Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Class action lawsuit against the state of Nevada

Nevada receives millions of dollars from the federal government to provide for foster care. Yet, an increasing number of children are dying in Clark County, Nevada.

The National Center for Youth Law is not asking for money.
They are asking for reform.

Today, they filed a class action lawsuit against:
-Nevada Governor Kennth Guinn
-Nevada Health and Human Services Director Michael Willden
-Clark County Official.

The charge is failing to protect the health and safety of the children in Clark County's child welfare system. This Nevada county is responsible for the welfare of over 3,600 children.

Among the charges against Clark County:
-Violating federal law that requires full disclosure of information about child abuse victims who have died or suffered near fatalities. Rather than doing so, staff have hidden behind a cloud of "confidentiality."

-Federal, state and county reports have documented the county's failure to protect child abuse victims and children in foster care. Children are dying, due to unsafe foster placements and by being left with their parents after substantiated reports of abuse.

Systemic problems with the Clark County child welfare system:

1.) Overcrowding in Child Haven: Infants and young children being placed with older children who have behavioral problems. Youth forced to sleep in the gym / on the floor.

2.) Inadequate investigations of child abuse: Not removing a child when the abuse charges are substantiated. Leaving children in life-threatening situations.

3.) Inadequate caseworker training: Combined with high caseloads, this is a recipe for disaster.

4.) Lack of representation for children in dependency court hearings: No one to speak for the children, who cannot speak for themselves.

5.) Failure to provide appropriate educational services to foster children.

Shortcuts have been taken, and children's deaths have been the result:
-Cases have been closed, although problems in the family and risks to the child's safety have not been resolved.
-DCF records do not contain coroner or law enforcemen reports.
-Caseworkers have been substituting a monthly phone call for home visits.
-Children have been returned to parents who have failed to complete substance abuse treatments.
-No follow-up with siblings, to ensure their safety, after a child has died.

Mandatory safery assessment forms were:
-Often incorrect
-Often incomplete
-Dated long after the date of the abuse

I applaud Bill Grimm, lead counsel in the case against Clark County, when he says, "The suffering of these children has gone on long enough. For years, state and county officials have known of the serious deficiencies ... and yet the situation keeps getting worse. The lives of thousands of children are literally hanging in the balance."

McCarty, Colleen McCarty. Lawsuit filed against Nevada over child welfare. KLAS-TV,Aug 30, 2006.
Schroth, Tracy. National Center for Youth Law files lawsuit in Nevada to improve child welfare system. Press release from National Center for Youth Law, Aug. 30, 2006.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Concern about Las Vegas Foster Care

In my previous blog, I outlined several problems with the Clark County foster care system. If you haven't read it, please do so because it is the context for this posting:

Children cannot pick their parents. They have little to no control when it comes to their foster placements. Sometimes, in foster care, children are raped. Sometimes severely abused. Rape and abuse scar deeply, but I know from experience that healing is possible.

Sometimes, in foster care or with their parents, children die. This is happening far too often with the Clark County foster care system. It is unacceptable.

Children often have no voice. As adults, we can be a voice for youth who cannot speak for themselves. This is both a supreme privilege and a weighty responsibility.

Children who are being abused feel alone. Think back to the worst thing that ever happened to you. Did you feel alone? Isolated in your experience?

Something must be done about this situation:
1.) I have contacted other foster alumni to ask for their insights.

2.) I have contacted Carole Schauffer, the Executive Director of the Youth Law Center.

3.) I have contacted Clark County Children's Services Director, Tom Morton.

It's not enough:
Please share your ideas and insights.
What can we do to improve this situation?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Viva Las Vegas Foster Care

Between 2001 and 2004, two children died every month while in the custody of Clark County Child Protective Services.

County officials remained mostly silent on the deaths, citing state laws that restrict information about the children from being released or referring to ongoing police investigations into the deaths.

Meanwhile, the number of children dying from abuse and neglect in Clark County nearly tripled during the first six months of this year.

Among the deaths:
-3 year old Crystal Figueroa, whose fragile, broken body was found in a dumpster.
- 2-year-old Adacelli Snyder died in 2005 because of malnutrition due to neglect. She had cerebral palsy. Her body was found in a trailer park. CPS had closed its case on Snyder's family about a year before she died.
-A 7-month-old boy who sustained a head injury while living with a foster parent.

The Child Death Review panel has been investigating 79 cases of foster children who died in Clark County between 2001-2001. Their task was to examine the worst-case-scenarios and try to determine whether or not those deaths could have been prevented.

Panel member Susan Gerhardt said, "We all agree there are serious problems. The system is broken at this point."

Problems cited include:
1.) Poor case management: At a hearing in April 2006, Clark County Children's Services employees stood up and admitted to ignoring forms and processes that would have protected the children.

