi-structured interviews were conducted with foster children residing at Hibiscus Children’s Center, in Vero Beach, Florida. Ten took place during June and July, 2011, and then ten more interviews took place in May, 2012. These interviews will be referred to as “summer, 2011” and “summer, 2012” or “the first summer” and “the second summer.”
Ten foster youth, ages 15-17, were selected for participation by the Hibiscus treatment team. The selection was based on future admission to CPI, due to appropriate age requirements and estimated length of stay at Hibiscus. During the first summer, 10 youths were interviewed. During the second summer, 10 CPI participants were interviewed, who had had at least a four-month duration in CPI. Each participant had engaged in at least one internship, and multiple youth had part-time jobs by second interviews. Each youth interviewed had attended program seminars and had extensive contact with Lisa Deleon, the Program Coordinator. Three youths remained in the program during the entire period between first and second summer interviews. National research shows that foster children, on average, are moved three times per year (Kirk and Day, 2011). This fact complicates implementing and evaluating emerging foster care adult transition preparation programs as agencies face the reality that their residents are moved frequently, either back to their families or onto other facilities.
The first summer’s interviews took place immediately prior to program implementation. Ten youths were individually interviewed each summer for approximately 1 hour, giving a total of 20 interviews of 17 total youths, covering approximately 20 hours, over the course of two summers.
Year 1 Interviews
Initial interviews provided an ethnographic baseline. Interviews focused on the following four general questions:
- How did you get here today? (This encompassed life details that led the youth to be placed in care and at Hibiscus, specifically.)
- What have your experiences in school been like?
- What have any previous work experiences been like?
- What are your plans for when you turn eighteen?
The interviewer asked follow-up questions as necessary. The goal of initial interviews was to capture the experiences of youth in the DCF system.
Year 2 Interviews
The second round of interviews explored the same above four domains, within the context of the CPI program. Interviews took place 9 months after the start of CPI Program implementation.
Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded under the framework of the “middle order” adaptation of grounded theory technique, recommended by Dey (1993) for policy-based, evaluation research. “Key issues” had been identified. Data was coded axially and revealed a series of overlapping common themes, which were quantified and stratified by abundance in each summer’s data set.
Year 1 Interviews Themes – Baseline Ethnography
First summer interviews results highlighted the interwoven themes of moving, “getting in trouble,” and poor school experiences.
Moving and “Getting in Trouble”
Many youths in the sample moved so many times they could not confidently describe where they had lived and when. They tended to associate moving with “getting in trouble” and being rejected:
“They had to send me to a, a-they had to send me somewhere just for the night, till court like ended in the daytime, and I don’t remember what the name of the place was. It was somewhere in Fort Lauderdale, and I was only there for a day, and then I got reunited with my mom. And then I got put back into foster care, and I went-that’s when I went to ‘Place of Hope.’ And then I got kicked out of there, and now, Hibiscus.”
“I used to live in Port Salerno too, for a minute. And I used to live in Golden Gate.”
“They moved us out of that place in Port St. Lucie. That’s where we were: Port St. Lucie. Then we all ran away. And then they split us up after that.”
Another theme of self-loathing regarding negative behavior was apparent:
“Being stupid, ignorant, and getting myself kicked out of being with my Dad.”
Other youth expressed indignation:
“When I’m mad, I don’t think. I do.”
Poor School Experiences
School histories stories were marred by grade retention, frustration, confusion, and disempowerment. This problem was, in large part, attributed to the disruptive process of constantly moving, waiting to be re-enrolled in school, negative behavior, and failure to catch up:
“Ninth grade year, I wasn’t, like, as encouraged to do what I had to do because that was right after I got moved up here, and I really didn’t want to listen to anyone. I wouldn’t go to school. I would just do what I wanted to do.”
