Going home after months, even years, in an out-of-home care program is an exciting milestone for at-risk teens and their families.
It’s also a vulnerable time. Youth with emotional or behavioral disorders can make laudable progress in treatment, but they may backslide into old, familiar behaviors if their home and school environments don’t reinforce new skills. That leaves them at risk for further problems, including quitting school, strained relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal behavior.
Alex Trout, research associate professor in special education and communication disorders, leads a team of researchers, educators and family service workers from UNL, Boys Town and five other residential agencies in eastern Nebraska to evaluate On the Way Home, a set of programs to help youth make a successful transition.
“These youth receive lots of targeted help and education while they’re in treatment,” Trout said. “It’s heartbreaking to watch them fall apart after they’ve made big strides.”
The aim is to involve the teen’s parents, school and workplace in the transition. Interventions include parent training, dropout prevention and intervention, and homework support. A family consultant is available 24/7 for parents to seek advice. Weekly check-ins help identify struggles and problematic behaviors early.
Preliminary findings show that nearly 91 percent of participants maintained their home placement after one year, and approximately 88 percent had graduated or were still enrolled in school.
With a nearly $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, the team is building on earlier research, evaluating educational, family and behavioral outcomes at a larger scale and expanding services to additional agencies. More than 4,000 Nebraska youth receive out-of-home care; Trout hopes to include 250 in the research.
“These youth receive lots of targeted help and education while they’re in treatment. It’s heartbreaking to watch them fall apart after they’ve made big strides.”
— Alex Trout
The need for proven, research-based programs is huge, Trout said. UNL researchers developed On the Way Home in collaboration with researchers elsewhere, with support from an earlier IES grant. With further research, the program could become a national model for aftercare support.
“The children, families and schools have confirmed the value of supporting these youth through this often difficult transition,” said Patrick Tyler, director of the aftercare program at Boys Town. “On the Way Home provides an important service, at the right time, so these children can sustain the gains they’ve made.”