Life skills training for youth in foster care had little effect

Date Published: 

Courtney, M. E., Zinn, A., Zielewski, E. H., Bess, R. J., Malm, K. E., Stagner, M., et al. (2008). Evaluation of the Life Skills Training Program, Los Angeles County, California: Final Report. SO - Administration for Children and Families (125 pp., incl. 6 pp. of introductory material).

Reviewed by: 
Sydney Duder

This study was an evaluation of a Life Skills Training Program (LST) for youths aging out of foster care in Los Angeles County. The program was well-funded, multi-site and classroom-based, providing 30 hours of training over five weeks in seven skill areas: education, employment, daily living skills, survival skills, choices and consequences, interpersonal social skills, and computer skills. Subjects were paid to participate. Classes were held on community college campuses, and staffed by outreach workers who engaged youths in the program and provided case management.

Efforts were made to achieve a rigorous methodology. An experimental design was used, with subjects originally randomized to treatment (N = 234) and control (N = 248) groups. Data on a number of lifestyle variables (e.g., high school graduation, employment, housing, delinquency, pregnancy, bank or savings account) were gathered in three in-person interviews over two years. The elaborate data analysis involved two multiple regression models to control for a listed set of covariates.

Results showed few program impacts on any of the outcomes assessed. After adjusting significance levels to account for the possibility of false positive results, no significant impacts at all remained.

Methodological notes: 

How can this complete failure be explained? One possible reason might be a number of problems in program implementation, for example, an apparent breakdown in the randomization process. Of the 234 youth originally assigned to the LST group, 55 (23.5%) dropped out. More surprisingly, of the 248 youth originally assigned to the control group, 66 (26.6%) actually enrolled in the LST program, and 22.6% graduated from the program. Also, the procedures for recruiting subjects, and recruiting and training program staff, were complicated and difficult to implement. There was a high rate of staff turnover and some LST staff members were reported to have concerns about the qualifications and performance of workshop trainers.

More important, however, are questions about the basic program concept. Is it reasonable to expect that only 30 hours of classroom-based life skills training could have much impact? In fact, program staff are quoted as saying that this amount of workshop time was not adequate to provide all the necessary information. The failure of the program to show any significant impact on life skills suggests that these subjects may already have been getting life skills information from school or foster care providers. However well-intentioned, this program appears to have been a costly failure.