“Because I’m having a pretty hard time in high school right now. I just, I’m better at hand-on things. I’m supposed to be going into eleventh [grade], but I found out earlier this year that I was a ‘99er’ or whatever, which means I was in ninth grade for the second year. But I think I failed again this year, so I guess I’ll be in ninth grade or something again. I’m supposed to be in eleventh.”
Another theme showed that even youth who were able to successfully navigate school were far from flourishing:
“I go there, I get the grades I’m supposed to get, and I go home.”
In addition to logistical and motivational issues, many youth also felt the stigma and marginalization that accompanied being “outed” at school as living in a group home:
“I don’t want people to have sympathy for me just because I was in a foster home, but I just-you know, I just wanna be normal.”
Year 2 Interviews
Second summer interviews were different. They were filled with references to internships and work experiences, as well as skills learned through CPI’s activities. Seminars, “Career Club,” focus groups, and informal and formal meetings with the Program Coordinator, Lisa Deleon, were discussed.
Internship and Part Time Job Experiences
When asked broadly about CPI program highlights, youth tended to focus on the internship and job placements. Many youths considered work internships to be essentially synonymous with the program and expressed extreme appreciation to be offered the option to work and be paid:
“Well, I would be in a deep, deep hole if, if this program didn’t exist. I can tell you that.”
“I mean, I’ve been in five different group homes, like I said, and none of them offered me jobs. None of them gave me the opportunities to make money and save money, and, you know, prepare so, like, quickly and stuff for the future.”
“Yeah, that was my first job ever.”
On-the-job development of social competencies was another theme of second summer interviews:
“I’ve never had a actual job before. So, you know, I kinda learned the job setting. You know, the work setting. I’ve learned a lot, actually. How to, you know, you can get on people’s good side, and get what you want from being on their good side.”
“Just basically to see if-like how, how to-like, if I had got a real job, how to like work with other people and stuff, and just the basic stuff about working there. Not always, not yelling at them. Not causing any trouble. Always being nice, and coming to work early, and just be friendly with people.”
“They’re all really nice. You know, when I need to do something or something was done wrong, it’s not like they bash me over the head, you know. Just kindly tell me to do it how they want it done, and, you know, if there’s a lot of stuff going on, nobody’s really like uptight and stressed. It’s just, you know, really calm. You know? Things go really smoothly in the office, so it’s good.”
Not all youth had smooth experiences in their internship and work placements, but they expressed the CPI Program gave them space to process those experiences and learn from them:
“They had me stocking shelves. It was all right, until my boss kept bossing me around real bad. Like, I know he’s supposed to boss me around cuz he’s my boss, but the way he was bossing me around was just like he’s trying to work me like a slave.”
“In the real world, if you stop a job, even if you stop a job because you don’t like it, you don’t have money. You don’t pay your rent, you don’t pay your bills, and you don’t get food. You’re homeless. You don’t have food? Basically, dead.”
“I regret leaving that job. That’s the best job I had.”
Self-Sufficiency Skills and Education
Many youth expressed excitement at the opportunity to learn new skills in CPI’s seminars and career counseling sessions. They knew they would soon have opportunities to apply these skills through real world activities, such as job interviewing and opening bank accounts:
“You gotta learn how to shake their hand. Basically, it’s just talk and have eye contact with people when they’re talking, when you’re having an interview.”
“I won’t buy stuff that I want, but stuff that I need. Cuz, in the long run, all that money they be spending on stuff, I’m gonna regret it. So, I like to budget, cuz I don’t wanna be broke.”
“Like, you need to know how to spend it, and how to save. Like, for example, if she gave you like fifty dollars for the week that you work, you either gonna put like half of it in a bank account or just-and spend half-and don’t spend it all at once, cuz you gonna need it for the whole week, until you get paid.”
The topic of college and continuing education was discussed in second interviews in much greater number by youth who participated in CPI. The interview themes regarding education show a general “change in the conversation” between the first summer’s interviews and the second. CPI’s second round of interviews showed that college and continuing education was seen by youths to be the primary route to financial stability.
