Thursday, August 30, 2007

Have you ever considered becoming a vMentor?

Do you care about the plight of young people in and from the foster care system? Maybe you would like to help in some way, but don't know where to start? Perhaps you lead such a busy life, that you worry about taking on a new commitment that you might not be able to juggle?

Why not consider becoming a vMentor to a high school student in foster care or young person who has just aged out of the foster care system and is now navigating his or her way through college?

I became a virtual mentor through the Orphan Foundation of America last year, and over the past 13 months, it has been an absolute joy getting to know my mentee. At first, it took time to get the conversation going! But, after we built a base of trust, my mentee began to share more about her goals and insights - and the experience has been invaluable.

Virtual mentors must be 25 years or older. Mentors are screened through an initial process, including a background check, before being matched with a mentee by OFA staff. A two-year commitment is requested.

Ensuring A Safe Atmosphere:
All emails between you and your mentee must take place on the vMentor portal, in order to maintain a secure and safe setting.

Providing Support and Resources:
Through the vMentor portal, you can not only correspond with your mentee, but if you need assistance, you can contact one of the two mentee support personnel. There are content experts available to provide their expertise on legal issues, counseling, parenting and practical skills. Every month, training for vMentors is provided via a conference call, and the notes from these trainings are available via the vMentor portal.

Need for Male Mentors:
Due to the success of the virtual mentoring program, during 2006, there were average of 250 active mentor-mentee matches at a time. However, there is a great need for male mentors. OFA is currently trying to match 26 male youth who are new to the program, and have only 13 male mentors who aren't already matched.

For more information, please visit:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How statewide YAB goals fit into a national perspective

Created on May 2006 and revised in July 2006, the O.H.I.O. (Overcoming Hurdles in Ohio) youth advisory board have come up with a list of recommendations regarding the child welfare system.

I have summarized these goals, linking each item to additional articles and/or resources in order to fit their goals within a larger perspective.

1.) Having their voice heard in court: Young people want to be able to speak to the judge personally about their case. They want to be present when a move is being considered or custodial decisions are being made.

They desire meaningful interaction with the CASA or guardian ad-litem who is representing them in court. After all, any adult would want to meet with his / her lawyer before a trial.

2.) Agencies need to provide more opportunities to gain hands-on, real life experience, such as paying bills, managing a checking account, obtaining housing, and accessing public transportation, so that young people will be prepared to transition out of foster care.

3.) Normalcy:

- Foster parents need the authority to make certain decisions for foster youth, such as whether or not the youth can spend the night at a friend’s house, whether they can leave the county, if they can date, etc.

- Foster youth need to complete driver’s education prior to their release, or prior to aging out of foster care.

4.) Keep siblings together whenever possible. Maintain strong, regular contact between siblings and other kin when placed apart.

5.) Continuity of care with therapist: Maintaining the same therapist, regardless of placement, builds trust and gives youth time to work through emotional issues. Caseworkers and foster parents should also receive more training in the emotional challenges faced by foster youth.

6.) Young people in the foster care system desire opportunitities to share their insights regarding placements, including reunification.

Foster youth want to be able to contact their caseworker directly. Meetings regarding the possiblity of reunification should include youth, biological parents, foster parents and caseworker.

7.) Foster youth want the homes in which they are placed to be safe.

They recommend that foster parents participate in training, meet strict qualifications and be evaluated on an ongoing basis. They also recommend that foster parents be observed actually interacting with youth before being granted a license.

Additional Resources
Gilpatrick, Breanne. Foster kids call for the right to drive: Legal hurdles could derail a proposal intended to make it easier for foster children to obtain their driver's licenses. Miami Herald.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Will the Fostering Adoption to Further Student Achievement Act be retroactive?

My friend and her sister were adopted by a couple who also adopted two other sibling groups (making six adopted children total in their household).

Then, this couple divorced --- and in the aftermath, neither has stepped up to the mat to support my friend during her college years. Will the Fostering Adoption to Further Student Achievement Act apply to her? Is it retroactive?

My friend is 20 years old, and a sophomore in college -- and she is facing these challenges on her own. I wonder if this legislation will or will not apply retrospectively to her?

On July 20, 2007, the Higher Education Access Act of 2007 passed the Senate by a vote of 78-18, increasing college access and affordability by boosting financial aid.

The Fostering Adoption to Further Student Achievement Act, was introduced by Senators Norm Coleman (R-MN) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to amend the Higher Education Access Act. It is intended to encourage the adoption of older children by not forcing a teenager to choose between a loving family and financial aid.

