• May/June 2001
  • Vol. 2, No. 3

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Study Examines a Successful Independent Living Program for High Risk Youth

Adolescents leaving the foster care system face many challenges as they work toward self-sufficiency. A privately funded program developed in 1984 by The Children's Village was created to boost the chances that this high-risk group will attain successful independence. WAY (Work Appreciation for Youth) was developed to serve adolescent boys at The Children's Village Residential Treatment Facility in Dobbs Ferry, New York. WAY was designed for children whose emotional or behavioral problems made them unlikely to succeed in a foster home. The WAY program aims to help them transition back to living with their families, to less restrictive settings, or to independent living.

The aftercare component, called the WAY Scholarship program, was the subject of a 15-year study, conducted by researchers at The Children's Village. The longitudinal study examined what happens when adolescents who leave residential treatment are provided with long-term follow-up services focused on school, work, and personal development.

The WAY scholarship program is a 5-year program with the following five core elements:

  • Educational advocacy and tutoring
  • Work experiences and work ethics training
  • Group activities and workshops
  • Financial incentives
  • Counseling and mentoring.

The WAY program assigns a paid, professional mentor to each student to guide him through the program and ensure delivery of services. "Counselors are to be coaches, cheerleaders, surrogate parents, advocates, teachers, and friends," states the report. Three-fourths of students had positive feelings about their counselors, who were mostly of the same gender and ethnicity.

The findings of the 15-year study, which tracked 93 high-risk foster care youth in New York City along with a comparison group of adolescents, were as follows:

  • Low attrition rates: only 24 percent of WAY scholars left within the first half of the 5-year program
  • Strong employment experience: About 80 percent of program graduates were working in their 20s and earning average full-time salaries of $23,000
  • School success: 81 percent were still in school or had already graduated by the end of the program. High school graduation rates for WAY youth were 50 percent higher than children living below the poverty level nationally and almost 20 percent higher than the general population of African-American and Latino students in New York City
  • Self-sufficiency: 95 percent of WAY scholars were on track to self-sufficiency at the end of the program; they were either in school, working, or had obtained high school degrees
  • Low criminality: Youths who participated in at least 2.5 years of the program had lower adult criminality rates (5 percent) than program dropouts (35 percent) or the comparison group (15 percent).

Based on the findings, the authors of the study recommend the following:

  • Long-term aftercare services (years not months) be provided for adolescents discharged from residential treatment centers
  • Aftercare staff be given flexibility in funding and in access to youth to provide continuity in care
  • Aftercare services be provided to former foster care youth on a long-term basis, well into their young adulthood
  • Mentors in programs like WAY be paid professionals who have the time and skills necessary to make a difference in the lives of young people.

The Children's Village has created a WAY Replication Unit to respond to the growing interest within and beyond the child welfare community to replicate the program elsewhere. It has been adapted in several community-based settings and a housing project complex for former homeless families in New York City. "The WAY Program has created a positive youth subculture in a neighborhood of high gang activity . . . Our young people are now imagining and planning a very different, more positive future for themselves," said Jeannette Ruffins, Director of Genesis Homes.

A copy of the executive summary of The WAY to Work: An Independent Living/Aftercare Program for High-Risk Youth is available upon request or purchase a copy of the full report for $16.95 (stock number 8048) from the Child Welfare League of America at 800-407-6273. Order a copy online at: http://www.cwla.org/pubs.

Related Item

Visit the website of the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information to view an online copy of the report Title IV-E Independent Living Programs: A Decade in Review. (Note: this publication is no longer available.)

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