Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Lending A Hand to Worldwide Child Protection

Hands can hurt
and hands can heal.

Hands can be raised in prayer,
raised in agreement
or raised in anger.

A hand can pat you on the back with encouragement,

or it can grip your shoulders and throw you against the wall.

Hands can reach out to you to take something that you can never get back.

But hands can also be instruments of love, comfort and healing.

Hands are being raised across the world in preparation for National Child Protection Week. These hands will be part of an international flag of commitment, pledging to do our part to make the world a friendlier place for children. The flag will fly in Cairns Australia during the week of September 2 - 8, proudly waving handprints from all over the globe.

My hand is raised to pledge my commitment to supporting the needs of people in and from foster care. It represents my vow to advocate for their voice to be heard, and to stand alongside of them, creating a collective voice.

My hand is raised in hope that what has been broken can be rebuilt, and what has been hurt can heal. Sometimes it takes years – but children from fractured families can eventually find a family of their own.

I found my first family in my friends in college and built my second when I married my husband and became a stepmother to his two children. Now, I have a third family in terms of my “siblings,” other alumni of foster care.

Finally, my hand is raised in a plea for balance in making decisions about the futures of young people in foster care. We cannot allow finances to determine child placement. We cannot worship theories, and use one method in every situation – because, with child protection, there is no “one-size-fits-all approach.”

There is no magical formula for families that break down. Sometimes biological parents are willing and able to change. Other times, children who are forced to stay with abusive parents die or are forever scarred -- physically or emotionally -- by their parents' actions. The bottom line is whether or not the child and their siblings are safe.

"Having a place to go – is a home.
Having someone to love – is a family." - Donna Hedges

"A house is a home when it shelters the body and comforts the soul." - Phillip Moffitt

Friday, July 27, 2007

Laying the groundwork for a statewide independent living survey

SAMPLE: Young people ages 17-23*, residing in licensed public / private foster and group home facilities in 10 counties across the state.

*We will be focusing on cases in AFCARS data... which unfortunately does not include kinship care placements. And, logistics dictate that the survey of youth who have already aged out of care will be done through a random sample of ETV recipients, for this initial study.

COLLABORATION: This survey will be most useful if it is a collaborative effort including the statewide Youth Advisory Board, statewide public and private foster care agencies, statewide independent living association and the state chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America.

Each group has insights to offer in terms of: questions to ask, method of asking questions, logistics of surveying, usability of information – reporting out and using results.

1.) Compile a list of independent living coordinators in each county and find out how many counties have after-care coordinators.

2.) Schedule a conference call with organizations listed above to invite them to partner on this project.

3.) After identifying the independent living experts in each county, they should be invited to participate in a conference call as well.

An examination of the current county level of funding for independent living services divided by the number of youth in care in each county has revealed that the money is indeed being dispersed fairly and equitably to each county. The discrepancy lies in how this money is being spent to help young people who are public wards of the state.

Independent living services differ greatly by county.
Some young people have reported receiving a lot of guidance and support, while others report receiving none.

1.) OCT - DEC 2007 Identify independent living specialists in each county.

2.) JAN - MARCH 2008Analyze type of independent living services provided, annual budget, amount of staff, number of youth served, barriers/challenges to providing services.

3.) APRIL - MAY 2008 Random sample of foster home and group home providers, knowledge of services available and barriers/challenges to accessing services.

4.) JUNE - AUG 2008Youth questionnaire: types and amounts of IL services provided, perceived usefulness, knowledge of available services, barriers/challenges to receiving assistance and support.

I think the best part of this proposed research project is the fourth step: eliciting feedback from young people in and from foster care. We are the "consumers" of the child welfare system -- and professionals can learn much from our insights and experiences!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Testimonials from other former foster children

What worked for us:

1.) Seeking higher education

- "Get an education, it may be very easy, or it may be very hard. Some may need to recuperate from the time spent in care first. And some may be ready to hit college immediately."

- "I went to college right away. Though in retrospect I didn't know enough about what I wanted to study, I needed those years to learn to take care of myself."

- "I started college and stayed in school, even during a period of homelessness. I went straight on to grad school. Being in college was like my second childhood, and my friends there were my first real family."

2.) Financial aid (Pell Grants, student loans, graduate internships, work-study)

- "Financial aid, and also getting a job right away in freshman year - it was definitely not glorious, working in the school cafeteria, and there were some terrible nights that I had no money for dinner and had to throw out enormous quantities of unpurchased food, but it taught me to work for my keep and also the value of money, because I knew how long it took me to earn it back."

- "Jobs on campus where I could study (working night desk at a girl's dorm, working day desk at a basketball dorm, working the info desk at the campus student center)."

3.) Developing a network of restorative relationships

- "I learned how to depend on people. I think most of us who have ever experienced foster care had to grow up real, real fast. We needed to learn to be independent and strong much earlier than most of our peers…

- "With age, we are all expected to become more and more independent and so it became even harder for me to ask for help.

- "I had to learn that I wasn’t perfect and that I couldn’t do everything by myself. My life became so frustrating and lonely and desperate at times that I would cry and then hate myself for crying."