“I should be going to either FAMU or FAU because today, I take my GED math at
6:15. I’m gonna ace it! And then, in June, they will be signing me up for college, to be a registered nurse.”
The underlying emotional tensions and fears of this population are summed up by the following quote from the first summer of interviews:
“I’m gonna try to be good this year, but I doubt it’s gonna happen. When I try to be good, I can’t be good. There’s always something that turns me back.”
This type of negative “self talk” was numerous in first interviews and demonstrated a lack of resilience. Lack of resiliency has been associated with depleted social bonds in youth development. Daining and DePanfilis (2007) found social supports increase youth resilience and can protect against stress. Osterling and Hines (2006) highlighted the role of mentors in fostering youth resilience during developmental transitions. Positive
Youth Development (PYD) is a program model that’s primary focus is to support and grow resiliency. Programs that utilize PYD models show evidence of youth improvement in the areas of: interpersonal skills; quality of peer and adult relationships; self-control; problem solving; cognitive competencies; self efficacy’; commitment to schooling; academic achievement (Catalano et al., 2002). CPI’s structure and framework heavily utilize PYD’s fundamental principles. The first two constructs of PYD are “promote bonding,” and “foster resilience.” Career Pathways to Independence bolsters resilience by directly implementing and promoting positive professional, peer, community, and educational contact and social bonding.
The most common themes found during the second summer of interviews suggest forms of program assistance related to education, professional bonding, traditional learning, and real world experiential learning. Traditional learning occurred in CPI program seminars, “Career Club” meetings, and discussions with the Program Coordinator. Experiential learning happened not only during internships and job placements, but also in activities when earning and saving money (most often for the first time in the subjects’ life.) Some CPI experiences could be considered a blend of both aspects, such as: mock interviews, problem solving peer focus groups, observing continuing education sites, mentor visits, and discussions with the Program Coordinator.
Resilience through Personal Financial Instruction and Self-Empowerment
Financial literacy was the primary benefit of CPI’s traditional learning, as seen through participants’ eyes. A recent case study of five federally-funded aftercare programs, targeting transition age youth, stated that money management and employment training were the most youth-requested learning services (Mares & Jordan, 2012). McCormack (2009) reviewed multiple youth personal financial education programs. The study concluded that increased importance must be placed on personal finance literacy and employment training, especially in light of the current financial and economic crisis. The second interviews’ participants concurred with the above research, citing money management and employment experience as their prime concerns, which became their main benefits for participating in CPI.
On a related note, Kirk and Day (2011) argue that recent shifts in the US economy have increased the necessity of a college education/continuing education or training for achieving financial stability and adult independence. This fact creates greater urgency for also establishing continuing education preparation for foster youth programs. The same study reported that, on average, youth change residential placements up to three times per year, each move accompanied by a change in schools. These youth lose, on average, 4 to 6 months of school progress with each transition. These findings link Hibiscus’ youth experiences regarding their frustrating and imperfect school placement logistics, absenteeism, academic floundering, lack of post-secondary education encouragement, educational confusion, and financial struggles. Yet in second interviews, participants professed their belief that continuing education was the route to adult independence and financial stability. This suggests a direct relationship between traditional learning and resilience, primarily in the form of an increased capacity for hope with the promise of a future containing financial stability.
