Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Arizona foster care series ended a week too soon

Three "faces of Arizona foster care:" Regina, Christa and Lupe.

An Arizona foster care series in the Payson Roundup demonstrates journalists' commitment to "put a face" on foster care.

In pursuit of this goal, they designated a three-week period to focus on this topic:
1.) During the first week, reporter Michael Maresh spent the day with staff at Child Protective Services.

2.) During the second week, Felicia Megdal interviewed parents who had lost their children.

3.) The third week was earmarked for interviews with foster parents.

Can anyone guess whose viewpoint was missing? If you said foster care youth and alumni, you are correct.

Kudos to the journalists for recognizing that in Arizona today, 9,902 children are living with foster parents. Thanks to them for stepping into the shoes of social workers, foster parents and biological parents, and helping others to empathize with these complicated positions.

I only encourage them to take this courageous journey one step further, by allowing air time for foster care youth and alumni. We are the "consumers" of the foster care system. Our lives are most greatly impacted by the outcome of custodial decisions.

In the future, I encourage the staff of Payson Roundup to add a fourth week to "put a face on foster care." I actually have three faces to share: (see above); three founding members of Foster Care Alumni of America.

Payton Roundup. Foster care series hopes to put human face on government system. Nov. 17, 2006. http://www.paysonroundup.com/section/opinion/story/26178

Monday, November 20, 2006

Friday, November 17, 2006

Dayton, OH, and their foster youth advisory board

Did you know that Chaffee funds require states to have a youth advisory board?
Neither did Franklin County Children Services (in Columbus, Ohio).

Montgomery County Children Services (in Dayton, Ohio) not only has a youth advisory board, but they have actually listened to their suggestions and brought about positive change.

Initiatives of Dayton's foster youth advisory board include:
1.) A holiday ball for foster youth/alumni. The youth advisory board chooses colors, food and theme. Participants choose a Winter Ball king and queen. This is great because foster youth aren't always able to attend Homecoming or prom.

2.) Sibling outings four times per year: The youth advisory board plans the outings. The most recent one took place at Fear Fest. This is fabulous, because often foster youth rarely get the chance to see their siblings, and if they do, it tends to be in a sterile environment.

3.) Teen Welcome Wagon: When teens enter foster care, members of the youth advisory board come over to meet with them and give them a copy of the teen handbook, along with a $5 McDonalds gift card, and offer their support.

4.) Youth advisory board members train foster parents how to deal with teens.

Supportive services provided by Montgomery Children Services include:- Arranging gown/suit donation for the annual Holiday Ball.
- Hiring a DJ and photographer, so that participants of the Holiday Ball leave with photos.

Montgomery County Children Services provides a high school program on campus, whereby teenager can earn their high school diploma or GED by participating in a digital program. A laundry and kitchen is provided nearby, for convenience.

*TransportationDoris Edelmann has received funding from PCSAO to buy 10 used cars for emancipated foster youth. Along with it will be provided: 6 months worth of insurance, a gas card and a safety kit. There will be an application process, requiring recipients to have completed driver's ed.

Montgomery County foster youth advisory board members are sent to either the NILA conference or the PATHWAY conference (or both). Before they go, teens are given $100 gift card for Value City to buy professional clothing.

When Doris takes members of the youth advisory board to conferences, she arranges it so that they arrive two days early, in order to get acclimated and explore the area. They're also given an allowance to spend.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Kudos to Judge Carole Clarke

In September of this year, Carole Clark, a Texas family court judge, convened a group of almost 100 child care professionals to conduct an overview of the foster care system in East Texas.

Judge Clark did this to address a myriad of concerns...
- 19,000 children are in the Texas foster care system at any given time.
- 32,500 children passed through the system last year.

- Over the past three years, the number of foster parents in East Texas has decreased by 20%.
- Meanwhile, there has been an increased number of children entering the foster care system, due to family members being hooked on methamphetamine.

- Caseloads are twice as high as they were in 1998, when former Gov. George W. Bush declared the Texas foster care system "in crisis."
- Jobless couples have been taking in as many as 6-8 emotionally disturbed foster children as their primary form of income

After reviewing the current situation in depth, several suggestions were made:

1.) Instituting a cap on foster family size. Texas has four levels of reimbursement for foster care, and payments increase according to the severity of physical or behavioral problems. Right now, foster families can take in up to six "moderately" disturbed children -- and Judge Clark wants to decrease that number to four or fewer.