2.) Lack of incident followup: In one case, it took a social worker more than 500 days to check on the welfare and safety of siblings in a home where a child had died.

2.) Bad record-keeping: The panel found incomplete records of visits to familes and poor communication between agencies put in charge of children.

3.) Overcrowded shelters:
-In June 2006, Child Haven had 205 children, 105 of them age 4 or under, despite the fact that the facility is designed to hold only 84 children and 20 infants.
-In August 2006, as of this week, Child Haven has 146 children and 40 infants.

4.) Length of stay (in shelters) is also an issue: The Department of Family Service's policy is that children shouldn't stay at Child Haven longer than two weeks, but the average stay there is 45 days.

Upon investigation, it was revealed that children were remaining in Child Haven for three to six months, and in some instances a year or longer. One child had been in Child Haven for over two years.

5.) Critical lack of foster homes: More than 2,000 in Clark County, Nevada, are in out-of-home placement because they are not safe at home. Meanwhile, there are only about 900 licensed foster homes in Clark County.

According to Thomas Morton, the new director of DFS, potential foster parents need to understand that 80 to 90-percent of the children living in Child Haven will eventually be reunited with their parents. Apparently, Clark County does not actively promote the foster-to-adopt approach.

6.) Lack of communication: Police did not always report the deaths, and in at least 12 cases, the district attorney did not investigate.

According to Assistant District Attorney Robert Tutin, "If your mandate is to ensure the safety of children and there are not other children in the home, it is not going to be a priority." Tutlin claimed that caseloads were so high that district attorneys had to focus on other cases.

Darryl Martin, Assistant County Manager for Clark County, disagrees, "That is a bad practice. That is an old practice and it has been going on for years." He is working on mandating that officials investigate and report child deaths from now on.

In at least one of the 12 cases that weren't investigated, a parent went on to kill another child.

7.) Overall lack of accountability: The panel recommended a complete overhaul of the Clark County family and child welfare system.

Clark County Children's Services recently hired a new directory, Tom Morton. During his first 15 days on the job, a child was left in a hot van alone by a child haven worker.

The deaths continue:
Meanwhile, 15-month-old Joshua Sharp died at Child Haven last week. He was found unconscious and could not be revived before being pronounced dead at a hospital. This was the second fatality at Child Haven this year.

Impending lawsuit?
Carole Shauffer, executive director for the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit law office in San Francisco that works with abused and at-risk children, is considering filing a lawsuit against the state and county if the issues are not resolved.

The Youth Law Center, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, has given Clark County a series of deadlines to reform the child welfare system in Southern Nevada.

These groups threaten a lawsuit if the deadlines and reforms are not made.

Their goals are:
- To disallow placement of children younger than 6 at Child Haven
- To stop police from removing children in emergency situations without social worker involvement
- To step up efforts to keep children and families together

I wonder:
- Why not open the door for foster parents to foster-to-adopt?
- Will postponing child removal cause more or less child deaths?
- Should families like Crystal Figueroa's be kept together?

However, I wholeheartedly agree with Carol Schauffer that, "The basic policies of the child welfare system are not supportive of the developmental needs of the children."

Blaze, Ashanti. Another baby dies in Las Vegas foster care. KLASTV Eyewitness News, August 4, 2006.
Foster family recruitment in Clark County. KLASTV Eyewitness News, July 25, 2006.
Guzman, Martha. Number of child deaths up this year. KLASTV Eyewitness News, April 5, 2006.
Kihara, David. Infant dies at Child Haven: Death latest in series of woes for system. Las Vegas Review Journal, August 16, 2006.
Kihara, David. Overcrowding: Child welfare groups warn of lawsuits Youth Law Center demands reforms. Las Vegas Review Journal, August 19, 2006.
Kihara, David. State warned about foster system: Conditions have worsened, federal officals say. Las Vegas Review Journal, August 17, 2006.
McCarthy, Alyson. Panel looks for answers into county child deaths. KLASTV Eyewitness News, July 6, 2006.
McCarty, Coleen. Commissioners react to child deaths in Clark county. KLASTV Eyewitness News, June 6, 2006.
Morrison, Jane Ann. A grandmother's gumption helped crack the case of a cowardly act . Las Vegas Review Journal, Feb. 25, 2006.
Official concerned about Clark County foster care. KVVU, Fox 5 News, August 17, 2006.
Plaskon, Ky. Incomplete child death records: Whose blame? KLASTV Eyewitness News, April 21, 2006.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Charter School for Foster Youth?

As a result of my recent Edspresso article, I was asked for my insights regarding a Maryland initiative. Basically, this group is trying to develop a charter school for foster youth living in the city of Baltimore.

