Sunday, December 14, 2008

Housing After Foster Care

One in five former foster children report experiencing homelessness after "aging out" of foster care.

Investing in housing programs for young people between 18-25 years old is an opportunity to offer hope and assistance to young people during the "launching period" of their lives.

It is also a financially savvy front-end investment.

How would you prefer that your tax dollars be spent?
Wouldn't you rather invest in these 25,000 young people aging out of foster care each year before they enter into situations of chronic homelessness, unwed pregnancy, unemployment and incarceration?

Doesn't it make more sense to intervene during their late-teens and early-20s, a time when young people have an open mind, high level of energy and are actively engaged in the process of directing their future lives?

Or would we rather wait now, and pay later? Left unchecked, the cycle will continue: 1 in 4 homeless adults is a former foster child.

Homeless shelters created for adults are not the answer
Young adults differ from the adult homeless population, because they have unique developmental needs. With encouraging support and timely resources, it is possible to empower young people and build them into future leaders.

Investing in a brighter future
Here are some examples of how states provide specialized services to effectively support young people in acquiring stable housing:

1. California:
- First Place Fund for Youth provides two-bedroom apartments in San Francisco, financial assistance to pay housing start-up costs, and monthly rental subsidies.

- Larkin Street Youth Services’ LEASE program has scattered site apartments for youth who have emancipated from San Francisco's foster care system.

- Orangewood Children's Foundation in Los Angeles has two residential apartment complexes with an on-site residential counselor. Youth pay rent on a sliding scale, according to their financial ability.

2. Colorado uses FUP funds to provide housing assistance to youth for a maximum of 18 months. The young person must be between the ages of 18‐21, have spent time in foster care on or after their 16th birthday and currently lack adequate housing.

3. Connecticut has a Community Housing Assistance Program that provides either site-based or scattered site apartments for youth age 17-21 who are transitioning out of foster care and into independent living. They require youth to account for forty productive hours per week, e.g. time devoted to classes, study, training, part-time work, internships, volunteer work, apprenticeships or counseling.

4. Delaware provides Life Lines Housing Programs which allow youth to stay in the program for 18 months to three years, depending upon their job status or educational enrollment status.

5. Illinois developed a Youth Housing Assistance Program that uses Chafee funding to provide housing assistance to young people in and from foster care between the ages of 17 - 21.

6. New Jersey provides a Shared Living Residence Rental Housing Program to acquire land, build housing or rehabilitate existing housing.

7. New York City Housing Authority offers a Section 8 Priority Code for young people aging out of the foster care system. This program provides Section 8 vouchers or public housing units.

8. North Carolina offers Transitional Housing Funds of up to $1,500 per year to help with room and board expenses.

9. Ohio has 88 counties - only three of which have developed youth housing programs:

- Daybreak's Milestones program for young people ages 17-21 provides housing, counseling, educational support and tutoring, employment-readiness and life skills training and two years of follow up.

- Lighthouse Youth Services provides a tiered housing system that allows room for temporary setbacks as young people transition to the adult world.

- Starr Commonwealth provides an independent living program called MyPlace, designed to help ease the transition to adulthood. Young people, ages 16 to 18, live on their own in one of 16 furnished apartments, and are provided with adult support.

10. Vermont offers a Housing Support Program for young people between the ages of 18-22. Qualifying youth receive a grant of up to $5,000 to cover housing and related expenses. They may also receive supplemental funds for college textbooks and lab fees.

As a New Year's Resolution, please think about how you can replicate one or more of these programs in your state....

Friday, December 05, 2008

If you need something, please ask in a timely, honest manner

The following blog entry represents a personal struggle that I have had this week. I am trying to learn from this experience and move forward.

I am always leading workshops and telling other people about defining their boundaries -- but this week was a reminder that I need to maintain my boundaries, too!

I'm trying to formulate:
1. Where are my boundaries when it comes to working with other foster care alumni? Particularly when they are in a state of immediate crisis.

2. What is my role as a leader within my state chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America?

3. How can I better handle situations like the ones I faced this week in the future?

Here are my ideas so far, in terms of communicating my expectations and boundaries to other people...

1. If you need something from me, ask.

Say: "Lisa, I need this: _________"
Tell me what you need, straight-out and give me a chance to say yes or no.

Please don't try to manipulate me.

Don't hint at what you need, and wait for me to figure it out. That disrespects me and it disrespects you. Because you are underestimating both of us.

What the hints mean are that:
- You don't think you are worthy of having your needs met
- You don't think that I care about you

And until you ask straight out and wait for my response, you won't have the chance to find out that neither one of your fears are actually true.

2. When you ask, please tell me the whole truth.

Think of it like a doctor. If you lie to a doctor about your symptoms, that doctor will not be able to diagnose you correctly.

I am not a doctor. I cannot be your counselor. But I can and will move heaven and earth to get you connected with the right resources - something I CAN'T do if you are lying to me.

Please don't lie to me about what is really happening. Don't shade the truth about what is going on. I am guessing you are doing that because you think that I will judge you - and yes, again, you fear that I will reject you.

3. If you need something, please don't wait until it is catastrophe level.

Again, I know WHY you are probably doing this. So many of us grew up in chaos, that we just get used to living in crisis level. Once we age out of foster care, crisis still seems very familiar.

So, during the steps before a crisis, when things are just starting to go wrong, we might not think to ask for help then. No, we think we can handle it.

We can handle problem A and B and C... Which means that by the time we ask for help, we are handing the other person an enormous, HUGE amount of problems that have snowballed.

And the message to the other person (or in this case: to me) is "Fix this now. Fix this fast."

