The evidence for human connections

Amy Salazar’s research provides evidence that meaningful connections are essential to help foster youth achieve independence.

A patchwork of federal, state and county programs spends billions of dollars a year on various aspects of foster care, yet there is little evidence to verify what spending works. Amy Salazar, assistant professor of human development, intends for her research to make a dent in that problem.

Salazar is especially interested in studying how best to help older youth get ready for adulthood. “There are very few evidence-based practices for how to help older youth in foster care prepare for the transition to adulthood,” she said. “Federal support is available in every state, but those programs don’t have good evidence of effectiveness.”

Salazar was instrumental in creating Fostering Higher Education, an intervention program designed to develop ways to support youth with foster experience who wish to go to college. She is the lead author on a study about building financial capability as youth transition from foster care to adulthood. She helped develop a curriculum for foster families to support LGBTQ+ youth in foster care that the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families has made available as online training for foster caregivers. And she has led another study on how older youths in foster care define and achieve permanency—that is, ongoing relationships with caring adults, who may be parents or others who help instill the sense of belonging that is key to the transition to a confident adulthood. 

Aging out

At any given time, Salazar said, more than 50,000 youths age 16 and older are likely to age out of care (meaning they don’t get reunited with their families). There are more who have already aged out, many of whom still need transition support services. And there are still more who want nothing more to do with the foster care system. It’s a large population with a big impact on society.

For those who go to college, there may be support programs on campus. In Washington state, for example, almost every campus has such a program for youth in foster care, Passport to Careers. WSU Vancouver has such a program. Salazar has been helping to get the word out, including adding a session to Preview Day where those with foster care experience or unaccompanied homelessness can learn about funding specifically for them.

A pilot study of the Fostering Higher Education program in Washington state resulted in expansion to two more states—Georgia and Iowa—and research is ongoing as those states implement the program. “The goal is to assess whether Fostering Higher Education really makes a difference,” Salazar said. “If it does, it would be one of the first evidence-based practices for helping older kids in foster care.”

What’s been learned so far, she said, “is for a program to be successful, it comes down to relationships and the intentionality of how you’re delivering information. You have to build trust and good relationships and think about how you’re delivering important and sensitive content.”

Informing policy and funding

Salazar’s research is used by state agencies, governments, colleges, nonprofits and other funders and policymakers. Salazar has been invited to a couple of congressional panel presentations—along with other researchers, practitioners and youth in care—for giving recommendations about new support and reauthorizations, such as the Chafee Act, which gives money to all states to help provide independent living services.

Most recently, she has been on the evaluation team for large projects funded by the Federal Children’s Bureau. One project is to develop a new foster parent training curriculum and evaluate it. She is also on the evaluation team for a $40 million project that involves a huge team of people with the goal of developing evidence-informed practices to help with building engagement in youth permanency. 

 Salazar is committed to continuing to build a base of evidence for practices with foster care—what youth need and what’s working. “It’s hard to help vulnerable populations when you don’t know anything about them,” she said.

At WSU Vancouver, Salazar teaches in the Prevention Science doctoral program as well as undergraduate classes. She was attracted to the opportunity to build on her strengths and help educate the next generation of researchers in her field.

She joined WSU Vancouver in 2016. Before that, she held a research position in the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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