This charter school would provide classes for elementary and middle school students. Staffing would be comprised of a team of teachers with expertise in helping foster youth succeed academically.

Partnerships would (hopefully) be developed with foster parents and group home staff, in order to develop a supportive community around school. This group is also looking into fund-raising, in order to provide extracurricular programs for foster youth during the summer.

Benefits of this program:
1.) Obviously, educational support, which many foster youth sorely need.

2.) Accountability for youth to show up at school.

3.) Focusing on elementary and middle students seems to be in order to establish early intervention, and to keep younger children from falling behind.

Risks of this program:
1.) Might overlook foster youth's need for "normalizing" experiences.
My first question was, "What opportunties will be given for foster youth to interact with nonfoster youth?" If even the extracurricular activities include only foster youth, those youth will be missing out on social opportunties with youth from more stable backgrounds.

As a foster alumni, I would have to say that my friendships with peers from different backgrounds were very valuable to me in developing a full and accurate picture of the world while growing up. Being around only other fosters can lead to a more "skewed" perspective. There needs to be a balance.

2.) Perceptions: How will youth view the program? How will it be viewed by the public? Hopefully not as an institution, because there can be some negative stigmas attached to that.

3.) Future transitions: How difficult will it be for middle school foster youth who "age out" of this charter school to adjust to regular high school? Will support drop off entirely?

Things to consider:
1.) Need for proactive community education:
It will be important to proactively share positive information about the program, every year, with high school guidance counselors and principals in the local area.
Otherwise, when youth age out of the program in middle school and enter high school, seeing the institute's name on their school records might lead to assumptions or stigma.

2.) Importance of challenging personal assumptions:
Teachers might need to challenge their preconceived assumptions of foster youth. Some foster youth excel academically, others struggle. There's no one set curriculum that will work with all foster youth.

3.) Regarding partnering with group homes and foster parents to develop a community... I'd be interested to see how that works out.

Group home staff don't always have the same level of investment as some of the more dedicated foster parents. There's less of a bond when it's a job that you come home from after you work your shift, versus a child who is actually living in your home.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Foster Youth and College

Here is a link to my article about educational vouchers for Arizona foster children:

Educational challenges for foster youth to overcome:
- 65% of foster children experience seven or more school K-12 changes.
- There is often a lack of (biological) parental support.
- Many foster youth do not attend high schools with college preparatory curriculum.
- 37% of foster youth drop out of high school, as opposed to 16% of nonfoster youth.
- Many earn their GED, rather than a diploma.

Foster teens often perceive college as unaffordable. They may lack the skills (or patience) necessary to fill out a FAFSA form online.

Due to the myriad of disadvantages, it should not be surprising that, although 70% of foster teenagers express interest in attending college, only 10% of traditionally college-aged foster youth access post-secondary education. What this means is that roughly 100,000 college qualified foster youth are missing out on opportunity to attend.

Programs that support college access by foster youth:
- Chaffee Independence program
- Chaffee Education & Training Voucher
- Statewide and independently-based programs (Guardian Scholars Program at CSU, Governor’s Scholarship Program in Washington

Facts about foster alumni who go to college:
- Foster youth represent less than 1% of undergraduates.

-The majority of foster youth undergraduates are female .
- Foster youth have substantially lower incomes than non-foster students.

Despite their disadvantages, foster youth are just as likely to attend 4-year colleges, are as likely to attend full-time and their college costs are nearly identical.

However, foster alumni are more likely to drop out of college. (53% of foster vs. 31% nonfoster college students dropped out in 2001).

Two suggestions to improve the situation:
1.) Housing: Residence halls need to open year-round. States can provide former foster care youths, ages 18, 19, and 20, with financial, housing, counseling, employment and education. However, there is a federal requirement that no more than 30% of a state’s allotment of funds may be used to provide room and board.

2.) Programs like GEAR UP and TRIO should target foster youth. Foster youth in high school need mentoring and guidance.

Davis, Ryan K. Research and Policy Associate. National Association of Student Aid Administrators 2006 Retention Conference.

Foster youth benefit from extracurricular activities

How do extracurricular activities benefit foster youth?
It's difficult to argue the fact that foster youth face educational disadvantages.

Statistics from the Child Trends Databank reveal that foster children are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school and exhibit low levels of school engagement and minimal involvement with extracurricular activties.

Steve Duncan, PhD, of Montana State University attests that, "School extracurricular activities and involvement in community clubs and organizations are important in fostering the strengths of youth; strengths that help young people steer away from undesirable behavior."

According to research, extracurricular involvement by foster children is strongly associated with healthy educational attainment.