Trying to help would have been a lot easier if I'd been asked earlier.

4. When you ask, think about WHEN you are asking.

I can honestly say that: I am no longer addicted to crisis.

In my life, I have worked very hard to achieve stability and safety, not just for myself, but for my marriage and my family.

Do you really need to call me after midnight? Could you call during the daytime?

When you text me at 3 in the morning, are you really expecting that I am staying up all night?

5. I am your friend, but I am not your Savior

And again, this line has been blurred for me before.

When I first aged out of care, there was this guy, Jon. And he was the first person who really seemed to care about and take care of me. We were friends, we dated, we broke up, etc.

But at the time, I had somehow endowed Jon as being my Savior. The big brother I never had. The dad who didn't care for me. He was somehow supposed to fill that entire hole in my heart and make up for everything that I lacked.

And that is WAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY to much to ask from another person.

But even after we parted ways, I still kept that guy on a pedestal for years. No one else could measure up.

Finally, I realized that I never even really knew Jon. The real Jon was just a human, fallible, feet-of-clay guy with his own dreams, desires, faults and failings.

But the Jon I knew somehow existed in my mind to help me.

When I figured that out, I regretted the unfair demands that I had subconsciously placed on him.

None of us exists to SAVE everyone else.
We are not building a community of Rescuers.

Hopefully, we can build a community that supports one another, and encourages our members to each take individual responsibility to grow and heal and become more empowered.

And as for me as a leader, as a result of this painful learning experience week, I am seeking to partner with local mental health professionals, so that I can make timely referrals when faced with situations that are over my head in the future.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Designing a Website for Youth Emancipating From Foster Care

A valued friend of mine recently asked my insights regarding designing a web page for young people in her state who are "aging out" of foster care. Here is what I shared with her...

Many sites for youth include low-quality cartoons and Clip Art, rather than photographs. It's almost as if the website designers think that young adults are like children. I believe that teenagers can see right through that. I certainly could!

It's difficult to emotionally identify with Clip Art. If I were designing a young website, I would either provide photos of real-life foster care alumni and/or artwork drawn by talented young people in and from foster care, like the example above.

I would also make the content relevant to survival. When we first age out of foster care, we need to survive. That's why I like this Aussie site, because the list of topics listed at the top of the page are relevant to young people.

When I first aged out of foster care, there was a cycle that I experienced in my life. And, I see that same cycle playing out in the lives of many young people today:

The first step is: Isolation and Independence: "I can make it, I know I can! And I won't have to depend on anyone else either. The one person that I can count on is me."

The second step is: Hitting the Wall. Not having enough money to buy food. Getting involved in a dysfunctional friend/lover relationship, and feeling trapped and without other viable options. Being temporarily homeless - and wondering if this experience will last forever...

The third step is: Gotta Survive. I cannot express strongly enough how powerful this impulse is. It testifies to the power of human survival. When you are hungry and don't have food, your stomach begins to speak, louder and louder. Its growls are persistent; they stop for a moment, but eventually return.

That third step is is a doorway of entry for people who truly care and want to make a difference: Talk to me when I've hit the wall. Talk to me when I'm broken. Because all I can do at that point is listen - and, in that moment, I am just desperate enough to listen to you....

When young people emancipate from foster care, it's like a fork in the road:
- They can be empowered - or disenfranchised
- They can learn to see themselves as 'agents of change' or 'recipients of (government) services'
- They can feel powerful or powerless over their ultimate destiny

One facet of every youth page should be a call to action, and a reminder of personal accountability. People of all ages respond to the level of expectations.

And there should be opportunities to 'Band Together' to make that positive difference, both in our own live and the lives of others. None of us succeeds or fails alone.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Biological Families and Air Mask Analogy

Does this statement sound familiar?

"In the event of an emergency, please secure your own breathing apparatus first before placing one on the person next to you."

When young people "age out" of foster care without being connected to "forever families," they often have nowhere to turn in times of crisis during young adulthood other than their biological families.

However, the issues that led to their being placed in foster care in the first place, such as abuse or addiction, are often still unresolved.

During the 2007 It's My Life conference, Jenny Vinopal, Correy Kitchens, Nayely Araiza and Cynthia Chavez led a workshop entitled: Biological Parents and College Students from Foster Care: Roles, Relationships, and Recommendations.

This workshop was based on the premise that family-of-origin issues can negatively or positively affect the college success of youth from foster care.

Workshop participants were given puzzle pieces that didn't match - in order to demonstrate the difficulty that is sometimes experienced in reuniting with birth families after aging out of foster care.

One presenter shared that when she was in college, her biological mother found out about the stipend and grants that she was receiving and started relying on her daughter to financially support her.

This issue is all too prevalent in my state.
1. A young woman who feels obligated to financially support her (physically abusive) stepmother because of promise that she made to her father while he was on his deathbed.

2. A young man who gave away the laptop he received to his sister and said that he "lost it."

3. A young woman who keeps taking needy people into her apartment, regardless of their inability and/or unwillingness to pay their share of the rent. This situation reminds me a lot of myself at her age.

What's the Solution?
I am currently working on designing a workshop titled: "When Helping You Is Hurting Me."

- It is vitally important for young people to develop healthy boundaries.
- When young people first age out of care, trying to save everyone around them right away can be like a drowning man trying to keep other people afloat
- Peer support can be helpful; being with other people from a similar background who are working to create a positive life for themselves and who care about each other

- Young people aging out of foster care have a powerful sense of urgency
- If they invest in personal development in order to personally survive, they can achieve the goals they have for their future
- Part of those goals will undoubtedly be wanting to give back.

But trying to give back right away can cost us in the long run.

