Empowering Foster Youth through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Trauma

Photo of Tanya Renn and Taylor Dowdy Hazlett

Youth in foster care often face higher exposure to traumatic events and are less likely to receive the necessary services to address the resulting trauma-related symptoms. This discrepancy leads to a range of mental health challenges that, if left untreated, can manifest into more complex issues, such as substance misuse and delinquency.

The Stoops Center for Communities, Families, and Children (CFC Center) at the FSU College of Social Work is committed to changing this narrative.

With support from the Florida Institute for Child Welfare (FICW), Dr. Tanya Renn and Dr. Taylor Dowdy-Hazlett work alongside their dedicated team and collaborate with Boys Town to evaluate the effectiveness of an adapted version of the Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) program for foster youth and their caregivers.

To date, there has been little focus on interventions delivered to foster youth to mitigate the impact of trauma exposure or to build resiliency, which can deter children from engaging in substance use and criminal behavior.

CBITS teaches coping skills, challenges negative thoughts and gradually reduces distressing reactions to trauma. The intervention aims to improve emotional well-being and has shown promise in reducing trauma-related symptoms and enhancing emotional regulation among students.  

"CBITS is a program developed for the school setting to help students cope with trauma-related symptoms and is based on cognitive-behavioral therapy principles. We previously adapted and piloted CBITS for foster youth," explained Dr. Tanya Renn, co-principal investigator of the project and assistant professor at the FSU College of Social Work. "The program is structured around group sessions led by professionals. This evidence-based intervention addresses both the experience of trauma and negative coping behaviors, including substance misuse and deviant behaviors."

Employing an experimental design, the study will investigate the impact of the adapted CBITS intervention on various aspects of participants' lives, including trauma symptomatology, substance use behaviors, and delinquency behaviors.

The study extends previous efforts that piloted CBITS with youth in the Boys Town North Florida residential treatment program. Results showed improvements in the youth's behavioral and emotional symptoms and gave insight into the feasibility and acceptability of this intervention for this population.

Qualitative data from focus groups with youth provide a few main themes suggesting youth learned how to regulate emotions, cope with complicated feelings, and improve their outlook in managing difficult situations.

Taking these promising findings to the next level, the project enters a new phase marked by an expanded scope and a rigorous evaluation of the adapted intervention's efficacy. The focus now shifts toward assessing how this tailored approach effectively addresses the distinct needs of foster youth and their caregivers, leveraging a larger and more diverse sample size.

"Boys Town logo of a shadow of an adult carrying a child with the tagline Saving Children, Healing Families."The study will occur in collaboration with two branches of Boys Town, Boys Town North Florida and Boys Town Central Florida. A total of 80 youth will participate in this study, with half receiving the adapted CBITS intervention.

"By tailoring the program for foster youth, we aim to maximize its effectiveness in providing much-needed support," explained Dr. Renn.

To ensure robust findings, follow-up data will be collected at the intervention's conclusion and at 3-month and 6-month intervals afterward.

"We're excited to continue our partnership with Boys Town, our community-based collaborator," said Dr. Taylor Dowdy-Hazlett, co-principal investigator of the study, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and a 2022 doctoral graduate of the FSU College of Social Work. "Focusing on a specific cohort, we aim to gain valuable insights into the intervention's effects and its potential to bring about positive change."

Introducing CBITS in community settings represents a promising stride toward brighter futures for foster youth. The insights and information uncovered through this control pilot study will not only enhance understanding of the impact of trauma but also underscore the potential of tailored interventions like CBITS on trauma symptoms and resiliency.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023 - 11:09 AM
Last updated: Wed, 02/21/2024 - 10:44 AM