2.) Stop moving children once they improve: The state's financial incentive is to move foster children who have improved their behavior to homes licensed for less troubled youth. This practice does not benefit the foster child -- rather, it actually encourages the child not to improve, because to do so means another loss of stability.

3.) Shorten the chain of command. Let local CPS workers call the shots about what happens to children. Give the people in the trenches the authority to make decisions.

4.) Stop separating siblings. Panel members realized that for children who have been separated from their parents, siblings often represent the only "family" that they have...

5.) Revisit the idea of group homes. The least popular suggestion that Judge Clark made was for the state to consider creating permanent residential facilities, which might offer more stability than frequent moves between foster homes.

Her idea is for these facilities to be staffed by both hourly shift workers and live-in foster parents.

Why was this suggestion so unpopular?
In philosophies and other schools of thought, people often adhere unquestioningly to one viewpoint, then reject it and, in a knee-jerk reaction, take the polar opposite view.

Over the years, there has been a pendulum swing regarding public opinion towards group homes is concerned.

When I was in foster care in the 1980's, I lived in group homes, due to the shortage of available foster homes and the lack of foster parents who were willing to take in older children. I lived in residential facilities from ages 12 to 16, when I started college.

Group homes weren't perfect. I just wonder at the fact that, rather than trying to fix those problems, many people have rejected group homes altogether.

I think that we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater by trading poorly screened staff at group homes for overloaded caseworkers and poorly screened foster parents.

A teenager residing in a well-run group home for several years with stable staff could build a base of emotional stability. According to the 70 Developmental Assets for youth, teens and tweens need at least one stable adult in their lives that they can rely on.

Why not try it?
I think Smith County should create some group homes for teenagers, and staff them with well-trained professionals. Group home staff should be carefully screened and supervised. Foster care alumni insights should be sought about many issues.

Sometimes considering creative solutions can constitute a risk in losing popularity. It is a worthwhile risk, and I am glad that Judge Clark is taking it.

Garrett, Robert. Judge sees crisis in foster care; Her panel suggests group homes, more control for CPS workers. Dallas Morning News, Oct. 16, 2006.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Foster Children & Emergency Shelters

The ideal vs. reality
Ideally, all teenagers would be linked with loving, permanent families before aging out of foster care. Realistically, that doesn't always happen.

More often, teens in foster care find themselves bouncing between various placements -- and sometimes, when a "bed" is not available elsewhere, spending time in an emergency shelter.

Imagine that you are a displaced teenager spending the night in an emergency shelter. What risks might you face? Would you be raped by a resident or staff member? Robbed? Beaten?

Would you emerge from that experience physically or emotionally scarred?

None of these groups is just like the other...
Consider the diverse populations that are often housed together in emergency shelters: juvenile delinquents, emotionally disturbed children and victims of child abuse.

All three populations are treated the same. That means that a physically or sexually abused child who enters an emergency shelter is treated the same as a juvenile offender.

This creates a dangerous and unhealthy environment, where healing is absent, victimization is frequent and supervision is often inadequate. Shelters can traumatize children, and often provide a breeding ground for abuse. Why remove abused teenagers from one unsafe situation, only to house them in another?

Don't call it "shelter"
-Oak Hill Homes, an emergency shelter in Georgia with lax security measures, became a virtual recruiting ground for pimps seeking underage prostitutes. Meanwhile, at a nearby shelter for boys, two workers were fired for getting into a fight with a resident.

-MacLauren Children's Center, in LA County, became a dumping ground for emotionally disturbed children. Employees were untrained to provide mental health services. Instead, they used physical restraint an average of four times per day -- causing broken limbs and other injuries.

It's all about the money
When people in power fail to invest in long-term solutions, facilities designed to house a small number of children for 30 days or less end up becoming long-term way-stations.

Licensed to take in a certain number of children, emergency shelters often end up over capacity. In terms of staffing, both pay and qualifications are often minimal.

The first solution that many state officials suggest is "privatizing." Unlike county-run facilities, private group homes and shelters are required to be licensed. However, like county-run facilities, private shelters need funding and expect some financial assistance from the government.

Licensing regulations supposedly prohibit overcrowding, limit the use of physical restraints and establish minimal staff qualifications and training. However, in Washington D.C., five private "respite centers" proved themselves to be just as inept and unsafe as county-run emergency shelters.

Finding them "a bed"
After the MacLauren Children's Center was closed, foster children (from toddlers to teens) were often housed overnight in the waiting room of an office building, waiting for their LA County social workers to find them a "bed."

