Many of you know the story behind my beginning the Family Care Network. One of the driving forces behind it was my frustration of working so many years within the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare systems and the horrible, unconscionable way foster youth were exited from the system--“There’s the door; have a nice life.” Youth were basically forced out on their own, some taken directly to homeless shelters. They had no family, no skills, no resources and were given no support whatsoever. Can you imagine how you would feel in such a situation? Talk about feeling desperation, despair, suicidal, discouragement and great amounts of fear! No wonder the outcomes for former foster youth have been deplorable for decades.
The good news, however, is that a lot has changed and the future for these young people has become a lot brighter – but there is still so much more to do! But first, let me focus on some very positive changes in the way that our system helps to better prepare foster youth for the big leap into independent living.
Believe it or not, California was the first state to really deal with the issues facing former foster youth. In the mid-nineties, AB 1198 created the Transitional Housing Placement Program (THPP) which allowed foster youth, ages 16-18, who were in their last year of high school to be placed in their own apartment/housing unit under supervision, while receiving intensive life skill development services. The program was legislatively improved in 2001. FCNI was one of the first state licensed THPP providers and we’ve served over 600 foster youth with an 86% success rate since the program’s inception. In 2006, the state created Transitional Housing Placement-Plus Program (THP+), a similar program to THPP but for emancipated foster youth ages 18-24. FCNI has served close to 450 THP+ youth in our program with an 86% success rate.
There have been two pieces of Federal legislation that completely changed and improved the playing field for foster youth. The first was in 1999, the “John Chafee Foster Care Independence Act,” now referred to as the Chafee Act; and in 2008, the “Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act,” commonly referred to as Fostering Connections. The Chafee Act was the first piece of federal legislation ever to focus on older foster youth “aging out” of the system. This legislation created a federal funding stream for states to provide independent living and transition services to foster youth ages 14 and up. In California it created the Independent Living Program (ILP). Currently, Family Care Network is the ILP provider for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
The Fostering Connections Act pushed independent living services to a whole new level, allowing states to receive federal foster care reimbursement for youth voluntarily choosing to stay in foster care until age 21. California jumped on this quickly, and through AB 12, created a whole continuum of independent living and transition services, and supports for these young people. Surprisingly, the number of youth choosing to receive these services has been way beyond anyone’s expectations. Youth being served under AB 12 are called Non-Minor Dependents (NMD).
One of the components of AB 12 was the development of THPP-NMD, and the expansion of THPP to include 18-21-year-olds with the same degree of intensive services. Thus, with the combination of ILP, THPP-M, THPP-NMD and THP+, services to foster youth aging out of the system have dramatically increased.
So let us talk about what we still need. Surprisingly, even with the advent of the services described above, the percentage of foster youth achieving permanency, including successfully moving to independent living, has remained static for the past decade! It was 61% then and it is 61% now. That means about 40% of foster youth aging out of the system are failing!
So what more can we do? Plenty.
- Foster children need to be provided trauma-based interventions much earlier--
Really, these critical services should start immediately upon a child entering the foster care system. By the time foster youth reach their teenage years, untreated trauma has grown and manifested into extreme behaviors and challenges; for some youth, these issues pose insurmountable barrier to their success. Plus, working with these youth therapeutically using a traditional “medical model” approach is nonsensical. These kids do not want to sit in a 50 minute “therapy” session, most of whom identify therapy with being “crazy”. Our industry needs to employ unique, creative, one-on-one, trauma-informed, relational interventions and treatment approaches that are specifically designed to work in these youths’ world and at their developmental stage.
- Much more needs to be done to enable foster youth to receive higher education, including career path vocational training--
The education statistics for foster youth has not moved--nationally, barely 50% of foster youth graduate high school, and less than 3% enter into any type of higher education program. The rate of successful employment among this group is alarmingly low, and compared to the general population, their income earning potential is half or less. Most of these kids have been programed to think they cannot learn and succeed, and we need to reprogram this thinking. Not only can they do it, they must!
- We need to seriously challenge the status quo on what “higher education” and career development strategies will be most effective for foster youth--
I would much rather begin directing a foster youth towards a career when they are 16 or 17, kind of like the European model, and relieve some of this “you need to attend college” pressure. Truth is, a beginning journey welder earns about twice as much in wages as the average college student from their first job. Sure, there will always be those college-bound foster youth, but right now, 97% of aging out foster youth do not go to college.
So, we need to make sure that youth aging out of the foster care system have a very clear pathway to a career that will provide them a livable wage! Unfortunately, our school systems and system thinking is all about “college preparation.” And, when it comes to foster youth, they really are treated as second-class citizens who do not fit the “preppy” mold that the schools are trying to shove them into. If foster youth are to really succeed as adults, our government needs to produce the funding, programs and opportunities for these young lives to achieve meaningful employment.
And finally, the community needs to become much more engaged and involved in helping these youth succeed. Our system needs to invest in recruiting, training and deploying an army of successful adults to help these young people navigate through this most challenging time in their lives. We know from research, that mentoring is an “evidence-based” intervention, but nobody wants to pay for it.
In our experience at the Family Care Network, we’ve seen the power of connecting foster youth was positive adult role models. Pairing a youth with someone from a specific career, business or occupation can and does make a huge impact on youth. We have a “Navigators” program where community members help foster youth navigate their higher education experience. And we have no lack of interested people. This needs to be replicated across the state and nation!
I have been working with foster kids for nearly 50 years, and I am so excited about all of the positive changes that have occurred over the past couple of decades--most especially about the successes that we have been able to accomplish at Family Care Network in partnership with our community. But, there is so much more to do – let us work together to make it happen!
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