Benefits include:
- Lower drop-out rates
- Increased attachment to school
- Increased self esteem
- Better educational outcomes

Being involved in school activities "normalizes" foster youth. It offers opportunities for them to build friendships with youth from different backgrounds. Participation in this arena helps foster children to discern and embrace their talents and abilities.

Barriers to extracurricular involvement

1.) Liability concerns: Traditionally, foster children have often been prohibited from activities such as spending the night at a friend's house, involvement in activities such as clubs or sports teams and even field trips.

Foster parents have been reluctant to (or discouraged from) signing permission slips, without prior approval from the social worker, licensing agency and/or juvenile court.

2.) Frequent school changes: Changing schools makes extracurricular involvement challenging, but not impossible. As a foster teenager, I changed schools five times in high school, while maintaining involvement in Art, Chorus, Drama / Speech Club, Journalism and Junior Miss.

3.) Funding: Special recreational/hobby/extracurricular activity expenditures are not always reimbursed. This includes the purchase or rental of equipment and membership and participation in organized groups, such as the Y, Scouts or Little League.

4.) Transportation: If the foster parent has multiple children in their home, this can be an issue.

What was your experience?
Surprisingly, I have heard tales from foster parents about being required to stay with their foster child (or teenager) throughout the duration of extracurricular activities.

Some states have passed a bill allowing foster parents to apply a "prudent parent standard." For those of you who are foster parents, and who read the blog, I would be interested in hearing about your personal experiences.

Fong, Rowena and Schwab, James, PhD. Relationship between foster care youth's participation in extracurricular activities and positive placement outcomes. Society for Social Work and Research, University of Texas: Janary 14, 2006.
Postcard from "Exploring the Culture of Foster Care"

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Foolish to view foster care vouchers as a threat

I've been asked to write an article for Edspresso on Arizona school vouchers.

As a former foster child, I will be sharing:
1.) How being in foster care limited my educational opportunities.
2.) How the Arizona voucher program might have made a difference.
3.) Other reasons that I think that the voucher program is a good idea.

I will post a link once it is published.

Meanwhile, I would like to explain more about these vouchers, and why some groups are threatened by them.

Arizona vouchers for foster children
Within the $10 billion state budget recently signed by Governor Janet Napolitano was a new $2.5 million voucher program was approved for foster children, granting scholarships of $5,000 per student to attend the school of their choice (public or private).

This could be good news for Arizona's population of approximately 10,000 children in foster care. A scholarship would mean that a foster child would stay at the same school, learning (and hopefully exceling) in the same curriculum, even if he or she were forced to change foster homes.

Accusations by naysayers
School choice advocates call the vouchers a victory, while public education advocates are outraged.

Was this budget deal, as some claim, "negotiated in secrecy" and "voted on in the middle of the night?" Does it "jeopardize school funding?"

Is it true that, as Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, has claimed that, "The deal is not worth the damage?"

Does it breach on a core value or set a dangerous precedent? My answer is: no.

Was Chuck Essigs ever a foster child? Does he know what it's like to change schools on average of five times per year? Would he like to attend the public school in whatever foster home he was living in, regardless of whether or not that school offered suffient college preparatory classes?

I don't think so. My suspicion is that his paycheck is on his mind more than whether foster children in public schools are receiving the support they need to overcome their economic challenges.

Get your facts straight
Rep. John Allen, of Scottsdale, reports that, "The vouchers weren't taking money away from the public school system. We weren't going to spend more money there in the first place."

Darcy Olsen of the Goldwater Institute commented that, "This is about students, not systems. It's not about whether we fund private schools, public schools or some combination. Grant money goes directly to students."

Or, how about this quote from Joyce Thompson in Cleveland, OH: "Kids don't ask to be born in this world. They don't pick their parents. I really wanted the best education for my daughter but I couldn't afford it. Then I heard about the scholarship program and there was hope."

For more information, check out Dan Lips' article at:

Falkenhagen, Andrea. School voucher deal angers some.
Lips, Dan. Help foster children on education.
McNeil, Michele. Arizona adds foster care voucher to school choice package. Education Week, Vol. 25, Issue 42: July, 12, 2006.
Strickenberger, Benjamin. Arizona state legislator and Governor Napoliteno expand school choice. Lexington Institute, Issue Brief: June 26, 2006.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Why California foster youth need good news

Okay, I've never done this before on my Sunshine blog...

Usually for this blog, I share my insights as a foster care alumna, describe current and/or historical issues, promote resources and cite articles that I used as sources.

But this article by Joe Piasecki was so well-written and so powerful, that I am going to quote it directly:

Throwaway kids: Thousands of area foster children leave county care for a dangerous and desperate life on the streets
By Joe Piasecki

Except for the tape holding his ripped black boots together and a needle wound on his right arm that looks red and infected, you wouldn’t know Brian Chytka is in deep trouble.