Not a "family," adoptive or foster. Not the "best match." Not someone who might care for them and love them. Just a bed; someplace to spend the night. Not knowing where they'd be tomorrow.

This practice has been reported as recently as 2005, when six foster youth waiting in the office ran away.

Interestingly, in New York, some teenagers refused to leave their caseworker's office, finding it safer and more welcoming than the foster and group homes to which they were assigned.

Editorials: Georgia's foster children: Fewer shelters, more dollars a better mix for abused kids. Atlanta Journal, Oct. 24, 2002, p. A20.
Horowtiz, Sari. Short-term shelters for children under fire. Washington Post, Nov. 18, 2001, pgC1.
Larrubia, Evelyn. The state; foster children slept in office... Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2005.
Leonard, Jack. 6 foster kids have fled office... Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2005, pgB1.
Martz, Ron. Child advocate: Shelter funding, security poor. Atlanta Journal, May 20, 2001, pgF1.

Rainey, James. Action urged on homes for troubled youths; shelter: Advocates call on L.A. County to expedite separation of the emotionally disturbed from delinquents. Los Angeles Times, Oct. 14, 1997.
Rivera, Carla. Suit targets counties' shelters for children...overcrowded and dangerous. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 19, 2000, pgB1.
Swarns, Rachel. For children, another night on office cots. New York Times, Nov. 28, 1997, pgB1.
Thevenot, Carri. Plan to cut number of children in institutional care progresses. Las Vegas Review, Nov. 4, 2006, pgB1.

Monday, November 06, 2006

One-stop-shopping for emancipated foster youth

Everyone has their favorite landmark in Texas. What's yours? Big Bend National Park? The Alamo?

After attending the fourth annual "It's My Life" conference, my favorite place in Texas is now the Houston Alumni and Youth (H.A.Y.) Center.

The H.A.Y. Center provides one-stop-shopping for foster youth and alumni, between the ages of 16 to 21.

Services include:
- Mentoring and counseling services, including drug/alcohol abuse counseling
- GED / college preparation courses
- Assistance locating housing
- Advanced job placement training
- A computer lab, mailboxes, voice mail and email

The one-stop-shopping approach is so important. It eliminates gaps in services. It doesn't force people in and from foster care to traverse from one place to another in order to get the help that they need.

In Ohio, where I live, there are 88 counties, each with differing services. One of my first projects for the Foster Care Alumni of America pilot chapter will be to lay the groundwork for a statewide yellow pages, so at least we will know where resources are located and where the gaps in services are for people in and from foster care... I am hoping that FirstLink will agree to partner with us on this effort.

The H.A.Y. Center offers leadership opportunities for foster youth and alumni.
I first met Victor, Xavier and Gabbie at the airport. We were preparing to board a plane, en route from Houston to Seattle. We were on our way to attend the 2006 "It's My Life" conference.

I wish you could have been there to attend H.A.Y. Center's workshop, and to hear the voices of foster care alumni:

Imagine meeting a talented young man named Victor. He once was homeless -- but he is now a talented photographer, constantly honing his skills. Not only has he pulled his own life together, but he is dedicated to helping others.

Meet Xavier, future filmmaker. Hear him share what attracts him to the medium of film. Watch a "short" that he has created. When Xavier shares his experiences from foster care in his films, his approach will be subtle, but his message will resonate.

And, allow me to introduce you to Gabbie. She is gentle, approachable and fun. She grew up in foster care, and now her goal is to make the path easier for others. As such, she is now a Youth Specialist with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Gabbie is quick to dismiss herself in the light of Victor and Xavier's artistic talents -- but Gabbie's gifts are interpersonal. She has the type of warm and accepting personality that if I ever had a problem, I would feel comfortable sharing it with her.

I plan to post pictures of the three of them soon...

I'd like to extend my thanks to wonderful people like Pamela Walker, Assistant Director of the H.A.Y. Center. It took work to set up collaborations with Harris County Youth Services, Texas Apartment Locators, the Texas Work Commission, DePelchin Children's Center, and so many others in order to make this endeavor a success.

It takes patience and diligence both to establish this kind of center, and to follow-through with everyday operations.

And it takes a certain degree of humility to facilitate alumni and youth leadership in workshops and discussions... taking a step back from being in the limelight, and focusing your efforts to make foster youth and alumni shine!

Kudos to the H.A.Y. Center, my favorite Texas landmark. For more information, please visit: http://www.reg6palhouston.org/

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What's going on with Australia and foster care?

I shall continue to post my notes and updates on contacts from the 2006 It's My Life conference. However, several articles about the foster care situation in Australia have recently captured my attention...