Current law allows youth who "age out" of the foster care system to qualify for virtually all college loans and grants, while essentially penalizing those who are adopted.

The Coleman-Landrieu amendment expands the definition of "independent student" as defined in current law to include youth in foster care who are adopted after their tenth birthday. This allows a student's financial aid eligibility to be determined solely by that student's ability to pay, regardless of his or her adoptive family's income level, since many families who adopt teenagers and pre-teens may have done so without being able to shoulder the entire burden of college tuition.

"Education and a loving family are two key components of a child's mental and emotional development. No child should have to choose between the two," said Senator Coleman.

"Under current law, adopted teenagers lose out on some or all college financial aid for which they would otherwise have been eligible, depending on his or her adopted parents' financial situation. I applaud the Senate for passing our amendment to alleviate this discrepancy and encourage teen and pre-teen adoption."

"It is unacceptable for students to receive less financial aid merely because they were adopted," Senator Landrieu said.

"Restricting the financial aid opportunities of adopted teens unfairly penalizes them simply for seeking the love and stability that only a family can offer. This amendment corrects such unwise law by allowing adopted children to receive the financial help they need to attend college and realize their full potential."

Source: Press release by the National Foster Parent Association

Friday, August 10, 2007

Foster Care Youth As Community Assets

There is an unfortunate tendency toward viewing foster care youth and alumni with suspicion, rather than seeing them as community assets and resources.

Teens in the foster care system are perceived as being in need of various governmental services, rather than being able to offer valuable services to the community.

The truth is that young people in and from foster care have much to offer in terms of insights and abilities. Empowering them to participate in community service projects has the potential to reap many benefits, both for the young people themselves and for their local community.

What works and what doesn’t?
What’s the best method to engage this population in community service projects?

1.) Let us pick the issue.
First of all, the service needs to be meaningful to the young people involved. YouthBuild USA began in Harlem, New York in 1978, when founder Dorothy Stoneman asked neighborhood teens, “How would you improve your community if you had adult support?’

They responded that they would rebuild houses, take back buildings from drug dealers and eliminate crime. This vision, building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people, was created by the youth themselves -- and the program remains successful today.

2.) Treat us as equals.
The Vision Statement on Youth Engagement created by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative advocates for youth leadership. It includes quotes from recently emancipated foster youth, whose request is: “Involve us in changing our own destinies.”

Rather than just lip services about youth involvement, young people in and from the foster care system desire a meaningful role in directing their own futures. In service projects, they are not just there to receive orders - they need to be engaged in brainstorming and critical thinking.

Whenever possible, young people should be involved in the planning and overall vision for the service project. It's only by active engagement that this program will meet their developmental needs.

3.) Be trustworthy and reliable.
Facilitator should strive to create a well-structured program with a predictable routine and clear, consistent expectations. As FosterClub has expressed so eloquently in their philosophy statement, the foster care experience is characterized by chaos.

Young people in the foster care system often find it difficult to trust adults. Working on a project side-by-side and listening to one another can build the foundation for positive relationships. Valuable insights can be shared with one another.

4.) Prepare us for the future.
Ideally, the project would build skills that will prove to be helpful to young people during their transition to adulthood.

Foster youth face the same challenges that all young people face when entering the adult world, plus the extra challenge of having been parented by the child welfare system. Often, due to our circumstances, we might not have a driver's license, might not have been allowed to work during our time in care - and if our wings fail us in the adult world, we do not have a nest to come back to...

Depending upon the setting, young people might build skills in learning how to access community resources, navigating their way through college or learning practical skills that will be appreciated by their future employers. The project could even prepare them for parenting, if it involved assisting at a camp for younger children, for example.

5.) Support us during our involvement, and stay in touch with us after the project is over.
Projects like AmeriCorps support participants by meeting their basic living needs in terms of housing and stipends. This provides participants with a sense of stability.

When young people contribute to the local community, it's important that program facilitators be willing to advocate for program participants in return. Please be aware of the needs of young people involved in the program. If you hear of legislation that might have a potential impact upon their lives, be willing to advocate on their behalf.

The Youth Volunteering and Civic Engagement Survey was conducted between January and March of 2005. This survey found that volunteering increases the likelihood of future social and civic engagement, and that volunteer experience is positively correlated to social connections such as family, faith-based communities, and schools.

Energize, a website created for leaders of volunteers, provides helpful research, tips and other information.

