Sunday, March 23, 2008

CWLA Peer Mentoring

Fostering Healthy Connections Through Peer Mentoring is a program initiated by the Child Welfare League of America and piloted in Louisville, Kentucky. This program trains former foster youth to mentor current foster youth. This common experiences opens the door to a level of trust and openness that often takes years to attain by mentors who have not had first-hand experience with foster care. This program has been endorsed by FosterClub.

In My Shoes

In My Shoes is a non-profit, peer-mentoring organization in Tuscon, Arizona that matches adults who have previously been in foster care with teenagers who are currently in the foster care system.

This program was established in July 2003. It represents collaboration between Tuscon foster care alumni, juvenile court, caseworkers, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Aviva Children Services and Casey.

The primary focus is on one-on-one matches between foster care youth and alumni:

- Mentees are young people currently in the foster care system, either in a group home or foster home. They must be between the ages of 16 - 17 years old.

- Mentors must be former foster children with a positive outlook on their experience. They must be at least 18 years old and have successfully demonstrated life skills for at least six months.

The match is a two-year commitment, facilitated by bi-monthly trainings and quarterly outings. The bi-monthly trainings are coordinated by Aviva Children Services.

In My Shoes
staff members spend 20-40 hours each month working with mentors and mentees.They provide technical support on their website, in a format similar to FaceBook. For the quarterly trainings, they facilitate:

- Recreational activities such as baseball games and miniature golf
- Holiday activities such as Thanksgiving Dinner and Christmas Angel with white elephant gifts

Since the number of youth outnumber alumni mentors, In My Shoes supports 'waiting mentees' and youth development through youth advisory boards, clubs, socials, informal get-togethers and trainings.

In My Shoes receives grants through the Department of Behavioral Health. They contract through the Division of Economic Services. Mentoring is a billable expense through Behavioral Health, and they generally have more funding than the state.

In My Shoes maintains community partnerships in order to receive affordable bids for advertising.

Matching Process
- Youth are referred by their caseworker, which means that, at first, most of what is known about the young person is just paperwork. Youth are empowered to look over what their caseworker has written and add to it.

- Mentors come to the office in order to fill out their paperwork. This method has proven to work better in terms of ensuring follow-up on the mentor's part. The next steps are a phone interview and a screening interview.

During the first match meeting, the mentor and mentee look over their mentoring contract and decide if any changes need to be made. They have one goal per month, and the first goal is to get to know each other.

Mentors are encouraged to attend their mentee's S.A.R. (Staff Annual Review) in order to discover additional ways to support their growth and progress.

Later on in the relationship, they will have opportunities to revise the mentoring contract in response to youth needs. For example, if a young person gets involved in school activities.

In My Shoes administers 'satisfaction surveys' to everyone involved in the program.

Because this program was established by Christa Drake, an alumna of foster care, it is focused on basing the measurement of success on what youth want, and not other people's definitions.

Christa's concerns about measuring other outcomes are that:

- Not every foster care alumni has mastered school, home life, etc.
- Alumni of foster care offer a unique perspective and should be valued for that
- Other organizations are paid to provide Independent Living Classes
- She doesn't want to alienate her partners by competing with them

As a former foster child myself, I respect and understand Christa's concerns. However, I believe that this model could and should be replicated across the nation. And without concrete outcome measurements, that is less likely to happen.

How ASTI evolved into the Transitioning Teens program

The Transitioning Teens Program is a collaborative effort among the Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, California CASA and local independent living programs to promote the development of hands-on life skills development through positive mentor-like relationships.

It was established in 2003, as a way of building upon the pre-existing Advocates for Successful Transition for Independence program, which had been conducted in two phases over the past two years. The ASTI program focused on pairing emancipating youth between the ages of 16 - 18 with an advocate to help prepare them for adulthood.

The dependency court refers youth to the program. The young people can be anywhere from birth to 18 years old. Unfortunately, since the number of youth in dependency court outnumber the number of volunteers, there are never enough mentors to match every child.

The mentors in this program are advocates. Their screening process is in accordance with CASA requirements. They have their first interview, and then attend a 30-hour training where they learn more about child development and the characteristics of youth at each age level.

During their second interview, the supervisor pulls 3-5 files, based upon the age range that the advocate is most comfortable with, and the advocate picks the child.

In the Transitioning Teens Program, the advocate works one-on-one with a teenager to help them develop critical life skills. The volunteer makes sure that the teenager's health, education, employment and housing issues are fully addressed, and writes notes to the court focusing on a youth's unique needs.

