Separated from their parents and loved ones, how do youth in foster care search for hope and meaning while coping with grief, loss, and psychological trauma? Monique B. Mitchell, Research Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of South Carolina, is exploring how children’s intrinsic experiences and spiritual lives can contribute to successful outcomes. Ultimately, she hopes that the findings from this study will be used to encourage youth in foster care to introspectively explore their spiritual lives and discover their internal resources, to consider and strive for their goals, and to be inspired by the potential to enhance life.
Read a blog post by Monique Mitchell about inspiring transformative change among youth in foster care here.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project?
My prior research was about children’s experiences of ambiguity as they entered foster care. But I found that a lot of them were experiencing grief and loss in addition to ambiguity. When I moved to South Carolina and started working in my current position, we interviewed hundreds of youth. And we found that when youth in foster care are talked about, it’s almost always negative—outcomes like homelessness or unemployment or lack of educational attainment. Although these findings are important so we can improve policy and programs, I don’t know how many of us sit with the question: How are youth in foster care impacted when all they hear is that they’re going to fail? In conversation with them, they say they’re tired of the negative statistics. So what is it that gives them hope for the future? How do they cope with the loss and grief they experience? So I conceived this as a project that’s not just focusing on youth’s grief—it’s also thinking about what they do with it.
How are you planning to deploy your research? What are your goals for it?
We’re developing a major work for youth in foster care, by youth, which will include inspirational quotes. I’m trying to complement the existing research by listening to the youth themselves, because even though there is still a need for financial and educational support, these youth also have internal, intrinsic resources that they can draw on. And it costs nothing but a relationship to support this unfolding. The youth themselves are a resource. So my goal is to explore how they’re doing that and then use that information to help inspire other children and youth in foster care.
What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
Enhancing life for me involves rediscovering who we truly are through connection, inspiration, purpose, and transcendence, while simultaneously recognizing the illusions of separateness, time, and space. And my project contributes to the enhancement of life by illustrating how our internal resources can serve as a compass when the road may seem to have disappeared. The specific focus here is on youth in foster care. But this model can be applied to any population. And the book that we’re working on—any youth, any adult could pick up that book and be inspired by it.
What do you think Enhancing Life studies can offer your discipline, and why?
There are lots of parallels between enhancing life and social work. Because that’s what social workers do—they build on the tenets of social justice and social wellbeing. By exploring how to enhance life, we’re exploring how we can promote a just and healthy society for all. But it’s interesting that you ask about my discipline, because even though my teaching and research fall within the discipline of social work, I actually characterize myself as an interdisciplinary scholar. I don’t have a degree in social work. I have a background in psychology, anthropology, capacity-building, family relations and human development, and thanatology—so when I work in social work I bring in new perspectives and ideas. I really appreciate Enhancing Life studies as an interdisciplinary project, because that’s just how I operate.
How do public debates or conversations shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?
I’m hoping to balance the portrayal of youth in foster care that exists in the media and in research with something inspiring. The dominant discourse in the field is about enhancing youth’s lives, of course, but it tends to focus on the negative. Even though the ultimate goal is to improve the lives of youth in foster care, when the research constantly highlights negative outcomes, all the youth hear is that they can’t succeed. They’re wondering—what are the positive outcomes? When people say, “don’t be a statistic”—that’s just not enough for them. They need to be able to recognize there is hope for them. I think the whole child welfare system can benefit from focusing more on youth’s strengths. .
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
My favorite place to travel is somewhere between the earth and the sky. I know that’s a little bit deep, but it’s who I am. I’m usually thinking in different realms and it’s where I go when I’m not working. I do a lot of meditation, contemplation, introspection. My travels are often existential. .