- "Luckily, I have friends who are always reaching out for me and helping me when I don’t even ask for it. They wanted me to depend on them… and as I learned to depend on them, that’s when I realized that with dependence comes love. You can’t love a person if you can’t depend on him or her."

4.) Finding your roots and/or developing new ones

- "Try to keep your relationship (or reconnect) with your siblings. They are the only ones that are able to stand by your side and say yes, x, y and z happened and we made it through. Celebrate the triumph of making it out with a bunch of scratches (visible or not), but still having made it out."

- "I thank God for my friends… they have done so much for me. During the breaks when the dorms are closed, a number of people were willing to take me in. I don’t have a real permanent address and when I didn’t have any money to pay for rent some place, I still always had a place to stay, even during the summer. I am incredibly lucky."

- "I joined a fellowship and a church. To tell you the truth, I don’t even consider myself a Christian yet, but the relationships I’ve made in church and small group are truly special. I have never been so content with my life before, and it’s because of the people praying for me and loving me because they believe that God loves me."

5.) Making peace with the past

- "Acceptance, accept that x,y and z is what the situation is. Now what will you do about it? Sit and cry and be full of anger, pain, resentment or stand up and say I refuse to become another statistic. Give yourself time, but not too much time. This one was has been a tough one for me but I've slowly have begun to move on and accept that eh, what is is and I can't change the past..."

- "I went to therapy. It’s funny because I hated therapy when I was in foster care and it never worked for me. But healing finally began now that I was on my own. For years, I blamed myself for everything that happened through the years… I guess I needed to grow up a little to realize that I was only a child."

- "Forgiveness, plain and simple. You will never forget, but you need to forgive to move on. Otherwise you are like a ball of rubber bands about to pop."

- "I made amends with my biological parents recently. I needed to be at peace with them in order for me to move on. I needed to accept and even appreciate who they are, accept the past, accept the present… all this in order to hope for a better future."

- "I made good use of my experiences. I volunteer at a hospital and spend my time there mostly with children with cancer. I also joined a service club and have interacted with all sorts of people. I find these opportunities very rewarding and I feel that my experiences with diversity, my setbacks, my familiarity with loneliness and fear and wanting to be loved… has allowed me to relate to people better and really care for others."

What didn’t work for us:

1.) Constantly trying to rescue others

- "Trying to save people from their bad habits when they weren't willing to put in the work on their own behalf. I kept thinking that maybe they were like me, and needed someone to step in and give them a hand up. It's not always the case."

- "As the oldest child, I burdened myself to “save” my family. For the longest time, I had been carefully planning out what I would do once I was free and on my own… and when I couldn’t meet my expectations, I tormented myself for not being good enough or trying hard enough to save my brothers, who are still in foster care."

- "Bad choice in roommates: She stole from me, got us repeatedly evicted. Yet I thought only I could save her. I thought that because she was from the same group home that I had been, that we were the only ones who could help each other. I was 17 years old - and I was stupid."

- "Just because someone is in pain, it does not mean that staying with them even if you are miserable is your responsibility."

"If your lover controls your money, social life, friends, contact with family... i.e. you cannot do those things freely... it will stay that way until you do something to change it."

2.) Defining ourselves as unloveable

- "A common thing that I have found with other former foster kids is that we struggle with feeling loved, special or wanted; Always wondering or doubting whether we have some sort of meaning, value... a purpose."

- "Even if it's with a spouse, or extended family or with people that say they love you... you still always have that doubt in the back of your head. And because of feelings of abandonment and being "given up" on, I think that's one of the biggest struggles."

- "People will meet your standards. If you expect very little from others... i.e. little respect, little love, little compassion, they will meet your standards. If you expect love, respect and kindness, you will receive those things."

- "Everyone has shame in their hearts. It just doesn't always come from being unwanted, unloved, undesirable. Everyone has their pain; yours was just delivered in a different package."

3) Taking on more than we can handle

- "KNOW yourself and your limits and what stresses you are capable of handling and what stresses and situations that could arise that could screw you up more."

- "The pain from the emotions will hurt so bad at times where you feel like you can't breathe. Be prepared for that and make sure that you take care of yourself. Basically, you will have to be your own parent."

4.) Over-share or under-share

- "Be prepared to feel awkward and scramble to come up with something to say when someone asks you about your real family or where you came from."

5.) Trying to escape through drugs/alcohol

- "If getting high/drunk/etc. are the best things you look forward to in life, you need to figure out if you want to be a drug addict or alcoholic for the rest of your life. If not, it's time to start making a plan."

*Please note: These are insights shared by former foster children who are now current members of Foster Care Alumni of America.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Legal representation for young people in the child welfare system

The United States spends one hundred billion dollars each year on the protection of children. There are six million allegations of abuse and neglect annually, leading to approximately 1500 deaths each year.

An estimated 70% of children who enter the child welfare system wind up in long-term foster care until they are legally emancipated. Their childhood is largely spent going in and out of various placements, depending upon what court proceedings determine is in their “best interests.”

The American Bar Association defines a child’s attorney as: "a lawyer who provides legal services for a child and who owes the same duties of undivided loyalty, confidentiality, and competent representation to the child as is due to an adult client."