The 22-year-old is surrounded by those he calls family. There’s a street-smart skater, a young punk-rocker in jeans who laughs like all of this is somehow funny, and a girl with military-short hair and a lip ring who looks healthy but knows she will die a heroin addict. She won’t eat the food I offer her because she feels sick from going a day without a fix.

Heroin is also Chytka’s drug of choice. It was his dad’s, too.

Like thousands of former Los Angeles County foster youth who have left state care homeless, penniless, ready-made targets for drug dealers and sexual predators, Chytka lives wild on the streets. Anonymous victims of broken homes and of tragic neglect as wards of our overtaxed and impersonal foster care bureaucracy, they have become LA’s throwaway kids.

Every day in Hollywood, youth who have recently become homeless visit My Friend’s Place, one of only a few charities offering drug and psychological counseling, showers, food, even haircuts to people under 25. It was near here that I found Chytka, one of only a few young people actually willing to tell their stories, and his friends carrying their food around in a plastic bag one afternoon in May.

Half of the kids who go to My Friend’s Place have been in foster care — more than 700, according to David Brinkman, the center’s executive director. All too commonly, he said, “Foster parents drop their kids off at our door into homelessness.”

Brinkman’s figures for those troubled youth who find their way to Hollywood are actually deceivingly low when it comes to telling the fates of former youth countywide, according to the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles. The group says nearly one-third of foster youth — and there are more than 25,000 of them right now, according to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) — become homeless within two years of leaving the system. Another group, the Covenant House of California, guesses that as many as half of local foster youth become homeless in six months.

LA is not alone in failing to keep its children from a life on the streets at 18. Nationwide, according to foster youth advocates Casey Family Programs, as many as half of former foster youth will become homeless sometime after leaving care.

If nothing changes, 75,000 American kids will become homeless after leaving foster care over the next 15 years, Casey President William Bell warned members of the state Assembly last month.

Those now living on the streets and others who, thanks to a few dedicated people inside and outside the system working on their behalf, are beating the odds and putting their once-broken lives back together have troubling stories to share. Many were abused at home, bounced in and out of foster homes, struggled in school, made few if any lasting relationships and learned little about caring for themselves.

JJ, who turns 21 in June, spent the past three years sleeping under freeway bridges, in abandoned homes and in Pasadena’s Central Park. She became homeless at 18 when, tired of being moved from group home to group home, she successfully fought to be emancipated from the system.

“Being out on the street, not knowing what I was going to see on the next corner, having people literally push a crack pipe in my face — I couldn’t handle it,” said JJ, who entered foster care after using drugs and suffering sexual abuse at home.

JJ and the other youth in this story are identified only by their first names because they are either under 18 or fear that people knowing their pasts would affect their ability to find mainstream jobs and housing. Chytka demanded that his name be used.

Twenty-year-old Jonathan isn’t homeless, but his eligibility for free county-sponsored housing in Burbank runs out in a month, and so far he’s got nowhere to go. In and out of 15 different foster homes since he was 5, including one in which his foster parent didn’t speak English, Jonathan says no one noticed he couldn’t read until high school.

According to Casey Family Programs, 46 percent of American foster children leave the system without a high school diploma.

The state has a long way to go before it can be declared a good parent to kids in our foster care system,” said Assemblywoman Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s Select Committee on Foster Care. Pushing a package of legislation that would extend housing, health care and other benefits to foster youth until they are as old as 24, the committee is hoping to go a long way very quickly.

800 down — 9,200 to go
That society has somehow failed the kids in its care who grow up to be homeless is clear. Finding out why this is happening and, more importantly, how to fix it takes some commitment.

-Money trickles down from Washington, but comes with restrictions.
-States make rules, too, and also disburse funds to counties.
-Counties, in order to deliver housing, health, education and other services to current and former foster youth and administrate these funds, have set up complex bureaucracies of departments within departments.
-They, in turn, subcontract to social services nonprofits, which, of course, have to meet government requirements.

And then there are the kids themselves — 90,000 in California alone, each one with a different story and a different set of needs.

LA County’s foster care program is not only the largest in the United States, it’s larger than the programs managed by many states. But here there are fewer than 800 beds available for kids leaving foster care with nowhere to go, and all but 244 of those are operated by local nonprofits that receive some of these funds, according to DCFS Emancipation Services Director Rhelda Shabazz.

“We probably need about 10,000 beds. That would guarantee every youth who wanted it could have one,” said Shabazz.

The problem? Not enough money, she said.Of the $18 million in federal funds her department received this year, only 30 percent, roughly $5.4 million, can be spent on temporary “transitional” housing and rental assistance for kids growing up and leaving the system.