Message to Survivors of Foster Care: "Please put the air mask on yourself first. It might feel selfish at the time - but it is NOT selfish! You have the passion, power and perseverance to see this through.... but first, you need to SURVIVE.

"It is okay to do that right now. It is okay to heal personally. It is okay to surround yourself with people who believe in you and support you.

Do you know why? Because if only you can make it through this hurdle and build into your own personal financial, emotional and educational resources, you will have SO MUCH MORE to offer others when you are on your feet. "

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Statewide and national conferences are tearing me away...

I apologize to my readers for not posting for a while...

This has been a beautiful, magical, wonderful and amazing year!

It has also been a year during which I have been incredibly busy, and haven't often had the chance to slow down!

In March 2008, I presented at three statewide conferences:

1.) During Youth Advocate Services' third annual conference for private agency foster parents, I and other foster care alumni shared two workshops: Creating a Life Management Plan and Developing the Skills Necessary to Emotional Survival.

2.) The Institute for Human Services is a nonprofit agency that manages the statewide child welfare training in my state. At the their annual training in 2008, I co-presented a workshop titled: Emotional Resiliency: Putting the Pieces Together Before and After Foster Care.

3.) During OACCA's 11th annual conference, young people in and from foster care in my state, and my hero Doris Edelmann and I were both awarded the Virginia Colson award.

In May 2008, I presented at two national conferences:

1.) During the Daniel Memorial Foster Care Conference, I presented a keynote address titled: Life Without Limits: Exceeding Expectations of Former Foster Care Youth, and a workshop on Demystifying Emotional Resiliency.

2.) The 17th annual Colorado Child Welfare conference and the 8th annual Colorado Judicial Issues conference were brought together in one conference in the Colorado Conference on Children and Families. I co-presented two concurrent workshops titled: Demystifying Emotional Resiliency.

On September 2008, the 21st annual National Independent Living conference took place.

I helped with youth pre-conference activities, and presented a keynote address titled: Not Just Beating the Odds, But Changing Them.

I also led a workshop for youth: Sharing Your Story Without Overexposing Yourself, a workshop for adults: Working Together to Empower Youth, and a general session creating FCAA postcards.

During October 2008, I had the privilege of serving on the planning committee and helping to prepare young people in and from foster care for the youth speak-out with legislators at my state's second annual Statewide Independent Living Summit.

I was also able to present two workshops during the It's My Life conference, which was held in Hollywood, California. One was focused on a board game, Real Life 101, that I created for young people preparing to age out of foster care.

I also co-presented a workshop titled Alumni Communities: The Ties That Bind Us Together with Angie Cross and Regeanna Mwansa.

My promise to you is: I have taken a million notes at all of these conferences. I have notes, resources and Best Practices to post in the future.

And I am not going anywhere. My commitment will last as long as I breathe....

Friday, October 24, 2008

Who we WERE and who we ARE today

When do you feel most like yourself? What are you feeling? What are you wearing?

Tonight, I am wearing a dark blue sweatshirt that says "Maxwell Elementary." I have owned this particular sweatshirt since college... It dates back to when I worked at an after-school program at a local elementary school.

This sweatshirt resonates with me on a deep, internal level.

I can remember being nine years old, playing outside and wearing my "grubbies," which included a similar dark blue sweatshirt.

When I was 9 years old, I loved one person the most in all the world. That person was my mother, and she was drifting away...

Cancer was eating away at my mother, like an evil force - determined to rob me of her presence, her comfort and her security. It had diabolical plans to leave me in the hands of my father, who was cold, detached, removed, and abusive - a man I knew didn't love me.

But in my sweatshirt, I felt most like myself. And I knew that there was still time.

Time before my mother left me forever. Time before my father would abandon me... as, deep down, I always knew that he would.

In my dark blue sweatshirt and blue jeans, with a string of fake plastic rubies around my neck, I was ready to wait things out. I knew that ultimately, I was going to survive and kick some a** and make a difference in the world.

I could see the shadow looming above me, but when I looked deep within myself, I knew that I could and would survive it.

So.... tell me, are there any similar outfits, songs, events, etc. that resonate with you and remind you of your childhood, how you survived and how YOU became the amazing person that you are today?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Open the Door to the Future, Closing the Door to the Past

Do you see this tall slab of wood? Today, it is nothing more than an ordinary door. But it will be transformed over the weekend into a vehicle for dreams.

The front of this door will be decorated by young people in and from foster care with their hopes and dreams.

The theme of the statewide independent living summit in my state is: "Opening the Door to the Future."

Later this year, during our Thanksgiving Reunion, the theme will be: "Closing the Door to the Past."

The back of this door will be decorated by young people in and from foster care with symbols of things from our past which, as we move forward, we are going to leave behind.

For some people, this might be anger or bitterness. Others might try to save their biological family at the expense of themselves.

Sometimes we who have experienced foster care feel we are unworthy of love, because we weren't loved as children. We might remember negative predictions that other people have made about the future outcome of our lives, and foolishly measure ourselves based on other people's shortsighted estimations.

These are the kind of things we want to leave behind as we continue to move forward. And, we want to support one another and move forward together.

Many thanks goes to Home Depot to donating this door to the Ohio chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Apply now for HUD Housing Funds for Youth Aging Out of Care

This press release from the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare is the best news that I have heard for a while!

Kudos for this organization for working with Congress to secure $20 million in new funding for the Family Unification Program. I had recently blogged about this very program, wondering why no funds had been issued recently.

HUD to Issue $20 Million in New Housing Resources for Child Welfare Families and Aging-out Youth

This fall, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will invite public housing authorities nationwide to apply for $20 million in new Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers the Family Unification Program (FUP).

