A mentoring relationship with a well-prepared, nurturing adult can change the trajectory of young people in care by offering a positive role model, facilitating access to community services and supports, and providing a buffer from the stress and disruption of the in-care experience. Structured mentoring programs and well- trained mentors can help young people in care develop the skills they need to overcome challenges and reach their goals.
Mentoring programs for youth in care should incorporate a focus on positive development, youth-driven activities, and the development of core competencies and skills (e.g., decision-making and problem-solving skills, how to access community resources). Programs should include structured activities that address young people’s needs and developmental stage. For example, younger children may benefit most from educational support and an opportunity to develop healthy relationships with their mentor. Middle adolescents need opportunities to interact positively with peers in a structured group setting. Mentoring of older youth typically focuses on developing life skills, such as job training, managing finances, and securing a living arrangement.
In response to the Youth Leaving Care Working Group’s plan for fundamental change to the child welfare system, new resources and supports for youth have been put in place to help improve outcomes for youth who are involved with, or have had previous involvement with the child welfare system in Ontario. Supporting CASs and child welfare sector partners in developing or assessing quality mentoring program for these youth will effectively build on these steps, increasing the odds these youth maintain strong relationships, stay in school, pursue post-secondary education, and are better prepared for leaving care.
Although successful strategies for addressing the issues discussed above are scarce, many of the root causes – lack of guidance, a sense of hopelessness and despair, low self-confidence, poor attitude for school, non-existent coping skills can be addressed through intentionally designed, high quality mentoring. Mentoring has been proven to influence a number of relevant protective factors, including strong social supports, problem solving skills and community engagement. Additionally, well-trained mentors can act as a shepherd, connecting youth with other positive relationships, while walking a fine balance between expanding the youth’s horizons and strengthening relationships within the youth’s own community. In fulfilling these varied roles, mentors augment their mentee’s social capacity.
Mentoring programs are not the panacea for all the challenges these young people will face, nor is mentoring a one-size fits all proposition. Every young person who would benefit from a mentoring relationship has individual needs. Effective mentoring programs offer enough flexibility to help meet each mentee’s personal needs, yet allow mentoring relationships to flourish within a safe structure. Research supports the fact that mentoring relationships can provide a buffer for youth against serious struggles and build their resilience and capacity to manage difficulties. Tailoring the training and support that is available to matches based on the specific risks youth face has the potential to produce even stronger benefitsvii