Resilience Developed through Hope and Social Bonding in Real World
Hibiscus’ youth, in second interviews, discussed job interviewing, both mock and real. The youths’ responses regarding their work experiences featured meeting and socializing with co-workers, supervisors, and customers. Hibiscus’ youth spoke about communicating when work-scheduling conflicts arose and negotiating money-related work issues, such as bargaining for increased hours or switching from the internship pay system (provided by Indian River Impact 100 Grant funding) to a traditional pay arrangement through the employer. These type of discussions found in second interviews correspond to recent research and literature that show a direct relationship between social supports and developing resilience. There are multiple current studies that focus on the role of social bonding in improving specific outcome variables. Vorhies et al. (2012) applied social and cultural capital frameworks to youth employment perspectives, concluding that real world work experiences as a teenager are primary forces in the lives of successfully employed transition age youth with mental health conditions. Osgood, Foster, and Courtney (2010) note the importance of social inclusion in the transition to adulthood, defining it as “participating in the full range of community affairs.” Cusik, Havlicek, and Courtney (2012) find that, despite arrest rates for former foster children far exceeding “typical’ peers by 37% in boys and 31% in girls, social bonds with adults reduced these differences substantially. In their study, educational, community, and professional bonds were found to have particularly strong protective effects against arrests, court involvement, and incarceration. Matsuba et al. (2008) focused on social skills training and discovered lack of empathy in at-risk youth to be a major barrier to job attainment. The above authors conclude that career development programs need to be structured to address underlying emotional issues and include community bonding and social inclusion experiences.
Developing Hope and the Promise of a Future
The literature outlined above shows the impact of social bonding on the development of resilience, but it does not suggest how this happens. This study indicates that this process may be mediated by increases in the construction of hope. Snyder, Irving, and Anderson (1991) define hope as “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of being successful in: 1) goal-directed energy and 2) planning to meet goals. CPI’s design, development of curriculum and activities concentrated on these two points.
During second summer interviews, Hibiscus’ youth discussed specific steps they can take in order to achieve their goals, as opposed to focusing primarily on “not getting in trouble” and negative “self talk” seen in the first interviews. Second interview participants’ conversation topics expressed were: the use of current work experience in future job interviews; techniques for saving money; specific tasks involved in renting an apartment; how to communicate proactively at work; strategies surrounding selection and completion of college or continued training. Taken in sum, the results of this study indicate greater hope and resilience.
There are dramatic shifts in attitude from hopelessness to community involvement and promise of a future when comparing second summer interviews to first summer interviews. Youth resilience associated with CPI program participation was demonstrated by a discourse shift, from the first to the second summer interviews. A shift to hope, concrete planning for goals, positive experiences, and reflection about mishaps were expressed in second interviews away from the focus of negative events, particularly moving and “getting in trouble,” that occurred in the first interviews. The increase in youth hope associated with CPI program participation is demonstrated by the youths’ articulation of specific and realistic pathways they could take in order to reach future goals.
Reframing organizational behavior literature in the context of developing a healthy and competent workforce for at-risk youth is an efficient application of cross-disciplinary resources. In fact, organizational theorists give credit to youth development researchers for fleshing out the concept of resilience. Resilience training is now utilized in business. For example, there is substantial research showing the ability of training interventions to raise individual hope levels (see Snyder et al., 2002, for a detailed review). Youseff and Luthans (2007) reviewed a number of workplace training programs and conceptualized hope as the variable with the most essential impact in positive outcomes at work. This included the finding that increased hope predicts increased resilience. The above authors define hope as: “the ability to generate realistic pathways emphasizing approaching desirable results rather than avoiding undesirable ones.” This definition shows that hope has a protective, buffering aspect, which may overlap considerably with developing resilience.
The present study is in keeping with data generated in the March 2012 CPI Preliminary Report written by Trudy Sack, Ph.D. This report indicated successful CPI progress towards specific independent living objectives and goals; positive development of work behaviors; ability to set personalized goals; ability to articulate and discuss work field interests; ability to contact supportive adults for guidance; and positive changes in attitudes about continuing education options. It must be noted that neither this study nor the March 2012 Report included a large enough sampling of youth to generate quantifiable statistics. They also contained subjects that transition frequently, more closely approximating a panel study than a cohort approach to longitudinal research. Regardless of these practical limitations, these reports should be examined for policy and research implications.
