University of Vermont

University Communications

Improving Placements for Children in Foster Care

Jessica Strolin-Grotzman
“It’s really important for providers to understand what’s happening with brain development, especially for kids that have been maltreated, and how to use that information to develop individually based interventions,” says social work professor Jessica Strolin-Goltzman. (Photo: Sally McCay)

The timing of Jessica Strolin-Goltzman’s arrival on campus less than three years ago couldn’t have been more fortuitous for the university, the state, and most importantly, children in foster care. Having landed more than $3 million in federal grants, the associate professor of social work is helping usher in a new era in child welfare that’s focused on the overall well-being of each child.     

For decades, the focus for children in foster care was on safety and permanency. Although those goals remain, the Federal Administration on Children, Youth and Families has shifted the national focus to the mental, physical, social and emotional well-being of children, and is backing it up with federal funds for those with a plan to execute it. Enter Strolin-Goltzman, an expert in the implementation and evaluation of evidence-supported child welfare interventions.

“We weren’t checking to see how kids were doing in critical areas like mental health and well-being, so we started seeing children who were adopted before the age of three who had previously experienced trauma that went undiagnosed ending up in residential settings by the age of 10,” says Strolin-Goltzman. “The adopted family didn’t feel like they could manage the changes in behavior, so if we could identify these issues earlier, we could deal with them before they become too serious.”  

Strolin-Goltzman’s most recent award – a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau that she received in collaboration with Jesse Suter, research assistant professor in the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion – is one of five “trauma grants” focused on this very issue. Although still in the planning stages, the grant aims to have professionals administer functional or well-being assessments as soon as kids come into custody to identify strengths and needs related to improving our response to trauma. Data from child welfare, mental health, and other Integrated Family Services (Vermont Agency of Human Services) providers will also be collected to identify how many kids have access to mental health services or are in need of them.

“A big part of this grant is screening and assessment and using the data for family-driven collaborative case planning to decide what the case plan should look like and then referring and providing access to evidence-based services,” says Strolin-Goltzman, who has worked with closely with the State of Vermont on all aspects of the grant. Her primary team includes Laurie Brown, former director of Vermont Child Trauma Collaborative, who will manage the treatment and services strand; Beth Relyea, assistant director of the DCF district office in Burlington, who will handle screening and assessment; Suter, who will serve as Co-PI and evaluator. A meeting in March is scheduled for key stakeholders to discuss direction and planning, and develop action steps to move forward with a comprehensive community assessment, which will be used as the foundation for making decisions on the implementation of the project.

Using neuroscience to inform practice

Strolin-Goltzman’s research agenda has shifted over the years but has always focused on helping children in foster care. Her clinical practice experience includes adventure-based wilderness therapy, expressive arts modalities, and working with teenagers on probation for substance abuse issues, many of whom had experienced trauma and abuse and neglect.

Some of Strolin-Goltzman’s more recent research focuses on the role of neuroscience in social work. She co-wrote a chapter with Suter, whose degree is in clinical psychology, and Haley Woodside-Jiron, associate professor in education, titled "How Neuroscience Can Inform Educational Practices for Youth Involved in the Child Welfare System" on the need for child welfare and education professionals to have a basic understanding of the underlying neurobiological processes that may lead to behavioral issues. The chapter appeared in the book Neuroscience for Social Work: Current Research and Practice (Springer, 2014).

“It’s really important for providers and family members to understand what’s happening with brain development, especially for kids that have been maltreated, and how to use that information to develop individually based interventions,” she says. “Using neuroscience information to educate our parents about certain kinds of behaviors they can expect to see and what strategies they might want to employ is really powerful. There’s a lot of information that neuroscience has provided for us that we haven’t taken advantage of yet that is really important to inform intervention development.”

Building on previous grants

Strolin-Goltzman’s grant comes on the heels of a $500,000 award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, also in collaboration with Suter, who is Co-PI. The two-year grant provides infrastructure support to develop and implement effective multi-disciplinary policy and practice interventions for improving educational stability and outcomes of middle and high school youth in foster care through a project titled, VT-FUTRES (Fostering Understanding To Realize Educational Stability).

The VT-FUTRES project builds upon Vermont’s previous efforts to improve educational stability such as the 2006 Casey Breakthrough Series Collaborative, grant and the Vermont Justice for Children Task Force education sub-committee. VT-FUTRES is a collaboration between UVM’s Center on Disability & Community Inclusion, Department of Social Work, Vermont Department of Education, Justice for Children’s Task Force of the Vermont Family Court, Vermont Department for Children and Families, and children and families involved with DCF.

The grant involves a youth participatory action education survey administered to 100 teens in foster care. An early finding shows that the number of home placements – not necessarily the number of school placements – was related to how students rated their student-teacher experience and relationships and how close they felt to teachers and other adults and peers in schools. “This was directly related to their future expectations for going to college and actually attending college and pursuing other aspirations,” says Strolin-Goltzman. “There’s a clear mediated pathway from number of home placements to college attendance. In other words, lower number of placements leads to better student-teacher relationships, which leads to better college entrance.”