Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo wants to debunk the pervasive negative stereotypes.
It's not unusual for academic faculty members to plan a few semesters ahead, but Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo, the C.R. Hutcheson Endowed Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the Texas Tech University, has unusually big plans for next spring.
As one of four Texas Tech faculty members who has been named a Fulbright Scholar for the 2017-18 academic year, Trejos-Castillo will spend several months in Brazil, working with children in the foster care system.
What does your project entail?
"This project started about five years ago as a collaboration with foster youth agencies in San Antonio and has now turned into a bigger project. In the beginning, I was working with foster youth who were transitioning out of the system who were 17 and 18 years old. Then I decided to extend the research to the younger youth (12-16 years old) for prevention purposes.
"Many of these youth unfortunately are not only involved with the child welfare system, but many end up involved in the criminal justice system as well. When I started doing this research with the community partners in San Antonio, it became clear the need to extend the research to the youth involved in the criminal system, and thus, the project has grown into a larger collaboration with Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department. I've been collecting data for the past three years with youth who are not only involved in the child welfare system but also the juvenile justice system. The Fulbright project I'm going to be doing in Brazil is a replication of this study; it is a cross-cultural comparison of the strengths and challenges of youth involved in the foster care system in Brazil and the potential differences and similarities with foster youth in the U.S.
"Foster youth have similar issues they have to deal with as any other regular youth; at the same time, being involved in the child welfare system presents them with other challenges that might be similar across populations of foster youth. How the systems work and how they serve the foster population in a particular context, issues that may be related to families, policies, governments, that's what I'm trying to compare and contrast across both countries. I'm going to be in Brazil working with foster youth involved in the child welfare system, but I might be able to also conduct research with the youth who are at the same time involved in the juvenile justice system.
"The reason I decided to conduct this project in Brazil, is that, the United States and Brazil, although they are the most developed countries in the American continents, they report the highest number of children involved in the child welfare system.”
What is the goal of your project?
"One of the main goals of this project is to inform professionals, policymakers and people who work with foster youth about their particular needs, but also about the commonalities across youth in general. There are many misconceptions and, unfortunately, wrong information about foster youth. When people think about foster youth, there are many stereotypes that come to mind. They get labelled, they get bullied, they're blamed for things they did not do. They are victims of people who didn't take care of them in the first place – parents, caregivers – and they also become victims of the child welfare system as well.
"There is a lot of ignorance when it comes to understanding the needs of foster youth; they're just teenagers, like any other teenager. In general, during adolescence teenagers' sudden behavioral and mood changes might be related to all the complex cognitive, physical, emotional, relational and social changes occurring at the same time. Those behavioral and mood changes are understood as part of growing up and developing their own identities and autonomies.
"Unfortunately, foster youth experiencing the same developmental changes are often wrongly labeled. Thus, normalcy doesn't really exist for these youth. When they act out for reasons that are considered normative in youth in general, foster youth are often labelled as problematic and described as not being well-disciplined or have mental problems, so in many occasions they end up being overmedicated, overdisciplined or penalized for actions that, outside of foster care, are considered acceptable and even normative for developing teenagers.
How will the Fulbright help you?
"The Fulbright grant provides funds for lodging and accommodations for the research project as well as provides support for mobilization, travel and research related logistics. Texas Tech also provides additional funds to support the research and data collection.”
How long will your research last?
"The research project for the Fulbright grant will last from February until July 2018.”
What reaction have you received from the people you'll work with?
"We are all very excited. We've had a longstanding, very positive connection with State University of Ponta Grossa (Universidad Estadual do Ponta Grossa-UEPG) for almost five years now. This relationship started with a doctoral intern supported by the Brazilian Government Student Exchange program who spent 9 months working with me on her dissertation project. Since then, we have developed a strong relationship across both universities. During these years, we have attended multiple conferences, developed grants and are finalizing a couple of papers.”
What do you hope to contribute on a larger scale through your work?
The main goal is to generate new knowledge on the needs but also the strengths and resiliency of foster youth. The research I'm doing – including the one in San Antonio –focuses on building their strengths to support their resiliency in a system that is not providing everything they need. For example, when they turn 18, they're basically dropped out from the child welfare system and they're on their own. Thus, it is important to understand what life skills they need, what life skills they already have that we can build forward, and being able to inform practitioners and people working with them about best practices and different ways to support their wellbeing. The cross-cultural knowledge generated through this study will also inform about commonalities and differences across youth from different cultural and geographical backgrounds and would help tease apart potential contextual effects on foster youth's developmental outcomes.
"This research also aims to explore the challenges foster youth experience that are similar and different from youth in general and to educate and train professionals working with foster youth about trauma. I've been surprised to find out through this project that most of the people working with foster youth, particularly in the juvenile justice system, are not trained to deal with trauma and lack the tools to de-escalate situations that might be triggered by traumatization, abuse and neglect experiences by these youth and which might not be related at all with committing a criminal offense or a law violation.”
Why are you passionate about this?
"I've been working with youth since I was a youth myself, and I've always been interested in helping others with limited resources and supporting youth at risk who have limited access to opportunities for improving their wellbeing.
"My research focuses directly on prevention. I believe we would be able to solve numerous problems if we put a lot more resources into prevention than intervention. With prevention we build the capacity to foresee what the problems might be and build stronger individuals and stronger youth who will be able to deal with their own circumstances in a better way in their future.”
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
"When I was an undergraduate student, I was a Fulbright Fellow and I was deeply impacted by the mission and vision of this international education exchange program. I'm excited and honored to be a Fulbright Scholar now 23 years later and to be able to work with underserved youth in Brazil and the U.S. and support the mission of this outstanding program.”