FUP provides homeless and precariously housed families involved with the child welfare system with affordable housing and supportive services in order to safely reunite them with their children. As of October 2000, youth age 18 or older who left foster care after the age of 16 are eligible for desperately-needed FUP vouchers as well.

How does FUP work?
HUD’s Family Unification Program (FUP) is administered through local level partnerships between public housing authorities and public child welfare agencies. Public housing authorities administer the Section 8 vouchers to families and youth who have been certified as eligible for FUP by the child welfare agency. The child welfare agency assists clients in gathering the necessary Section 8 paperwork, finding housing, and provides aftercare services to help the household obtain and maintain safe, stable and permanent housing.

How does our community apply for new FUP vouchers?
As early as mid-September 2008, HUD will issue a notice of funding availability (NOFA) inviting public housing authorities (PHAs) to apply for up to 100 Section 8 vouchers for FUP. In order to apply for this funding, a PHA must have a signed memorandum of understanding with the local child welfare agency documenting that these systems will work in partnership to support FUP families and youth. Child welfare administrators interested in FUP should reach out to their counterpart at the public housing authority soon. Once HUD issues the NOFA, PHAs will only have thirty days to submit an application.

How can I get more information about FUP?
For more information about how to apply for and implement the Family Unification Program in your community please visit the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare at

National Center for Housing and Child Welfare
6711 Queens Chapel Rd, University Park, MD 20782
Phone 301-699-0151 Toll Free 1-866-790-6766

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Aging Out of Foster Care in Connecticut

After a keynote address that I gave to an audience of youth from all over the nation at the 2008 NILA conference, highlighting some of the best practices to Change the Odds from across the nation...

... a foster care alumna named Krystal came up to me and said: "Hey, you left my state out!"

I spent time with her and the other people from her group and learned about all sorts of wonderful initiatives in Connecticut. Here are four of the many things that I learned...

1.) Education
Because Connecticut youth can stay in foster care until age 23, they can continue to receive educational support to receive their Masters degree. This, to me, is a powerful incentive to take a full course load and make good grades, in order to graduate college on time and then immediately enter graduate school.

It also gives foster care youth with mental health challenges and substance abuse histories some extra time to “find the right fit” at college.

2.) Housing
The regional offices work with vendors to provide youth with a vacuum, food allowance and start-up supplies.

3.) Vital Documents
The goal is for young people to know how to drive before aging out of foster care. The state pays half the cost of driver’s education classes. When the youth age out of care, they sign for themselves to get a drivers license.

It’s part of their case plan for youth to leave with:
- An original copy of their birth certificate and Social Security card
- A drivers license (to sign for selves immediately upon discharge)
- A copy of their immunization records

4.) Youth Advisory Boards
Connecticut has 13 regional offices, and 9 of these regions have youth advisory boards. They meet once per month. Then, they are all invited to the quarterly statewide meetings at the Commissioner's Office, where youth are able to have dialogue with the commissioner.

Lawsuits as change-makers?

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Connecticut, and charged that the state had failed to adequately protect abused and neglected children. The state’s child welfare system was put under outside supervision.

The state of Connecticut was required to “pay for and fund the costs for the establishment, implementation, compliance, maintenance and monitoring of all mandates in this consent decree" as well as all directives by the supervising panel.

In the same way that deaths and lawsuits are the primary way that foster care issues come to public attention, sometimes it takes mandates and a Consent Decree to propel a child welfare system towards reform. This is something that breaks my heart - but I cannot deny its reality.

My hope is that my state and many others can learn from Connecticut's reform efforts and dedicate our time and effort to creating similar programs and resources in our area.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Foster Care and Young Adulthood

Postcard from Foster Care Alumni of America

Historically, the age of 18
was thought of as a divider between childhood and adulthood.

Back in the early to mid-20th century, jobs were available to people with little or no education. Therefore, most young people could financial and social independence by their 18th birthday.

This is no longer the case. It has been estimated that nearly a quarter of the cost of raising children is now provided after the age of 17.

The average parent of 18-34 year olds provides over $2,000/year to support them.

Today, some people are over 30 before they:
- Complete their schooling
- Obtain steady work
- Move out of the family home
- Get married and have children

Higher education is becoming necessary, in order to earn a living wage:
- A bachelor's degree today is the equivalent of a high school degree in the 60s

- Two-thirds of all new jobs that will be created in the next 10 years will require post-secondary education

- Adults who have only a high school degree are twice as likely to be unemployed as those with a bachelor's degree

- A typical high school graduate, with no additional education, will earn over his/her lifetime half as much as a college graduate

Demands for increasing education have created a larger gap between childhood and adulthood. Therefore, developmental experts now recognize a transitional stage of Young Adulthood.

But what about young people aging out of foster care? (You knew I would come back to that, didn't you?) Published statistics outline dire outcomes for our lives - and these odds need to change.

This weekend, I created a wiki called Changing the Odds

Its purpose is to:
- Outline the scary statistics and troubling trends regarding foster care alumni
- Examine which policies are helping, and what systemic barriers need to be fixed
- Celebrate "Best Practices" in terms of successful programs throughout the nation

Adolescence and the Transition to Adulthood: Rethinking Public Policy for a New Century
Business Roundtable
Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago
MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Polic
National Adolescent Health Information Center
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
U.S. Census Bureau

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Five Things You Can Do To Make A Positive Difference

My recent postings have focused largely on areas in need of reform. But I also want to make clear that I have a lot of hope and faith that we can create and inspire positive change!