Group activities include sexual education, violence prevention, gang awareness, cooking courses and recreational activities like bowling. Particular attention is paid to the development of life skills, employment and housing.

Karen Scussel and her colleagues are in the process of developing a curriculum for teens, and will be happy to share it with others once it has been developed.

Financial Sustainability
An initial grant was used to 'kick start' the program, and to establish a network of connections. It is maintained through generous donations from foundations, corporations and individual donors.

1.) After twelve months of participation in ASTI, foster care youth exhibited improved social skills, a higher level of trust in adults, and self-esteem enhancement.

2.) Teens who participate in the Transitioning Teen Program are asked about their experience during their exit interview by their social workers. Advocates try to maintain lifelong supportive relationships with youth if possible,

3.) According to a November 2003 survey of 311 Advocates, 95% reported that they found their experience to be satisfying, and 94% felt that they had made a positive difference in a child's life.

4.) Youth testimonials: “My Advocate helped me get into a transitional house for female youth who have been emancipated... She’s also helping me get a driver’s license and a bank account. She is like family, like an auntie... I really recommend that you find an Advocate if you’re a youth about to come out of foster care.”

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Orphan Foundation of America v-mentoring program

The Orphan Foundation of America's vMentor Program uses technology to match volunteer mentors with current and former foster youth ages 16-23 who are in the process of transitioning from foster care to adulthood. Mentors must be 25 years of age or older, and established in their profession or career.

Matching Process
Mentors and mentees each fill out a profile, and answer a series of questions. The computer sorts through both to measure the compatibility of their answers.

The Orphan Foundation of America's Matching Coordinator looks at the top 10 mentor matches for each mentee, considering race, religion and sexual orientation if the mentee has indicated that these particular characteristics are important in their mentor.

The top 3 choices of mentors are given to the mentee, and the young person gets to choose. The mentee also has the option to refuse all three, and get three more mentor choices. OFA is lucky to have a pool of mentors, although they could always use more male mentors.

Resources for Mentors
The Orphan Foundation of America's v-mentoring program offers monthly support calls and trainings once a quarter. Mentors can participate by phone. There are also frequent newsletters with helpful tips and timely information.

The mentoring portal has a wealth of resources for both mentors and mentees, including a continually-growing resource library and modules written by Jane O'Leary, so that if a young person mentions having a certain issue, the mentor has resources and can make a timely intervention.

At first, it was hoped that mentors and mentees could go through the mentoring modules in a sequential manner, as a way to structure their contact. However, life is unpredictable, and the top priority is connecting with that young person exactly where they are, and building the mentor-mentee relationship.

This project was initially funded through a grant from the Northrop Grumman Foundation. OFA continues to sustain the program financialls through:

- OFA scholarship funds, funded by Casey and private individuals
- Nine states (including NC) allow OFA to manage all their ETV funds
- North Carolina contracts with OFA to manage their Chafee funding as well

They also rely on grants that focus on bridging the gap between high school and post-secondary school for foster care alumni.

This year, the Orphan Foundation of America will be hiring an outside evaluator to do hard data regarding outcome measurement.

In the meantime, mentors and mentees are frequently invited to fill out online surveys. The vmentoring portal measures the frequency of contact between mentor and mentee. OFA has information about the mentees with which they can generate spreadsheets regarding academic and personal milestones.

Future Plans
The vmentoring portal was designed by Rich Webb, who continues to update it frequently. It is an ever-evolving resource, with fabulous features. In the future, the goal is utilize Genesis webinar in order to:

- Expand trainings with polls, powerpoint presentations and surveys
- Record and post trainings, and migrate them to create a "Mentor Training Library"
- Incorporate cognitive coaching techniques, such as 'planning maps' and 'problem-solving maps'

OFA is grateful for the insights of Colorado Center for Cognitive Coaching, a supervisory peer-coaching model dedicated to facilitate the development of 'self-directed youth,' and empower them to recognize and utilize all of their available resources.

Mentoring USA

The New York State mentoring program was chaired by Matilda Raffa Cuomo, who has been described as being the most active First Lady in New York State's history. It was the first mentoring program in the United States to specifically address the needs of young people in foster care.

In 1995, when state funding was no longer available, Cuomo founded Mentoring USA.

Mentoring USA has national consultants, who work with mentoring programs all over the country to implement a one-on-one, site-based mentoring model. The demographics of each site can vary.

Mentoring USA chooses which sites throughout the country that they are going to work with, and how many new sites they can take on each year. They now offer more technical assistance, such as modules to train staff, mentors and mentees.

Agencies or organizations pay Mentoring USA to provide technical assistance and/or to tailor the program. They can pay for more or less, depending upon their needs. Sometimes, their budget is smaller, and they just want to invest in a screening/training tool.