The rest goes toward education grants and programs that teach kids to drive, cook for themselves or understand credit and banking practices. County social services workers called independent living coordinators work with foster youth to plan services delivery several years before emancipation, and services remain available to kids until they turn 21, even when they leave the system voluntarily and come back later for help, said Shabazz.

But when it comes to housing, there are other resources available.

This year, said state Department of Social Services spokesman Michael Westin, $8.1 million in state funding is available to counties that will provide matching funds to expand transitional housing programs. Like most other counties, LA has not put up matching funds.

Removing that requirement is just one of several goals of the Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care. A package of legislation currently wending its way through the Legislature specifically targets keeping foster youth off the streets when they leave the system. The bills have found support from both parties and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The bills would make independent living services programs mandatory for all foster youth and give them the option to stay in the system until they turn 21. Other services, like transitional housing and education grants, would remain an option to emancipated foster youth for an additional three years, until they turn 24. To better supervise services delivery, the bills would establish a state Child Welfare Council and Undersecretary of Foster Care.

“We definitely need to make some improvements with the population of youth emancipating out of care,” said Bass. “The reality is kids in all areas of the world are not ready to be financially independent at 18.”For Pasadena Democratic Assemblywoman Carol Liu, also a member of the task force, the time to act is now.

“It’s important we try to resolve these problems upfront while we still have control over these kids. It’s a no-brainer to try to provide for these kids. Otherwise they wind up in our system being incarcerated or homeless,” said Liu, who several years ago authored the Foster Care Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all foster youth the right to obtain services, file complaints and have access to attorneys and the courts.

According to the Children’s Law Center, 20 percent of ex-foster youth in the United States will serve time behind bars within two years of leaving care.

“It’s a system that does need looking at, because if we don’t put the money upfront, you’re going to pay for it someplace down the line. We don’t want to waste more lives with something we certainly can fix,” she said.

Big plans
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a push to create more transitional housing and other services for youth is underway as part of the Bring LA Home campaign, the $100-million plan to end homelessness in the county that was designed by a blue-ribbon panel of community leaders.

Released in April, the plan calls for specific services and new housing for homeless youth, and has convened a task force to deliver that plan in July.

“We need a comprehensive, countywide approach for service planning and delivery for youth,” reads the report, which cites a study in the late 1990s that found more than 60 percent of Hollywood street youth had a history of foster care.

Housing these kids, said Brinkman, is the essential first step in really helping them and should be a starting point for services.

“When you have a youth you’ve been working with for eight hours … and put them on the streets at night full of pedophiles and gang-bangers and pimps looking to take advantage of this population, the next time you see them they’re back in crisis again,” he said.

Natalie Profant Komuro, director of policy and planning for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, helped craft the Bring LA Home report and is optimistic that change is coming — despite facing a lack of funding handicapping her understaffed department.

“What I think is very exciting about the timing of this is the unprecedented resources available to help,” she said.

Much of those resources come from nonprofits. Last year in Pasadena, the Hillsides center for troubled youth used grant money to purchase an apartment building that now houses 28 emancipated foster youth who have entered the system as victims of abuse.

The Hillsides Youth Moving On facility is the first affordable housing project of its kind in LA County and is unique in that it’s not just for youth. Many of the apartments in the complex are rented at market rate in order to fund the down payment for a second building.

Jeanette Mann, a member of the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees and a parishioner at All Saints Church in Pasadena, runs a program out of the church that sends donations and volunteers to organizations including My Friend’s Place, Hillsides and the Old Pasadena-based Sycamores, which helps foster youth get adopted or find permanent and loving foster homes that are monitored by the agency.

They also take in foster youth who, for whatever reason, run away or get kicked out of group homes for aggressive or criminal behavior and would otherwise end up in juvenile detention.

Lots of groups and agencies are doing good work, but they need volunteers, so we recruit volunteers,” said Mann of All Saints’ Foster Care Project, which boasts a database of some 380 volunteers. Many donate to the project’s Birthday Club, which sends cards and presents to hundreds of foster kids whose birthdays would otherwise go unmarked.

But it wasn’t too long ago that nonprofit resources weren’t as plentiful, and federal funding restrictions were so tight that local governments had their hands tied when it came to spending on youth aging out of foster care. That’s when Patricia Curry, who runs a Pasadena insurance business and has served on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families for more than a decade, started her youth advocacy.

In the early ‘90s, foster youth weren’t on anybody’s radar, she explained.

“People just really weren’t aware, the amount of [independent living services] dollars was very small, and there was no transitional housing. The kids would emancipate with a big old sack on their back, pick up a Hefty bag and just walk out onto the streets,” she said.