Alienating foster parents winds up hurting the kids
In Australia, the NSW Foster Care Association ordered a boycott yesterday in response to changes in the law. Up to 1,000 foster parents are predicted to quit the system, and hundreds more will refuse to provide emergency refuge for at-risk children.

The Department of Human Services wants to disclose the personal details of 10,000 foster parents and their families to birth parents with a history of violence and abuse.

Information would include foster parents' names, addresses, telephone numbers and workplace, as well as details relating to foster parents' birth children.

Community Services Minister Reba Meagher did not consult foster parents about the issue.

This news came just days after a large billboard was unveiled in Sydney, calling for more foster parents to volunteer over Christmas.

Foster Care Association president Mary Jane Beach responded that,"The people who draft these laws have no idea of the implications. They think it's like a family picnic."

Another proposed law, which was more popular with foster parents, would allow foster parents to adopt their foster children without the consent of birth parents. Beach said, "For too long, the interest of birth parents has been placed before the children."

In New Zealand, for example, over 23% of foster children lived in three or more foster homes in the past 12 months. 156 children were passed around 6 or more homes. Dozens were shifted between 8-11 homes within one year. These children need and deserve permanency.

Foster parents in the land down under have expressed an urgent need for better respite care, in order to provide time off when they need it.

Compensation for kinship care providers is also an issue
It is estimated that, in Tasmania, 8,000 children are currently being raised by their grandparents and that number is growing all the time.

Custodial grandparents save the state a lot of money -- especially since the 2003 federal goverment recommendation that kinship care providers receive the same financial support of foster parents has apparently been disregarded.

According to the articles cited below:
Custodial grandparents in Tasmania receive $28 fortnightly
Australian foster parents receive between $374 and $564 a fortnight, depending on the age of the child.

Curious to know what a 'fortnight' is? Every two weeks.

The rate for kinship care compensation has not increased over the past 15 years.

Lack of oversight leads to death
Baby Elizabeth Edwards didn't have to die. Her death was neither willful nor malicious -- just plain ignorance. Elizabeth was placed by her foster mother in a cot with a bottle in her mouth and surrounded by a U-shaped pillow.

The baby suffocated and choked on the contents of her stomach. Her foster mother wasn't an evil woman. She was trying to do a good thing. But, foster mother Janet Todd had never been educated about sudden infant death syndrome.

South Australia's only foster care placement organization is Anglicare SA. This organization has no minimum level of training for foster parents. Their training courses do not include infant care.

"Our training has tended to focus on attachment, loss and grief, behaviour management and the traumas associated with placement," Anglicare manager, Margie Battye, told the court. She said that Anglicare did not have the budget and resources to provide infant care training.

Tell that to baby Elizabeth.

Australia's foster care system is a problem that is not going to go away. The number of children needing foster care has increased from 15,000 to 23,000 over the past five years. Meanwhile, the number of available foster parents has dropped from 14,000 to 9000.

Edwards, Verity. Foster mum had no baby-care training: Foster parents were not shown how to care for babies before a nine-month-old girl died while in care in 2004, a welfare group has admitted. The Australian, Nov. 2, 2006.
O'Dwyer, Erin. Worried foster parents in revolt over new rules. The Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 5, 2006.
Labour talk is cheap on foster care. Press release by United Future New Zealand Party, Oct. 31, 2006.
Vowles, Gill. Care shame: Tasmania's custodial grandparents are still waiting to get equity with foster carers four years after being promised it by the state and federal goverments. The Sunday Tasmanian, Oct. 29, 2006.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Foster Youth Need Both Independence and Permanency

Independence and Permanency – Can Youth in Care Have Both?
Notes from It's My Life Conference 2006

*Please note: The panel was made up of very fortunate youth. If you are linked with a wonderful foster family, legalization might not constitute a big issue. Not everyone is that fortunate. It would have been interesting to also hear from non-Casey foster youth.

Ideal for youth in care to have:
1.) Lifelong family relationships
2.) Adequate preparation for adulthood

*Definition of “permanence:” remaining until the end; indestructible (a stable mind in a stable place)
*Definition of “independence:” capable of thinking or acting for one self

What is “family?”
Nebulous definition; “people who are there for you all the time”

Biological vs. “chosen” family
Some youth are never adopted or linked with a long-term foster family; some age out of residential facilities.

How important is a legal family? Adoption can provide a last name and legal rights

Supporting and establishing a "circle of support"
Who should be involved and when should it start? As soon as possible! Emphasize the importance at an early age. Search out people with whom young person feels comfortable.

