Methods: Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with nine mentors and fourteen youth who had participated in a transition coaching program at a foster youth transition center. Youth and mentors were asked about their experiences in establishing the relationship, challenges and facilitators to maintaining it, and their definition of success. Interviews were analyzed using a thematic approach based on the interview guide, but coders remained open to new themes emerging from the data. An iterative, team-based process was employed to generate and refine codebooks for youth and mentor interviews, then code data. Three research team members independently reviewed coded passages, then met to discuss unifying themes within and between cases and generate results.
Results: Mentors and youth generally talked positively about their relationships. Youth noted that mentors occupy a role distinct from other adults in their lives, providing support that was not tied to being paid or being family. Both groups stressed the importance of consistency and communication to develop and maintain a successful relationship, which was defined as one where the youth would call the mentor for help when needed. Challenges were primarily identified by mentors who discussed the difficulty of maintaining boundaries and negotiating relationships with youth caregivers. Mentors and youth came from very different backgrounds, but several youth identified this as a positive since it would be a totally new experience, “a clean slate.” The analysis team identified a theme of unrecognized bias in some mentor descriptions of youth circumstances (“damaged goods”), youth families (”mom’s a crack addict”) and youth behaviors. These statements revealed how disconnected mentors could be while simultaneously being strong supporters.
Implications: Findings suggest that formal mentors hold a unique role in youths’ supportive networks, regardless of other social connections. Differences in socioeconomic status and cultural background among youth and mentors did not present obvious barriers to developing successful relationships; however, implicit biases observed in mentor language suggests a need for training and dialogue to raise awareness of the mental models they bring to their mentoring role. Formal programs that provide mentors to youth transitioning out of foster care appear promising as an avenue to support and advocate for this economically marginalized group, but should be implemented within a context that promotes examination of implicit biases.