Q&A: What Can Be Done to Teach Healthy Relationship Skills to Foster Youth?


Photograph of two young people holding hands.A number of studies have shown the challenges that youth in foster care have in establishing healthy romantic relationships. Experiencing abuse and neglect can hinder their ability to connect with others. Youth in foster care also lack role models to give them a picture of what healthy interactions look like.

It stands to reason, then, that youth in foster care might benefit from formal relationship education, like that provided through the Family and Youth Services Bureau's Personal Responsibility Education Program. But when Senior Researcher Mindy Scott and her colleagues at Child Trends, a nonprofit research center in Washington, reviewed the research on programs that teach foster youth about healthy dating and romance, they found few that rigorously measured relationship education outcomes.

Child Trends’ findings are detailed in “Putting Youth Relationship Education on the Child Welfare Agenda: Findings from a Research and Evaluation Review.” Scott talked to NCFY about what can be done to put relationship education in place for youth in the child welfare system.

NCFY: You told me about the importance of making healthy relationships an outcome in studies. What other things would you like to see happen?

Scott: We have a couple of recommendations in the report. Just first recognizing positive relationships and positive romantic relationships as an important factor for vulnerable youth, just seeing that it’s important to try to focus on improving relationships among youth in foster care and that it can have important impacts for other areas of life. And then putting more emphasis on evaluating relationship education programs, but making sure that those programs specifically address the needs of youth in foster care, I think is really important.

And just thinking about how to design programs effectively for youth in foster care. That came up a lot in our discussions with youth. We heard and learned a lot about the structure of the services and the programs that they’re already receiving and that there’s not a lot of room to add on another class or another program. So we talked a lot about how to integrate relationship education into existing services for youth in foster care.

NCFY: So it would be part of teen pregnancy prevention and part of life skills training and—

Scott: Yeah, exactly. All of these services and programs that are already in place—kind of adding in elements.

Another thing that came up is thinking about teaching relationship skills to not just the youth but to case managers, for example, so that they can more effectively communicate to the youth what healthy relationships should look like and how to build those skills. So having youth workers have more training on healthy relationships. And then thinking about biological and foster parents having more training on healthy relationships. Just so there’s kind of a comprehensive approach to helping youth learn about and see the importance of healthy relationships and how to have healthier and more positive relationships.

NCFY: So that they have those role models they haven’t had.

Scott: Exactly.

Read the paper (PDF, 810KB).

National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth | 5515 Security Lane, Suite 800 | North Bethesda, MD 20852 | (301) 608-8098 | ncfy@acf.hhs.gov