Reformers of federal and state law and policy are rethinking how foster children are prepared for emancipation at age 18 because present statistics show little hope for a productive adult future. It is useful to draw comparisons between foster youth and other demographics of at-risk youth. For example, under current programs, young parents each receive approximately $544 of federal money each year, while foster youth receive less than $1.50 (Mares & Jordan, 2012). It is the time for policy makers to provide resources and to step up to the challenge of assisting these youth in making a successful transition to adulthood, not just providing a safe haven until age 18. In addition to the benefits brought to the youths, themselves, our society at large will save enormous tax money from not having to support mistaken grade retention, unemployment, incarceration, court involvement, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, and generational cycles of abuse and neglect. The cost of supporting innovative adult transition programs would come back to the government and society in spades. Career Pathways to Independence stands out from the crowd as a model program that achieves its goals and objectives, changes youth attitudes, and gives youth hope in a remarkably short period of time, and it can be reproduced elsewhere.
CPI Seen as a Hopeful Response to Threat
On a mission to explain individual roles in relational processes, researchers have set out to explore the dynamics of family resilience (Walsh, 2006). In addition, organizational scholars, such as Sutcliffe and Vogus (2007), are developing a theory of organizational resilience in order to improve management reaction to increasingly complex, volatile, and unexpected challenges. Their organizational resilience theory centers on hopeful responses to threat, demonstrated by opportunistic and creative deployment of resources. Career Pathways to Independence represents Hibiscus Children’s Center’s hopeful reaction to the threat of diminishing youth job prospects and dire economic predictions in Florida’s current economy.
Not only does CPI appear to have given hope to the youth who live at Hibiscus Children’s Village, but it has also positively affected Hibiscus’ employee attitudes. Hibiscus Mental Health Technicians and administrators are more confident about their clients’ future success. A decrease in reported youth behavioral incidents coupled with the zero statistic for “run aways” for youth participating in CPI have brought about renewed enthusiasm. Staff are feeling that they can make a meaningful and lasting impact on their clients’ lives. The synergistic effect of hopeful and resilient youth working with hopeful and resilient staff has the potential to create positive changes yearned for by both youth and youth workers. In interviews from the 2012 March Report, Hibiscus staff and administrators unanimously indicated that they would no longer work at Hibiscus if CPI were removed.
It is hard to imagine that something or someone can give resilience to someone else. However, many activities, stories, models, cultural heroes, and caring people are said to “give” hope to others. This suggests that hope may be a transferable state of being. Youseff and Luthans’ (2007) findings show that performance improvement was more closely associated with increased hope than it was with increased resilience. This can imply there may be more ease to hope transferability and application than resilience development. With this in mind, future research programs for at-risk youth may want to think about shifting focus away from developing resilience into deriving resilience through giving hope. Resilience is the goal. Can hope be the pathway?
Future research may also want to continue to parse the relationship among social bonding, hope, and resilience. Social bonding through work internships, mentor relations, seminars, focus groups, and counseling, highlighting real world experiences and activities, help to explain how CPI effectively changed the conversation. CPI changed foster youth attitudes and increased positive outcomes for at-risk youth in a short period of time with subjects that were moved frequently and needed to transition often.
Future work is also needed in evaluating what instructional models would be most beneficial to prepare at-risk youth for self-sufficient adulthood, including the examination of alternative learning programs. At the very least, a high school diploma or GED is an essential visa to a productive, self-sufficient future in today’s complex and changing world. Former foster youth state that their deepest regret is not obtaining a diploma or GED. Given the economy and global competition, they are finding that they are left far behind and cannot take advantage of opportunities offered like state tuition reimbursement, housing, employment or continuing education and job training programs. This fact costs them and society money, time, effort, and harm. Youths in this study had positive things to say about GED training, Florida’s “virtual school,” and “hands on” vocational programs. It is imperative to find avenues and supports that leverage at-risk youth’s relationship, performance, and attitude towards traditional education and/or alternative forms of schooling, in order to develop hope, resilience, and a promising future.