Academic success is a salient domain of youth development and is related to positive lifelong outcomes among youth in foster care. However, youth in foster care experience compounding adversities, including maltreatment and foster care placement itself, which put them at risk of academic disengagement and underachievement. Despite these adversities, academic resilience can be nurtured to set youth on a more positive life trajectory. In particular, the relationships youth have with service providers, including caseworkers, have a prominent role for resilience processes of youth in foster care yet remain understudied. Caseworkers can act as a source of emotional support and as “institutional agents” who provide access to resources within the child welfare system and who can communicate the complexities of the system to youth and families to facilitate decision making.
The current studies used a resilience framework to examine secondary data from two of the largest randomized control trials to date involving youth in foster care. These studies sampled youth across three developmental periods (i.e. preadolescence, adolescence, and the transition to adulthood). Both took place in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area and explored academic outcomes and used similar measures. The current studies aimed to describe several characteristics of youth-caseworker relationships as perceived by youth (knowledge of caseworker, contact, relationship quality, emotional support, instrumental support, & stability) across preadolescence, adolescence, and the transition to adulthood. A second aim was to examine the association of youth-caseworker relationships with positive academic outcomes (i.e. school engagement & high school completion). Finally, the studies examined the differential impact of youth-caseworker relationships on youth academic outcomes by level of youth risk (i.e. high posttraumatic symptoms & special education).
Both study 1 and study 2 indicated relatively high youth-caseworker relationship quality averages with substantial variation and developmental differences in the role of caseworkers. Additionally, current findings suggest that positive youth-caseworker relationships can bolster school engagement and the probability of high school completion with a regular diploma vs alternative (i.e. modified diploma or GED). Finally, the studies provide support for differential impact theory whereby the influence of youth-caseworker relationships on youth academic outcomes depends on the level and type of youth risk. Findings indicate that academic resilience is a complex process involving the interaction of personal and environmental risks and resources with implications for child welfare and education practice and policy.