Here are five things that you can do in order to make a positive difference for young people "aging out" of the foster care system:

1.) Youth advisory boards: Youth advisory boards are a wonderful first step in empowering youth, building their leadership skills and helping them to be agents of change to positively impact the system!

If you are a young person, it's worth your time to get involved! If you are a foster parent, please allow the young people in your care to pursue this opportunity! And, if you are a social worker, please encourage youth participation as well...

2.) Legislative forums: There are many opportunities to share your voice and youth voice with legislators to make a positive difference!

For example, during the months of July-August, OACCA is holding Independent Living forums around the state of Ohio in order to better address the needs of young people transitioning from various "systems" - including foster care.

3.) Mentoring: The bumper sticker on my car says: "If you can't be a foster parent, why not be a mentor?" Being a mentor is a wonderful way to build into another person's life.

Some of my previous blog entries outline foster care mentoring programs, such as:

-CWLA's Fostering Healthy Connections Through Peer Mentoring
-In My Shoes; an Arizona-based foster care alumni-led program
-Mentoring USA, based in New York but willing to travel to share their model
-Orphan Foundation of America's virtual-mentoring program
-Transitioning Teens Program, which has a great partnership with their local CASA

If the area where you live doesn't have a mentoring program for foster care youth, you might consider contacting some of the above resources to request their help in starting one!

4.) Wiki of resources:
This weekend, I watched couple of free videos on how to create a wiki on youtube, and then created Life After Foster Care in Ohio.

One thing that you can do is become the local expert in your area. You don't have to have "all the answers" at the onset. Your knowledge will grow as you become more involved.

Ways to increase your knowledge about foster care resources:
Visit your local library
Surf the net
Call local agencies and ask questions
Don't give up

5.) Sponsoring youth membership in Foster Care Alumni of America: Foster care youth and alumni deserve to be connected to a community that they can belong to forever, and never "age out" of...

They deserve current and future chances to use their experiences to positively transform the child welfare system. Their voice will only become stronger and their message more articulate with age.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Whatever happened to the Family Unification Program?

Cartoon used with permission from

The 25,000 young people aging out of foster care each year don't have a parent's basement to live in.

They don't have anyone to co-sign for them to rent an apartment.

When they go to college, they can't call "mom" and "dad" if they need help, and they don't have a place to spend college breaks, unless their college has taken this need into consideration.

Regarding housing assistance, how do you want your tax dollars to be spent?

Would you rather invest in these 25,000 young people aging out of foster care each year before they enter into situations of homelessness, unwed pregnancy, unemployment and incarceration?

Would you rather offer hope and assistance when they are in their late-teens and early-20s, a time when young people have an open mind, high level of energy and are actively engaged in the process of directing their future lives?

Even for the most hard-hearted pragmatist, the cost-benefit ratio should be obvious: "Communities can provide services and housing for less than $6,000 annually while the cost of residential treatment and incarceration of these youth often exceeds $55,000 annually."

The purpose of the Family Unification Program (FUP) is:

- To promote family unification by providing housing choice vouchers to families for whom the lack of adequate housing is a primary factor in the separation, or the threat of imminent separation, of children from their families, and

- To provide housing choice vouchers to youths 18 to 21 years old who left foster care after the age of 16, and lack adequate housing.

Congress added youth as an eligible population for FUP in October 2000. The intent was to help young people aging out of foster care to receive the housing resources they need to avoid homelessness and successfully transition to adulthood.

But youth across the nation are not receiving this help. Why?

According to CWLA, HUD has not issued Notices of Funding Availability for the FUP program since FY2002. Nor have they released funds for FUP since then... despite the fact that the Tenant Protection Fund (where FUP money comes from) had leftover funds of up to $33 million that could have been used for this program.

Some states appear to be creating a local work-around regarding this issue. Kudos to Colorado for figuring out a way to provide youth housing on a statewide level.

But it troubles me that HUD appears to be ignoring this program. Even on HUD's website, where FUP is mentioned - with no success stories, I might add - the eligibility criteria that they posted does not even mention young people aging out of the foster care system.

This is a national problem and it needs to be addressed by Congress.

According to the Child Welfare League of America, "In the FY2007 Appropriations Bill, the House and Senate set aside $10 million of the funds in HUD’s Tenant Protection Fund for FUP for the purpose of promoting family unification and successful transitions to adulthood for hundreds of young people in foster care. Unfortunately, when the Congress passed a year-long Continuing Resolution, the $10 million for FUP was dropped."

Another thing that I find short-sighted is that the systemic barriers and short-time span regarding youth housing vouchers:

1.) Vouchers for families are renewed yearly -- but vouchers for youth are time-limited to 18 months. As with my previous blog entry, I believe this sends a message to young women that they will receive help only if they get pregnant.

2.) The child welfare agency is responsible to refer the youth to the program, and to provide aftercare services. Child welfare agencies can contract with other agencies to do so...

But what about youth who fall through the cracks, and don't have agencies and agency workers who are willing to advocate for them? Don't they need help most of all?

Important Update: Please see Sept. blog entry regarding opportunity to apply for FUP funds.

Child Welfare League of America
Catholic Charities USA

Friday, July 25, 2008

No help unless you are pregnant

Here's the scenario: A young woman ages out of foster care. She enters the adult world, totally on her own.

This young woman enters college, and pursues her education. She has chosen to postpone creating a family of her own until after she has finished school and has the financial and emotional resources to build a healthy marriage and family.

But when she hits a road bump, and needs temporary assistance to get back on her feet, this young lady applies for assistance, and is told she cannot receive help with housing unless she is pregnant.

Now, tell me: "How does this work towards pregnancy prevention? Why should young women be advised to bring unwanted children in the world in order to acquire housing assistance?"

