Extending Mentoring Services to Reach Juvenile Justice and Foster Care Youth

July 25, 2007

Most of us can remember that one adult – a teacher, parent, or neighbor – who made our transition from adolescence into adulthood a little easier. But for young people in the juvenile justice or foster care system, finding adults who can provide ongoing support and understand the unique challenges these youth face can be a difficult and sometimes impossible task. And while numerous agencies help connect young people to mentors, very few are equipped to assist these at-risk youth, leaving many without the guidance they so desperately need.

Research on Mentoring

Youth involved in strong mentoring relationships have better behavior and a better outlook on their future*
Mentoring is a successful strategy for helping foster care youth address some of the interpersonal problems that may be associated with foster placement**
Mentoring is an effective way to help juvenile justice youth avoid drugs and alcohol, fights, gangs, and knives/guns***
*Source: The Practice, Quality and Cost of Mentoring by Jean B. Grossman in Contemporary Issues in Mentoring, June 1999
**Source: MENTOR
***Source: OJJDP
HHD recently began the first federally-funded training and technical assistance program in the country to assist mentoring organizations reach these youth. Conducted in partnership with Aftercare for Indiana through Mentoring (AIM), HHD’s Technical Assistance and Training Program for Mentoring System Involved Youth (TTA Program) supports four demonstration sites working to enhance their mentoring programs by addressing the needs of these high-risk youth. The project is funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

“Our Center holds a unique position in the field in that we help agencies – who work directly with youth – identify successful mentoring programs and determine how to expand those programs to reach court-involved youth,” says Marisa Jones, director of the HHD project. “Our goal is to help each site apply strategies – that we already know are effective – to help release the inner potential of these youth and assist them to overcome the barriers they face in growing-up healthy.”

Through extensive training and technical assistance and by developing products and services for national use, the TTA Program provides each site with up-to-date research and innovative practices specifically-geared towards the experiences and needs of system-involved youth. The project fills a unique niche in the field given the overwhelming lack of resources for mentoring this population.

Daniel Muhammad, Program Director of the Aftercare Academy, a new project developed by the Mentoring Center in Oakland, California, said the TTA Program helped his organization refine an existing curriculum to fill this critical gap in the field of mentoring.

“HHD staff helped us identify tools and approaches to strengthen our existing curriculum so that one day our work can serve as a model for other mentoring programs across the nation,” Muhammad said. “Their collective experience and insights on the uniquenesses of this population have been pivotal in leading us to identify funding, implement strategies to develop our program, and allow us to learn from others agencies that excel at what they do.”

Current estimates suggest that more than 500,000 youth in the United States are in the foster care system and another 600,000 are within the juvenile justice system. A disproportionate number of these youth are African American and Hispanic, and come from high-risk environments that include high rates of poverty, crime, alcohol, and illicit drug use and trafficking, abuse and/or neglect, familial mental illness, and gang activity.

“We’re also seeing an increase in the number of girls involved in the juvenile justice system, which is something we and other juvenile justice experts have never seen before,” says Jones. “Our TTA Program is trying to help each organization look at this and move toward providing gender-based mentoring to respond to this emerging need.”

The TTA Center is an extension of other HHD efforts to minimize challenges for youth at risk by strengthening the capacity of schools and communities. As part of the Safe Schools/Healthy Student’s Initiative, HHD’s National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention provides training and technical assistance to 85 coalitions of education, mental health, and law enforcement personnel who are working to promote mental health and reduce youth violence in their community.