Friday, March 22, 2013

"My Life": Smoothing the Foster Care Transition

If you picked up a copy of The Oregonian on March 18th, you may have seen an articleregarding Matt Shea, a recent college graduate with Sotos syndrome who grew up in foster care. When he was a senior in high school, Shea participated in the “My Life” program at Portland StateUniversity. My Life is an investigative project conducted by a team of PSU faculty members (including MHKC's Ann Fullerton!) that studies the transition of youths with and without disabilities as they leave the foster care system.

With the help from an almost six-million dollar award from the Eunice Kennedy-Schriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the Institute of Education Science (IES), two related studies will be conducted over a five year period and will involve around 350 people, aged 16-18 years, who receive foster care services through Child Welfare Offices in Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington, and Marion Counties. The investigation involves randomly assigning youths to either an intervention group or a control group. In the intervention group, participants will receive individual coaching and mentoring for a year in addition to lessons in applying problem-solving skills, accomplishment tracking, and connecting and building beneficial relationships with other adults. The idea is to help young people better achieve their goals as they transition out of foster care.

Matt Shea, 23, proudly displays his diploma from OWU.

Project manager and former special education teacher, Lisa McMahon, hopes that her involvement with My Life will allow her to see a difference being made beyond the youths she meets personally. "As a high school teacher," she says, "I was able to impact each student in my class. As a researcher of intervention, I hope to see the day our intervention is used throughout the state." McMahon also expresses that her interest lies in people, especially teens, and their abilities to decide what they want and then work toward achieving those goals with whatever support they deem necessary.

It sounds like an interesting study with some real potential benefits. Teenagers who grow up in foster care tend to face a multitude of challenges as they move into young adulthood, like finding jobs and getting into colleges. Sometimes they even have to cope with homelessness, mental health issues, or single parenthood. The odds of dealing with these troubles increases among teens with disabilities. If the results of these studies are positive—which, according to the pilot study that was conducted, they should be—the transition out of foster care services can be much more successful for many young adults like Matt Shea, who is now back in Portland after graduating from Oklahoma Wesleyan University, a goal he made and achieved with the help of his My Life coach, Alison Turner. Pretty fantastic, isn't it?

Are any of you interested in working with young people, either with or without disabilities? Being a counselor at Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp seems like the perfect way to gain experience for so many types of careers, especially in social work, counseling, and teaching fields. Lisa McMahon's advice? "Try it out! Find as many experiences as you can to spend a day in these worlds so you can truly feel what it's like. With the side note of being really strong in your self care. Some days are really hard emotionally and you need to be able to get refilled so you can come to work tomorrow with a smile."

In a project like this, would you be more interested on conducting the research or going in as a counselor, working with people like Matt to help them reach their goals?

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