TANF is what we used to refer to as "welfare." The acronym stands for "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families." It was created as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which replaced AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

AFDC was a federal assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 1935 - 1997. This program provided financial assistance to children whose families had low or no income.

My understanding is that the evolution from AFDC to TANF was part of an effort to provide temporary assistance to needy people, in order to get them back on their feet and provide for themselves.

One of the stated purposes of TANF is: "To prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies."

You can provide all sorts of classes and instruction about not getting pregnant -- but when you tell a young woman that she has to choose between getting pregnant or being homeless, getting pregnant becomes a method of survival.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Life, as an imperfect human being

A quote that I read in college, two years after I was legally emancipated from foster care, still resonates with me today. I return to it, as an adult, when I find myself battling with inner demons.

Here is the quote:“When I was young, I thought that I had to be perfect for people to love me. I thought that if I ever did something wrong, their love would be withdrawn…

We need to give ourselves permission to be human, to try and to stumble, to be momentarily weak and to feel shame but to overcome that shame with moments of strength, courage and generosity.” -H. S. Kushner, You Don’t Have to Be Perfect To Be Loved

What does it mean to me?
For those of you who have not experienced foster care, remember back to what it was like to be a teenager.

Did you ever say things and haste, and regret them later? Did you indulge in risk-taking behavior? Did you act a certain way to fit in with your peers, which sometimes included behavior that alienated adults?

When this happened, did your parents pack your things and send you someplace else? Did they forever reject you for that behavior, and perhaps never choose to see you or spend time with you again?

For a young person living in a foster or group home, your every mistake can lead to larger-than-life repercussions. Chances are that you will be removed from the place that you are staying and placed somewhere else. Even if the mistake was not yours, even if that mistake was actually perpetrated by the son of the man who owned that group home, you will be blamed.

What does this do to you inside?
It makes you feel that you are unlovely and unloveable. It instills the desire to you to become love-worthy at all costs. You might try to be prettier - in order to be loved. Smarter - in order to be loved. Thinner - in order to be loved.

Do you see how emaciated I look in this picture?
That was how I looked as a 19-year-old college student when I first read this quote. I was trying all those things... to be loved.

I had recently experienced two forms of rejection; one from my father whom I had tried to reconcile with, and another from my best friend-big brother-evolved into boyfriend, who wasn't my boyfriend anymore.

I reacted to their rejection by blaming myself. I couldn't see that there might be something lacking in my father - like courage or emotional strength. I couldn't see that my boyfriend was just a bad match for me. I was chasing after perfection and beating my hands against the wind.

Chasing after perfection
I still do that sometimes. I push myself hard, and I keep my energy level going for a long time. By the end of this year, I will have presented at four national and four statewide conferences in the hopes of improving outcomes for young people in and from foster care.

But trying to be a perfect person can be exhausting.

Some of my goals for the next year are:
- To delegate more and not take everything on myself
- To partner with others and share the workload
- To design workshops that can be shared on a national level... but not always by me
- To train youth and alumni to present at conferences

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

MLK's Insights and the Foster Care Movement

One more step ahead for the Foster Care Movement happened in Toledo, Ohio today!

While driving to Toledo today, I listened to some of the landmark speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Just as his words rang through the nation as part of the civil rights movement, there are many principles that we can learn from MLK regarding the foster care movement as well...

1.) Importance of a collective voice:
"I want to say that, in all of our actions, we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united, we can get many of the things which we not only desire but which we justly deserve."

2.) Urgency - because now is the time to make a difference:
"Then there is another cry. They say: 'Why don't you do it in a gradual manner?' Well, gradualism is little more than escapism and do-nothingism, which ends up in stand-stillism."

3.) Need for our voices regarding legislation:
"And there's a reality; let's not fool ourselves: this bill isn't going to get through if we don't put some work in it, and some determined pressure. And that's why I've said that in order to get this bill through, we've got to arouse the conscience of the nation..."

4.) Sacrificing to make a difference
"There can be no great social gain without personal pain... but we must go on with determination, and with a faith that this problem can be solved."

5.) Making a difference for the next generation:
"Moses might not get to see Canaan, but his children will see it. He even got to the top of the mountain enough to see it, and that assured him that it was coming. But the beauty of the thing is that there's always a Joshua to take up his work and take the children on in."

To read more, please visit:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

First Lady Frances Strickland

On Friday, I had the privilege of attending the Ohio Family and Children First Forum.

This event was chaired by Ohio's First Lady, Frances Strickland.

Ohio's First Lady sees her role as a steward of resources.

Her goal is to streamline and coordinate existing services, in order to better help children and families. Participants were invited to share systems/services that are difficult to navigate, and regulations/policies that do not make sense.

I sat in the front row at this event, and was given the opportunity to to share both my concerns and my availability as a resource to professionals in attendance at the forum.

1.) Systemic issues that I shared:

- Young women who age out of foster care and seek help are often told that they are not eligible for assistance unless they become pregnant.

- A young man, eligible for Medicaid benefits, thanks to HB119, has been repeatedly told for the past six months by the staff member assigned to his case that his Medicaid card is "in the mail."

Meanwhile, this 19-year-old has gone six months without the very insurance that advocates have labored to make available to him.

- Practices that work against young people in foster care by denying them long-term emotional connections, such as changing their birth certificates so that they are no longer legally related to their biological siblings, and not maintaining sibling visitation.

2.) Penny Wyman of OACCA indicated that her top two concerns are transition and coordination:

- There is a need for greater
support for youth in transition.

- The mental health, juvenile justice and child welfare systems need to coordinate
with one another.