Since that time, awareness has increased, so much that a group from the nonprofit community has formed Pasadena Transitional Partners to discuss foster care issues and untangle the web of government resources for kids who come into their care.

One of the group’s members, Susan Abignale of Casey Family Programs, helps run a drop-in resource center on Green Street, one of nine such centers that have opened in the county over the past decade.Casey’s Alumni Center in Pasadena focuses on finding housing, education and employment for kids, and often helps them reconnect with the foster care system to receive any benefits for which they might be eligible.

Meanwhile, the Mental Health Services Act (2004’s Proposition 63) has allowed county officials to allocate some $14 million to foster care and transitional housing programs, money that Curry said will soon allow service workers to treat and house more street youth with mental health needs.

While kids fall to the street for a variety of reasons, many are traumatized by horrific acts of abuse and are forced to deal with untreated medical problems. As for the homeless plan, “it is what it is,” said Komura, “but there isn’t any money now saying we can launch this campaign.”

What’s needed, she said, is a locally driven plan not just to house kids, but to use those resources to bring more stability into their lives to allow them to find their feet.

‘A failure of the state’
Jonathan, the 20-year-old whose time in transitional housing is about to run out, said instability is the biggest hurdle he’s faced as a foster child.

“Right after my high school graduation was pretty much the day I got kicked out of my foster home. The guy I was living with didn’t want me there since they were going to stop paying him. Luckily the social worker was able to find me a place after a couple of days,” he said.

Now an intern at the Casey Alumni Center in Pasadena, Jonathan counts himself lucky to have a job and a high school diploma, though he’s had to put college on hold to sort out the basics of his life, like paying for food, transportation and a new place to stay.

Casey Community Programs Supervisor Marvin Carter has found that finding stability, more so than more resources, is the key to success after foster care.

“When you get that first apartment, that first job, the challenge is not getting it, it’s keeping it,” said Carter of those he works with. “If I had to generalize, the problem when you talk about transition-age youth is keeping things. It runs parallel to their overall life, moving from place to place. Going to work on time, calling in when you’re not feeling well, the things that show we’re taking responsibility we take for granted because we’ve had it ingrained in us since we were kids. I don’t know if they didn’t have it, but it’s the stability and consistency of [the message], having a consistent person giving that message.”

And even if there were enough of it for everybody in Jonathan’s shoes, transitional housing is still only an option for two years, and you can only learn so much about caring for yourself in a county-funded independent living classroom.

For whatever reason, many foster youth aren’t benefiting from the federally funded life-skills independent living programs that go along with it, according to Human Rights Watch’s Los Angeles Office, which recently conducted a study of homeless foster children in San Francisco and Hollywood.

What they’re telling me is that they aren’t getting the preparation and support they need to enter into adulthood, regardless of what part of the state they’re from or when they left the system,” said Human Rights Watch Children’s Advocate Elizabeth Calvin, who presented a preliminary report to the Assembly Select Committee of Foster Care on May 8.

In her report, Calvin details complaints by several youth that group homes ironically went too far in treating them like a child before they were forced to leave. One said he wasn’t allowed to ride the bus or get a job. Another said she had to wait to take a class on how to do such normal things.

Others told Calvin they had no idea medical coverage, school tuition assistance and transitional housing were even available, or that they left transitional housing to become homeless.

They’re really describing experiences of not having been given basic tools on how to be an adult, very basic things like how to cook, budget money, rent an apartment, protect themselves from people trying to take advantage of them,” said Calvin. “From the perspective of Human Rights Watch, this is a failure of the state because these children are dependent on the state for more than just food and shelter; they’re dependent for their development.”

‘And you can quote me’
Actually, said Shabazz, the state is doing much to make sure kids don’t fall through the cracks. Sometimes the hard part is getting the kids on board.

“Unfortunately, it seems there are youth that have not received services, but I believe that’s the exception, not the rule. Again, it’s voluntary. Youth are offered services and many of them choose to take them,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of outreach.”

County officials are currently sponsoring a survey of foster youth and are holding discussion-based forums to see what kids really think about what’s available to them. In order to encourage more foster youth to participate, they’re offering a $50 gift card to those who fill one out.

And some foster youth really excel in these programs. More than 100 gathered downtown last week at the Walt Disney Concert Hall to celebrate not only their high school graduation but also their scholarships for college.

Sometimes people have the wrong impression about who foster kids are and what it means to be in the foster care system. People think the kids have done something, but they’re there by circumstance and can achieve as much as any other kid,” said Polly Williams, president of United Friends of the Children.

United Friends, founded in 1979 by Nancy Riordan, wife of former LA Mayor Dick Riordan, finds scholarships for foster youth in its program, offers an array of life-skills training and operates its own transitional housing program.