Bisi, Robert. Changing the paradigm: Positioning foster care youth as community assets and resources. Youth Service Journal, Vol. 2, Issue 1.
Kolodinsky, Jane, PhD. The effects of volunteering for non-profit organizations on social capital formation: Evidence from a statewide survey. Nonprofit and Volunteer Sector Quarterly, Feb. 12, 2003.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Five Foster Care Posts for New Visitors

I have been tagged by Nicki Mann from They're All Our Children for a meme.

The idea is to point out five of my previous posts that I think are especially important, and would recommend for a first-time visitor to my blog to read...

Here goes:

Foster children are first and foremost children -- and the desires of our hearts are like that of any other child...

1.) Our personal belongings are important to us, and when we have to travel from one place to another, our possessions should be carried in suitcases, rather than garbage bags.

2.) We love our siblings, and being separated from our siblings is painful.

3.) If we are sad about losing everything that we have ever known, your first response should not be to dull our pain with drugs.
4.) When in doubt, please listen to us. We have a lot to say.

5.) Please give us opportunities to share our talents and give back to our community.

We have a lot to offer... which is a subject that I plan to cover in my next blog entry!

Postcards included in this entry are part of the Culture of Foster Care Project... To see more, please visit Foster Care Alumni of America.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

What are the arguments for and against family-centered practice in foster care?

Traditional social work services typically focus on the individual and are provided in an office setting.

In family-centered practice, the social worker goes to the family's home and/or community, in order to work with the family as a collective unit. The idea is that both the foster and birth parents are recognized as having a continuing place in the child’s life and are accepted as equal partners in the treatment process.

Is Family-Centered Practice Perfect?
I was recently asked to come up with a list of pros and cons of family-centered practice in the child welfare system.

The first thing that I found interesting is that if you Google this subject, you will find nothing but praise for family-centered practice when it comes to foster care. It is the latest trend, it seems, the cure-all, the panacea.

I guess it's the inner cynic in me that rejects the idea of a magic bullet that somehow works in each and every situation. There is no magical formula for families that break down. Sometimes biological parents are willing and able to change, sometimes not. There are varying levels of emotional investment between parent and child.

A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for children in foster care. It depends on many factors – like why child entered care in the first place.

But I have yet to find a resource listing both the positives and negatives of family-centered practice, when it comes to foster care.

Here is what I have so far... I welcome reader input on this issue!

· Looking at family environment: The underlying tenet of family-centered practice is that people can be best understood within their environments. An ongoing family assessment can lend a lot of information regarding child safety if he/she ever returns to their biological parents.

The primary goal (on paper at least) is child safety.

· Empowering foster parents: There is wisdom in listening to their insights on child behavior. Foster parents should know the child better than the social worker, because they spend more time with the child.

Cons might include:
· Listening to the biological parent voice when that voice is not in the best interest of the child:

One foster care alumna recently shared with me that her bio-mom was the best of friends with her social worker. Her bio-mom was allowed to control her contact list - who she could visit or talk to. Her mom misused that privilege…

Her aunt was willing to adopt her, but because her mother and aunt didn’t get along, she wasn’t allowed to have contact with her aunt. In this instance, family squabbling was allowed to stand in the way of this foster child's chances to achieve permanency.

· Physical risk to social workers: When social workers step out of their offices and into the homes of families in crisis, they run the risk of an assault. More than 50% of the social workers surveyed reported being physically assaulted at work.

The current solution offered by National Association of Social Workers is security training. However, let's be frank here, if a birth parent has a weapon, the social worker can end up dead.

· Insisting that foster parents and birth family stay connected. Couldn't this insistence can put foster parents and even their biological children in danger?

· The unwavering idea that, despite family problems, parents remain experts on their own youth. Hmm... This really varies.

Was my friend M's father an expert when he offered her up to a male friend in exchange for drugs? How attuned could he possibly be to her personal needs while he was offering her up to service a stranger so that he could get a quick fix?

Inviting Input from Readers:
The family-centered approach is founded on the unwavering idea that families can change. However, I am against prioritizing family preservation above the safety and best interest of the child.

Would we ask a domestic violence victim to have regular visits with her abusive ex-husband? Does a father who repeatedly sexually abused his daughter for years deserve to have the right to decide to whom she can talk on the phone?

I want to invite reader input: I know that there are social workers and child welfare professionals who read this blog.

Please tell me more about the pros and cons of family-centered practice from your point of view. I want to learn more...