- When transitional support is not available, and when systems do not operate in collaboration with one another, this can be detrimental to both short- and long-term outcomes for youth.

3.) A foster mother, who is preparing to adopt the sibling group of four children in her care, asked why the children's biological parents had been asked to pay for the parenting and substance abuse classes that they were ordered to attend?

She said that, in this case, the biological parents had been neglectful but not abusive. The parents could not afford to pay for the classes, and had became discouraged. Their children were elsewhere, so they decided to drown their sorrows in further substance addiction, and wound up losing custody.

4.) A biological mother of a teenage boy who had spent time in the juvenile justice system was concerned that her son had become institutionalized. When his sentence was up, he did not know how to function in the outside world.

5.) Child welfare professionals asked, "Can we cut down on the obscene amount of paperwork? It is confusing to consumers and takes up time that we could be using for direct service."

6.) Overall, the focus of the forum was on "reteaching the systems," because it seems that the people who are making the rules and guidelines have never tried to access those services themselves.

One forum participant advised having staff members "sample the consumer experience."

This idea reminded me of an old William Hurt movie called The Doctor.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Praise for Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College

As a former foster child, I am writing this blog entry to celebrate the efforts of one man, who is using his personal summer vacation time bicycling to seven Virginia community colleges, in order to raise funding and awareness for a program to benefit young people in foster care.

Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, knows and cares about the challenges facing the 8,000 young people in his state's foster care system, and the more than 500 teenagers who age out of foster care in Virginia each year, with nowhere to go.

He cares that, even though grants and tuition assistance are available, not enough young people are made aware of these resources.

He knows that less than 5 percent of young people over the age of 18 are willing to remain in state custody.

He understands their desire to provide for themselves and be independent, despite the fact that, "If they would only stay in foster care status - for independent living, federal money kicks in, state money kicks in.... But it's all pretty much left on the table."

In response, the Virginia Community College has launched the Great Initiatives, a transitional education program for teenagers in the foster care system between the ages of 13 - 17 years old.

The specific goals of this program are:
- Help youth complete high school and transition into higher education
- Increase awareness about the value of a community college education
- Increase enrollment in Independent Living Programs
- Increase the number of foster youth who gain employment in desirable jobs
- Pilot after school programs at all community colleges for foster care youth

What sparked DuBois' passion? His past experience as a social worker, years ago, working with foster-care youth shortly after he finished graduate school.

To learn more, please visit this link.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Doctors Without Borders and Plumpy'nut

Photo by Julie Pudlowski, International Medical Corps

Millions of children worldwide die preventable deaths each year because their growing bodies aren’t getting the nutrition that they need.

In Niger, for example, the United Nations reports that 150,000 children under five years old are severely malnourished.

Their mothers are unable to produce enough breast milk, due to poor nutrition. Families cannot afford to buy milk and have no way to store milk, due to lack of refrigeration. Powered milk is useless without clean water.

According to Dr. Milton Tectonidis, the chief nutritionist for Doctors Without Borders, "If you feed (children) well until they're two or three years old, it's won. They're healthy, they can get a healthy life. If you miss that window, it's finished."

So what’s the solution? 60 Minutes reports that Plumpy’nut has produced rapid growth in severely malnourished children.

Plumpy’nut is made of peanut butter and powered milk, and enriched with vitamins and minerals. Each serving is the equivalent of a glass of milk and a multivitamin.

Top 10 Reasons To Use Plumpy’nut to Address Child Malnutrition:
1.) Plumpy'nut is a ready-to-use therapeutic food, requiring no refrigeration or preparation.

2.) It is stored in sealed packets to avoid bacterial contamination, and has a two-year shelf life when unopened.

3.) Families are able to take a week's ration home and return the following week for a weight check.

4.) The alternative is inpatient care in overcrowded centers, which further risks malnourished children's compromised immune systems.

5.) The sweet taste of Plumpy'nut appeals to children, even children who have become anorexic and "lost their appetite" due to vitamin deficiencies.

6.) Peanuts are a good source of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that helps to convert food into energy -- and peanut allergies are rare in underdeveloped countries.

7.) The high calorie content makes it possible for children to receive a sufficient amount of energy, despite their shrunken stomachs.

8.) Results are generally seen within two to four weeks.

9.) Plumpy'nut is inexpensive to produce and deliver; a daily dose costs only $1

10.) If more countries are willing to spend part of their food aid on Plumpy'nut, more companies will start making it.

To Learn More About How You Can Help: Please visit:
International Medical Corps
Project Peanut Butter

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act 2008

Graph from Maia Szalavitz's article about "The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry," August 20, 2007.

H.R. 5876 is the first piece of federal legislation seeking to regulate and monitor abusive treatment within teen behavior modification programs in the United States.

Alternately called residential treatment centers, wilderness camps or boot camps, these programs aspire to "reform" teenagers with discipline problems.

However, the treatment that they provide often violates the rights of young people.

Disciplinary measures can include physical or mental abuse, physical restraints and withholding food, water, clothing, shelter or medical care, as a form of punishment. As a result, some teenagers die in these camps, while others emerge with physical and emotional scars.

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres documents the abuse that she and her adopted brother experienced in a fundamentalist Dominican Republic reform school. Other survivors have been courageous enough to share their experiences in an effort to inspire reform.

The time has come for these programs to be held accountable, and subject to regulation, oversight and standards.

This bill would:
- Prohibit programs from physically, mentally or sexually abusing youth in their care
- Prohibit the denial of essential water, food, clothing, shelter or medical care
- Require that programs physically restrain children only if it is necessary for their safety or the safety of others, and to do so in a way that is consistent with existing federal law on the use of restraints
- Hold the programs accountable by requiring unannounced site inspections at least every two years and imposing civil penalties for up to $50,000 for violations of the law
- Enable parents to file civil action suits if national standards are violated and their child is abused and harmed.