Fewer than one in five foster youth will go to college, and many don’t graduate, said Williams.

Patrice, a former foster child who worked with United Friends and graduated from UC Berkeley earlier this year, is one of those proud few. Separated from her siblings at a young age, she hopes to find them some day to offer support.

“Mentors in my life were guiding me and pushing me along,” said Patrice. “Counselors, about anything about life … that’s one of the things foster kids need and what helped me get through this.”

All of this, however, seems terribly unimportant to a group of a half-dozen African-American current and former foster youth who visited My Friend’s Place just a few weeks ago. In that group were sisters Danielle, 17, and Chan’tell, 15, who said they resent being placed in foster care and just want to be left alone.

“Right now I’m kind of AWOL,” said Danielle, originally from Baldwin Hills. “I ran away because they made me mad. They took me to some old lady’s house. I didn’t know her.

“If a 17-year-old girl says she wants to be free, you should let her go, because if you keep trying to take her back to a foster care she’s gonna leave. If I can’t be with my family, I’d rather be alone. I don’t want to be with somebody else trying to tell me what to do, and they’re not my family,” said Danielle, who plans to get a job when she turns 18 so she can adopt her younger sister.

Taking a cue from Danielle, Chan’tell explains that she’s all about family and the system is not; that the freedom of the streets is more appealing than foster care because the people she cares about are here.

“They just need to leave us be because we’re all family and we don’t want to be split up, and there’s no way you can split up family, anyway,” she said. “Honestly, out here we take care of each other better than any foster parent could take care of us.”

Brinkman explained that three out of five kids My Friend’s Place serves have what the social services community has come to call street families. These six boys and girls as well as Chytka’s group are street families, made up of youth in similar circumstances who tend to trust only each other.

And why not be wary, especially about a system as complex as each child is unique?

“It’s hard to know how much of it is normal adolescent rebellion compounded with a complicated history and issues of abuse and neglect. It’s never just one reason,” said Lesley Heimov, policy director for the Monterey Park-based Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group appointed by the Los Angeles Superior Court to represent most youth in the foster care system.

Some, like Danielle, ditch the system because they no longer trust it, most likely from having bad experiences or inadequate care, said Heimov.

“I distinctly remember a foster home where the people in the house did more drugs than the people in the house that I came from, and that’s including the foster kids,” said Pasadena’s JJ of her Tarzana foster home five years ago.

Others, like Chytka, just haven’t been given the tools to keep themselves out of trouble. And despite the positive changes that have occurred in preparing foster youth for adulthood, change has been so recent that the generation leaving care now hasn’t been entirely caught up.

“The biggest challenge is establishing rapport as adults,” said Brinkman of working with street youth at My Friend’s Place. “Constantly they have been failed by the adults in their lives, and they are very wary of adults, period.”

As if to illustrate his point, Danielle asked me to send a message to the Department of Children and Family Services: “Let the foster care system know that they can kiss my black a** — and you can quote me on that.”

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Good news for California foster youth

In 2004:
-More than 100,000 children in California were victims of abuse or neglect.
-Nearly 39,000 children were removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
-This is an average of more than 100 children being placed in care per day.

As of June 2006:
- There were between 82,000 - 85,000 California foster children.
- This makes up 20% of foster children nationwide.

According to the National Center for Youth Law, California has the largest foster care population of all 50 states.

What's the good news?

1.) Plans to improve transitional services for foster youth:
As of June 2006, California has started working with the National Governor's Association to improve services for youth who age out of foster care.

Top policymakers from California will spend the next year developing strategies and programs to keep foster youth in school, and to help them combat drugs, mental illness and delinquency.

Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and South Carolina are also participating in this project.

2.) Increased funding for foster youth to attend college:
A budget increase of $8.2 million for college readiness and assistance for foster youth has recently been approved in the 2006-07 state budget.

This money was delegated to the Foster Youth Services Education Program. The goal is to provide enough financial aid to fully fund all eligible foster youth.

3.) Increased funding for transitional housing:
$4 million dollars in the state budget has been earmarked for transitional housing for emancipating foster youth.

Akers, Rob. Leno foster care bill gets funding. Bay Area Reporter, Vol.36, August 3, 2006.

American Public Welfare Association. Victims of abuse or neglect in California. Policy & Practice 64.2 (June 2006): p38.

Lockhart, Lee. Foster care reform (editorial). Business Journal serving Fresno & central San Joaquin Valley; 6/9/2006, Issue 323567, p. 30.

McNeil, Michele. NGA partners with states on foster-care effort. Education Week; 7/12/2006, Vol. 25 Issue 42, p26.

No time to be complacent (editorial). San Francisco Chronicle; 8/2/2006.