Start networking and information gathering from the time that a youth enters foster care. This needs to be forethought, not an afterthought. Empower the young person and involve them in the thought process and decision-making.

Perhaps the young person isn’t ready to think about a permanent placement yet. They might have the mindset of: “Why work on permanence when I don’t even have a home?” It's a bad idea to wait until young person finds a permanent foster home because that might never happen.

Youth-in-care need an entire web of connections; not just one person. This could include a mentor, therapist, peers, fellow alumni... You can’t put all your eggs in one basket, because that person might die or move away.

Most representatives on the panel were approximately 17 years old. I really see the need for a continuum of ages (FCAA). What I have learned as a 33-year-old alumna of foster care is that permanence and independence can be tenuous and fragile:

1.) If there are no legal ties, support networks can drift apart over time (especially if you move out of state; which many people do when attending / graduating from college)

2.) You might have to re-establish a support network / safety net later on – so it’s important to build the skills to do that, not just once, but over and over again

Difficult to explain confusing relationships to people from traditional (“normal”) families… Tough questions; it can be seem unfair and painful to have to explain over and over… Uncomfortable to have to educate other people.

Measured disclosure: Foster youth and alumni often err on one side or the other; “over-share” vs. “’under-share.” If no success stories are told, negative stereotypes and stigmas will continue to exist. On the other hand, too much disclosure can make other people feel uncomfortable.

1.) For those who over-share: Consider utilizing discretion.

Realize that it is a risk whenever you share your story with other people. There are wolves and predators out there who might try to take advantage of you; they hear your story and assume you might be emotionally (and hence sexually) vulnerable.

A job interview might not be the best time to bring it up either. Try to keep a balanced, professional relationship at work, and don’t ask for special favors. At my job, I took time to prove myself before sharing that I had grown up in foster care.

2.) For those who under-share: Summon up your courage and wait for the right opportunity. Take one small step out of your comfort zone.

If the only thing that people see is negative behavior coming from foster youth and alumni, they will never have the opportunity to witness our strengths and success, and to open their minds.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Lisa's flower costume at Casey conference

Part of the "It's My Life" conference included a Halloween party. I had sewn my flower costume ahead of time (created my own pattern and everything).

As it turned out, I was unable to attend the party, because of setting up everything for the Living Room, but I wore this in the Living Room that night for the youth activities.

Lots of the foster youth wore their costumes, too, but I was unable to take photos of them due to legal concerns (chaperones couldn't sign photo releases, and there was a risk that if I had taken photos, future youth wouldn't have been allowed to attend).

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

2006 It's My Life conference - Lisa's experience

I have had the most amazing time at the 2006 It's My Life Conference, sponsored by the Casey Foundation. This is their 4th annual conference to support youth aging out of foster care. I attended for the first time.

Friday night, the night before my flight, I got a call from Foster Care Alumni of America asking me to take charge of all the youth activities in the "Living Room," since Misty Stenslie, the person in charge, was very sick. I said, yes.

It was a lot of work... The phrase "sleepless in Seattle" has an entirely new meaning for me now, because I totally didn't get much sleep.

But it was so rewarding and so much fun! After my flight arrived on Saturday, I sorted through the boxes that had been Fed-Exed to me and pulled everything together, including creating an outline of shifts for volunteers to help me supervise the Living Room.

Activities: There were two afternoon workshops on Sunday and Monday. On Sunday night, I hosted an ice cream social, as well as other activities. One Monday night, we had a karaoke and DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) contest and the winner got to keep the Play Station, mike and software.

Tuesday morning, I announced the prizes for participants who had made postcards to share a part of their experience in foster care. We did a drawing; prizes included an ipod, digital camera, Best Buy gift cards, Target gifts cards and coupons for various fast food establishments.

I had lots of food coupons and so I was able to reward youth for taking on leadership roles, such as judging the contest, and also reward chaperones who volunteered to work shifts helping to supervise the Living Room activities.

I also met the most amazing people. Back in 1989, when I aged out of foster care at age 16, I felt very alone (at least for the first two years, until I moved into a Methodist dorm and was surrounded by college friends who became my "family").

Spending so much time with foster youth, I heard many of their stories... I was both happy to hear of how things in foster care have progressed in some areas, and saddened to hear how they still need to be improved in others.

The three-day conference was filled with interesting contacts and conversations -- drama and adventures... I left feeling very exhausted, but also rejuvenated and incredibly happy.

I will share what I have learned in upcoming blog entries...