In addition:
- Programs would be required to disclose the qualifications, roles and responsibilities of all staff members
- Staff members would be trained in what constitutes child abuse and how to report it
- Emergency medical care must be made available on-site

This bill is supported by: the Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth and the National Youth Rights Association.

H.R. 5876 has passed committee and will be voted on by the full House of Representatives later this month...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A model for Youth-Centered Permanency

Lisa, Kerri and Allyson at Colorado conference

One of my favorite workshops during the Many Voices, One Vision conference was "Youth-Centered Permanency," led by Allyson Coldwell and Kerri Klein.

Allyson and Kerri tackle "cold cases" in which a child has been languishing in foster care for years.

This young person is usually between the ages of 12- 16 years old.

They put on their detective hats and work with that young person to chart all the caring adults in his or her life. The list they generate from his or her answers might include neighbors, distant relatives, teachers, coaches, staff members from previous group homes or residential facilities, etc.

Then, Allyson and Kerri contact those adults, with the young person's permission, and invite them to participate with the young person in a meeting. During this somewhat lengthy process, they stay in touch with the young person because they know that this process can stir up painful emotions.

During the actual meeting, each adult in attendance has the opportunity to make a firm commitment to the young person. This commitment might range from holiday cards, to weekly phone calls, to monthly visits - or even adoption!

I wish this had been done for me during my time in foster care.

Every time I changed placements, I lost contact with every caring adult that I had built a relationship with... Those adults were either forbidden to contact me, discouraged from contacting me, or just didn't have any contact information to stay in touch with me afterwards!

Allyson and Kerri's method struck me as creative, innovative and having powerful potential to increase the circle of support in a young person's life.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Meeting the Governor of Colorado in person

Photo of Gov. Bill Ritter with Lisa

I had the privilege of meeting Colorado Governor Bill Ritter in person this week at the Many Voices, One Vision Colorado Summit on Children, Youth and Families.

This conference is both the 17th annual Colorado Child Welfare Conference and the 8th annual Judicial Family Issues conference. The conference attracted over a thousand participants.

Both the Governor's speech and the workshop presentations that I attended were incredibly valuable... I will be posting further information in upcoming blog entries.

I and two other members of Foster Care Alumni of America presented two concurrent workshops on "Demystifying Emotional Resiliency."

Our audience included: judges, lawyers, guardians ad litem, CASA volunteers, social workers, caseworkers and foster parents.

Each of Colorado's 22 judicial districts were represented at the conference, and posted concrete evidence of what they were doing to help children and families.

The focus areas were: Permanency, Safety and Well-Being.

The judicial participants in this conference were there because they believe in front-end solutions, and dedicate their time to make a lasting and positive change.

As one judicial staff member, who shall remain anonymous, said to me, "It's cheaper in the long run to do things right up front."

And also, "Too often, with government, there's never enough time and money to do it right, but there's always time and money to do it over."

Please stayed tuned to read excerpts from Gov. Bill Ritter's speech, insights about youth engagement in permanency initiatives and to learn how United Way empowered young people in and from foster care to advocate for sibling visitation.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Colorado and foster care

Good things are happening in Colorado, under Gov. Bill Ritter's leadership.

In April 2007, United Way made it possible for a pair of foster care youth to shadow the Governor during "Take Your Child to Work Day."

In February 2008, Governor Bill Ritter signed into law a bill requiring counties to arrange visits between foster children and their siblings if they have been separated and want to stay connected.

But with progress comes inevitable setbacks.

The Colorado Task Force On Foster Care and Permanence was created to address problems within Colorado's foster care and adoption systems.

The intent of the task force was to include foster care youth, biological parents, foster parents, as well as child welfare professionals.

After all, round tables discussions don't work unless the key players aren't invited to the table. Nor do they work if the time, date and location of task force meetings is not publicized.

Can you guess what happened?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

We don't want "your kind" around here

Photograph by Mike Tobias, Port Arthur News

A group of Texas residents appear to be enforcing their own form of segregation, by protesting an all-male group home for elementary-age foster children.

The only "crime" that these children have committed is being abandoned and/or abused by their parents.

They are no more or less likely to cause problems than any other child.

My only concerns are about the all-male staff, and the fact that there will only be two staff members. The staff-child ratio needs to be revisited. Will the children be educated on-site, or (hopefully) attend the local elementary school?

I believe that former foster children should have a voice in the design of group home facilities.

I personally would advocate for both male and female staff members, both male and female residents (with separate sleeping quarters) and definitely more staff members than just two people.

I would also propose creative measure such as:

1. Church members being paired as "mentors" for each child in the group home
, after being carefully screened to make sure these adults are safe. A child could spend time in their homes on Sunday afternoons.

2. Proactive community education: In all fairness, after reading through the comments, it does seem that there was a communications breakdown between the church and the community.

When establishing a group home, it is in the best interest of everyone involved - especially the children who undoubtedly feel rejected and stigmatized by these picket signs - to have open and honest communication.

If I were creating a group home, I would present the model at local schools and community meetings. I would strive to answer questions ahead of time, and to keep my answers consistent, regarding:

- How many children would be housed in the facility
- The ages and lack of criminal background
- The qualifications of staff
- The availability of counseling and support

Reading further into the comment section, it appears that community meetings were held and that they did address all of the above questions.

Which makes me wonder why that information was not included in the article, which only quoted sound-bytes from a man who was supposedly an "expert" on group homes... but as it turns out, his only expertise is in juvenile correctional facilities.