Children in the child welfare system have a vested interest in their personal safety, as well as a right to be provided with safe living conditions --- and these fundamental liberty interests are separate and distinct from the interests of parents, guardians or the state.

Unfortunately, children in abuse and neglect hearings often do not receive quality legal representation that allows them equal access to justice so that their voices are heard in a court of law.

- In 1967, the Supreme Court first recognized children’s right to counsel during legal proceedings.

- In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), mandating that states appoint a guardian ad litem for children who are subject to abuse and neglect proceedings.

Court-appointed special advocates (CASA) and lay Guardians Ad Litem (GAL) can be valuable sources of support for young people, but they cannot substitute for independent counsel for the child.

- In 2006, First Star conducted a nationwide analysis of child representation laws, which revealed glaring anomalies in the legal representation provided for children.

According to First Star’s National Report Card on Legal Representation for Children, there are glaring anomalies in the legal representation provided for children.

While some locations do a good job, most do not, and the quality of assistance provided for children depends largely upon the zip code in which the child happens to live. In some cases, economically disadvantaged states do a better job than more affluent ones.

Meanwhile, because “Best Practices” are not shared with the vast majority of the country, it is as if they did not exist. Due to a lack of oversight and shared expertise, individual jurisdictions do not learn from the successes and failures of their peers.

Minimal direction by federal statutes has allowed states to interpret the law and construct their own models of practice. The duties and responsibilities of attorneys for children are not clearly defined. States don’t even use the same statutory language.

I agree with the authors of this study, who believe that each state should:
1.) Provide a competent, independent attorney for every child in child welfare proceedings.

2.) Mandate child advocacy training and hold child attorneys accountable
3.) Require that this attorney advocate for the child in a client-directed manner
4.) Give the child notice and allow the child to be present at legal proceedings
5.) Specify that juveniles have the right to continuous counsel by the same lawyer at all proceedings

I share their hope to initiate a national Call to Action, promoting laws to require consistency in providing trained, qualified, client-directed legal counsel to child victims throughout the nation.

We need to identify and highlight Best Practices across the nation regarding legislative, professional, judicial, sociological and governmental behavior towards abused and neglected children.

For more information, and to see how your state measures up, please visit: 

First Star’s National Report Card on Legal Representation for Children, 2006.
Bob Fellmeth, Child Rights and Remedies, 2002.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Unusual Suspects is a nonprofit organization of professional artists in Los Angeles that works with young people, ages 12-21, in the area's foster-care and juvenile-justice systems.

They provide 6-12-week youth performance workshops, during which volunteers help underserved kids from foster care and the juvenile justice system write and perform an original play.

These programs are provided for group homes, juvenile halls, gang intervention programs and youth residing in foster care.

Because the Los Angeles County Arts Commission approved the Unusual Suspects' curriculum and agreed that it meets the state's education standards for the visual and performing arts, participants in juvenile dentention facilities can receive community-service credit to reduce their probation time.

The Unusual Suspects also has an ever-expanding alumni program of young people mentoring one another and coaching each other’s transition back into the community.


- "There are no gangs up here on this stage. We're a family. We've done some things we regret, and we have to stop killing each other."Youth performer from the group’s first show at Central Juvenile Hall.

- "I was locked up in a juvenile-camp facility. The Unusual Suspects came to the camp and did a presentation. It was an improv, and I thought it was funny. I like humor. I was interested." - 17-year-old former resident of the Los Angeles County Probation Department's Camp Gonzalez, in Calabasas, California.

- "My high school did not have an arts program -- there was no theater, no space to dance, and no place to really write."Alumna of the program.

- "A lot of the kids are shy, or some have a little chip on shoulder, for whatever reason. They don't know what to expect. What's great is seeing them come in with an attitude of 'I don't know why I'm here, and I don't care,' and then take on the responsibility of a whole show they wrote. It transforms them into leaders." – Richard Morgan, alumnus of the program who now works as paid program coordinator for the nonprofit organization.

Not only does this program support academic skills, such as literacy, theater education and public speaking, it increases social consciousness as well. Anger management skills are learned during the program. Youth participants who come from different races and gang affiliations must cooperate with one another in order for performances to be a success.

Racial tensions were the catalyst for the group's creation according to its founder, actress Laura Leigh Hughes. "It came out of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992. I wanted to try to do something about racial tension and racial intolerance. I've always felt that youths were affected the most by these issues, and I wanted to find a way to empower them and give them a voice."

The Unusual Suspects are currently seeking volunteers for upcoming youth performance workshops in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. All volunteers must attend an orientation and undergo a background check.

For more information, please visit: http://www.theunusualsuspects.org/

Baedeker, Rob. There are no ganges up here on this stage: A Los Angeles theater group helps kids in the juvenile-justice and foster care create dramas of their own design.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

From Foster Care to the Presidency

Some readers might recognize Adrian McElmore from my previous post:
Sunshine Girl On A Rainy Day: Meet the president of O.H.I.O. Youth Advisory Board

Here is the video he created for the My Story Project to share his voice with Congress: