Focusing on Outcomes for Youth: Permanent Connections

photo of a paper doll chain

Based on years of work with runaway and homeless youth and the best emerging evidence about what youth need to succeed, the Family and Youth Services Bureau believes the most crucial outcomes for runaway and homeless youth include well-being, permanent connections, safety and self-sufficiency

In this issue of The Exchange, we focus on ways to achieve and improve permanent connections for runaway and homeless youth. We talk to one organization that has made permanent connections a fundamental goal in all aspects of its services. We also hear about the benefits and challenges of housing young homeless couples together. And we look at how gender-specific programming can help boys and girls express themselves, build camaraderie, and learn to develop healthy, lasting relationships.

FYSB defines permanent connections as: Youth have a stable living situation that they do not fear losing or having to leave. They have solid, healthy relationships and connections with family (whether biological or not), friends, mentors and other significant people to whom they can turn in good times and bad.

Read our previous issue on well-being. In upcoming issues, we’ll focus on ways to ensure safety and help develop self-sufficiency.

A Youth-serving Agency Makes Permanent Connections Its Central Goal

Young man with adult mentorWhen Boys & Girls Aid, a 126-year-old youth-serving agency in Portland, OR, put a new strategic plan in place last year, staff and board members took a hard look at how well the organization was fulfilling its core purpose of improving the lives of children in need.

Throughout the discussions, they struggled with a question, says Vera Stoulil, director of operations: “How do we help youth who can’t go back to their families live independently?”

They discussed creating more supportive services for youth who’d left their programs, more follow up and aftercare. But the more they tried to answer the question, the more they realized they were missing the point.

“We realized that if youth were leaving our program and needing us to fall back on, then we’d missed something,” Stoulil says. “We need to prepare youth to live independently, but we also need to prepare them to live interdependently. Young people need families and connections in their lives.”

Stoulil says coming to that conclusion made sense for an organization that in addition to working with runaway and homeless youth also serves foster youth and provides adoption services—two areas in which practitioners have long thought of a permanent family or home as the ultimate, if not always attainable, goal for young people.

Today, Boys & Girls Aid aims to establish permanent connections for every child and youth that walks in its doors. In other words, the old question has been replaced with a new one, Stoulil says: “No matter what service we’re providing, how does the concept of permanency fit into that service?”

Disrupted Attachments

It may seem obvious that young people need enduring personal connections if they are going to thrive and become successful adults. But applying the principle of permanency to runaway and homeless youth—particularly those who are 18 or older—requires a shift in thinking about what the term looks like in practice, Stoulil and others at the organization say.

Many youth who enter Boys & Girls Aid’s emergency shelter and transitional living program come from families in which unhealthy relationships are the norm, says Andrea Logan Sanders, who oversees the organization’s shelter and housing programs.

“They’ve had disrupted attachments, parents coming and going, substance abuse, mental illness, instability, unpredictability,” she says.

Spectrum of Permanency

All of that means that many youth are starting at square one when it comes to having healthy connections. So, when a young person enters the transitional living program at Boys & Girls Aid, staff members assess where they are on the “spectrum of permanency,” asking questions about the number of family and friends they regularly interact with, the depth of the connections, the quality of the connections and the young person’s desire to have permanent relationships.

Based on the results of the assessment, staff members identify the youth’s biggest needs when it comes to having strong, permanent relationships and create a plan to address these needs throughout the youth’s time in the program. For some youth, that may lead to returning to live with their families, but many others are better served by simply repairing relationships and staying connected.

“We’re acknowledging that their families may not be the best resource for them, but they can still have a healthy relationship with them,” Logan Sanders says. “Sometimes it’s easier to communicate or learn how to communicate without the pressures of living together.”

The overarching goal for each young person in the runaway and homeless youth programs is to have at least one caring adult they can call if they need help or want to share good news, and for them to also have the lifelong ability to make, and keep, new friends.

Preparing to Connect

Crystal Wilkes, a mental health therapist at Boys & Girls Aid, says the organization’s new focus on permanency gives staff a common language and focus. “Now that there’s a word and a philosophy placed on it, it can inform the therapy,” she says.

Staff of the transitional living program stress the elements of healthy relationships in life skills sessions and their one-on-one interactions with youth. That emphasis, Logan Sanders says, helps the organization move young people closer to meeting the other goals of the transitional living program, like education, employment training and skills building.

“None of those things really stick unless they have a strong sense of self and that doesn’t happen unless they have a strong base of friends,” she says.

Staff at Boys & Girls Aid say that watching youth learn how to make friends, meet people with similar interests, resolve conflicts, and generally improve their relationship skills has solidified the organization’s commitment to permanent connections.

“I haven’t met one client who doesn’t want to have strong connections with other people,” Wilkes says.  

Housing Young Families Together to Promote Permanent Connections

Ten years ago, when homeless teen couples arrived at the doors of Our Family Services, babies in arms and in search of housing, staff of the Tucson, AZ, human services agency were forced to keep them apart. The organization had a policy of housing girls and boys separately.

Many couples refused to split up. Some stayed together on the street or couch surfed. A few had partners sneak in past curfew.

Not comfortable with any of these scenarios, Our Family Services established a program where young parents could live together with their children. The program offers intensive case management, counseling, and life skills and parenting education for up to eight families: 16 young adult clients, ages 18 to 21, and their children.

Photograph of young parents holding a baby.Our Family Services is one of a few programs for runaway and homeless youth that allow young couples, with or without children, to live together. The policy runs counter to standard practice at most organizations, which typically house young people according to gender and have rules against partners living together. Proponents of the live-together approach say the benefits of such arrangements, including increased commitment to the program, a built-in support system, and a greater likelihood that couples will stay together after they leave, outweigh the challenges and dramas that can go along with young adult relationships.

“It’s not right for all couples,” says Ricardo Fernandez, who runs the Teens in Transition program at Our Family Services, “but for some committed young people, we can help promote a permanent connection.”

In It for the Long Haul

At Community Action Partnership in Western Nebraska, couples need not have a child together to live together and be considered a family, says Vicky Lawton, director of youth programs. “So many of our youth come in saying, ‘I have no one,’” she says. “We think the best way to help youth develop a support system is to build on an existing relationship and help it succeed.”

That success depends on staff nurturing the relationship and paying careful attention to make sure the young people’s bond is healthy and strong. And to do that, adult staff members might have to ditch some preconceived notions about young adult relationships, chief among them the idea that young love is not serious and is unlikely to last.

In fact, youth in committed relationships tend to be more mature and grounded than most youth who aren’t in a long-term relationship, Fernandez says. He sees young couples provide each other social and emotional support and pool their resources for daily living.

And allowing youth to live together may make their relationships more long lasting: Both Fernandez and Lawton say that couples who live together tend to stay together. Fernandez says that 80 percent of couples housed together at Our Family Services stay together for at least six months after exiting the program. (That’s when staff typically follow up with them.) Lawton sees similar patterns at her program. “They may have rough, rocky times, but most of the time, they end up staying together,” she says.

Still, young adult relationships can involve a lot of drama, Lawton says. And while most difficulties can be addressed with counseling and mediation, Lawton concedes that working with couples takes more planning, involves more work, and requires more training. In Lawton’s and Fernandez’s programs, counselors, or coaches, help couples work together as a team and improve their relationships. Lawton advises finding a counselor with expertise in family therapy who can help young people work on individual issues as well as issues related to family dynamics.

Finding Strength in the Relationship

To those who worry that cohabitating young couples might encourage reckless behavior in each other, like using drugs or having unprotected sex, Fernandez points out that peer pressure can be a powerful, constructive influence. He often sees partners support positive behavior and motivate each other to work on goals, like the time a young woman helped her boyfriend quit using drugs.

There have been times when one partner is doing something illegal or unsafe, but “on the whole,” Fernandez says, “it’s just easier for them to have someone they can rely on, and the strengths of the relationship outweigh the challenges.”

And while some research has found that parenting youth who live together are more likely to have additional children, Fernandez says that at Our Family Services rates of second pregnancy among young women who live with their partners are not significantly different from youth housed singly.

Managing Breakups

As hard as staff work to support young people, sometimes a breakup is unavoidable. But if a relationship does go south, Lawton says that helping to manage the breakup is just as important as helping young people stay together.

Both programs maintain individual files for each young person, so they can continue to provide separate housing and support to each partner. “Even in the worst case scenario,” Lawton says, “where abuse is involved, you can’t simply say, ‘Oh, I’m glad that person is gone.’ We don’t ever just drop anyone from receiving care and services.”

Making Connections

Two teens standing together.The majority of young people who seek help at homeless youth shelters come alone, and most have trouble identifying even one person they could turn to in good times and bad.

Ricardo Fernandez from Our Family Services in Arizona and Vicky Lawton from Community Action Partnership of Western Nebraska describe how to help all youth foster permanent connections:

Lawton says: “We do an eco-map with every young person, and we literally diagram a support network. We help identify who are the “forever people” in the young person’s life—family and friends who will be there no matter what. Then, who are others in the community they can turn to in case of an emergency. We don’t just put it on paper. We help the young person reach out to those people and build relationships.”

Fernandez says: “If a young person really can’t identify one person to be that permanent connection, we ask, ‘Who would you like it to be?’ and we go from there. We teach them about healthy relationships and through counseling address any particular issues that have caused problems in past relationships. Sometimes kids don’t want anything to do with their families, so we help them cultivate other sources of support.”

Improving Selves, Improving Relationships Through Gender-Specific Programming

“David” was a gang member, quiet and surly, when he arrived last year to his first group meeting with The Council for Boys and Young Men in Cotati, CA. But Juan Gomez, a trainer for the council, was used to boys who thought aggression was the best way to relate to their peers. Gomez took David aside and tried to help him construct a new self-image: “I see leadership in you,” Gomez said.

A young woman and man stand together smiling.Before long, David was trying to live up to his new identity. He began taking notes, showing up early to meetings, and talking more. “His manners improved and he was more engaged,” Gomez says. Over time, David’s ability to engage with Gomez and the other young men in the group more positively seems to have helped him in the outside world. He enrolled in community college and got a part-time job.

At-risk young people often come from environments where there is no model for healthy, respectful interactions. As a result, these young people struggle to connect with the people they most need to help them make and maintain good choices. That’s where programs like the council, and its sister organization, Girls Circle, come in. These groups provide a safe and supportive space for young people to express their real feelings, get affirmation from their peers and begin to build more positive relationships.

Beth Hossfeld, who co-founded Girls Circle in Northern California in 1994 and the Council for Boys and Young Men in 2008, says her programs are based in relational-cultural theory, which claims that individual well-being is dependent on healthy relationships with larger groups. The theory has been used in therapies for all ages, but Hossfeld says there are specific benefits for young people.

Girls Circle is recognized as a “promising approach” by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention for its ability to improve girls’ self-efficacy, body image and social connection. Research has found that girls in the program are much more able to find things in common with others, tell adults what they need, and pick friends that treat them they way they want to be treated. The much newer Boys Council is currently being evaluated.

The curriculum has been used for youth in shelters, after-school clubs, and church and community groups. Hossfeld says, “We focus on strengths and the core skills you need in relationships—respect for yourself and for your partner.”

Fostering Self-esteem in Girls

In the Girls Circle and Council for Boys and Young Men model, six to 10 young people meet for 10 weekly 2-hour sessions. The adult facilitator doesn’t lecture or even lead the conversation. Instead, they introduce a theme at each meeting and a creative activity meant to elicit opinions and discussion from the youth.

According to Hossfeld, girls are typically more comfortable with self-expression, so Girls Circle allows them to role-play, write in their journals, and participate in other activities that foster a sense of self and help build trust among the participants.

Girls “want so much to stay connected to peers and their romantic partners that they will often sacrifice their real feelings,” Hossfeld says. The Girls Circle curriculum helps young women realize that their most meaningful relationships occur when they feel comfortable enough to be themselves around other people.

The girls’ discussion topics are meant to increase self-esteem. One week focuses on trust, so that girls learn what trust means in a relationship. Another week concentrates on self-confidence and helps girls overcome the common feeling that they need other people’s approval to be successful. Other topics include friendship, body image and personal goals.

Helping Boys Overcome Stereotypes

Hossfeld says that most boys respond to more structured activities with clear expectations. Rather than journaling or role playing, Boys Council meetings include games and sports that give boys a different way of establishing trust with one another. 

Many of the young men in Juan Gomez’s groups have absent fathers or no male family presence at all. The boys’ conversations address young men’s lack of role models and their need for acceptance. The forum provides an accepting space to discuss their feelings, a luxury for boys who aren’t used to showing emotions in public.

Gomez remembers one boy who invited his father to a meeting so he could explain that he missed him when he traveled for work. “His father had no idea,” says Gomez, “but they were able to talk about that because of our judgment-free zone. They might never have talked that way at home.”

At home, stereotypes of what’s manly typically dominate. “Their idea of masculinity is money, power and control,” says Gomez. “That’s a rap video. We introduce ideas about manhood that aren’t meant to be tough.”

They also discuss girls as partners and friends, not just potential hookups. All these conversations lay the groundwork for boys to build healthy, enduring connections with both men and women.