1. First, Mentoring USA decides if the agency or organization has the capacity to house a mentoring program.

2. Then, they work with staff members to define what that mentoring program should look like, and what/if any special focus areas exist (e.g. financial literacy).

3. They outline the requirements and strategy to establish the program.

Mentors must be over 18, and undergo an initial interview and a background check. During mentor training, there are two trainers. One trainer leads the session, while the other observes would-be mentors to see if there's a need for additional interviews.

Mentees can be youth in foster care, ages 7-21 (or even up to 23 years old). As long as a young person is connected to the agency and willing to partipate, they can be part of the program.

The mentor and mentee must meet for 4 hours/month minimum, in accordance with research regarding mentoring effectiveness. This could mean meeting twice a month for two hours each, or four times a month for one hour. Certainly, they are both welcome to invest extra time.

There are various activities to build rapport. Group activities are good, because that way the mentee still gets something out of it, even if their mentor does show up or they don't get along with their mentor very well.

Group activities can include: yoga, goal-setting, career days, strategic planning, healthy lifestyle, self-defense or a guest speaker (e.g. Victoria Rowell). It's important that these activities be fun for everyone involved, and not feel like school.

Mentoring USA has developed a yearly calendar, but can customize their curriculum for the intended audience.

Matching Process
The process of matching mentors and mentees differs according to site, but what Keith Howard recommends is a combination of two methods:

1. List of questions for both mentors and mentees, based upon predetermined compatibility factors. Having an idea of participants' personalities can help (e.g. extrovert/introvert, interests, goals)

2. "Speed Matching;" a process similar to speed dating. Mentees sit in chairs in a circle, while mentors alternate chairs on the outside and ask pre-set questions. Meanwhile, the trainer pays attention to the interaction, guages the level of comfort and compatibility, and marks his/her observations on a scorecard.

It's important to note that Foster Care Initiatives Program Manager Keith Howard says that in his experience, matching is not the most important part. Rather, the most important part is facilitating that mentor-mentee relationship.

Match Breakdown
At the very first training, mentors and mentees are told what to expect in case of a mismatch of personalities:

- If a match breaks down, staff will try to support and maintain that relationship
- If they cannot salvage the match, they will end it and seek closure
- Because their model is 1:1 mentoring, either they will try to bring in two more people, or those two people might be out of the program

Outcome Measurement
Because Mentoring USA was founded by a former First Lady of New York, and supported by her Attorney General son, Andrew Cuomo, they are able to receive grants and funding without having to prove themselves by strenous outcome measurements.

Outcomes that they strive for are:
- Social skills (e.g. healthy levels of disclosure)
- Healthy life choices (qualitative measures)
- Conflict resolution (modules)

Grades are also a good indicator of success, although their mentoring model is social, not academic.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Disrupted adoption from the adoptee's point of view

Currently in the United States, adoptions are being promoted as the “cure” for foster care, and a panacea to all permanency issues. And yet, across America, there are a growing number of adoptions that dissolve after finalization.

The highest disruption rate is for children who are adopted as teenagers.

Also at higher risk are:
- Children who are separated from their siblings.
- Children who have been sexually abused
- Children who have been adopted before and that adoption failed

The term ‘disrupted adoption’ sounds like it was coined in order to minimize the emotional impact. It brings to mind phrases like: “The television program was disrupted by a commercial break,” or a teacher saying to her class, “Be quiet. I will tolerate no more disruptions!”

Perhaps it’s a subtle way to assign blame to the child. Could it be a lingering accusation of insubordination? Does it imply that the child is an intruder, disrupting the customary order of their adoptive parents’ household?

A friend of mine who was adopted from foster care was recently reading a blog entry from an adoptive parent whose complaint was: “I guess we just thought that we would love him sooner. He is obviously crazy about us, but I just find myself coming home from a long day at work, and wishing he would calm down.”

My friend looked up from the article and commented, “It sounds like they were looking for a puppy.”

Prelude to a Loss
A series of stages have been identified by the University of South Maine that often lead to adoption disruption. First, the adoptive parents become frustrated with the child’s behavior and begin questioning their choice to adopt. They start complaining about the child to other people.

Hopefully the adoptive parents have surrounded themselves with a support group to both comfort and challenge them regarding their parenting skills. It is normal to feel overwhelmed after an adoption, just as many parents go through an adjustment after their child’s birth.

When I became a stepmother, I remember that the transition to ‘instant parent’ wasn’t easy. It took time to define the roles in our relationship, to build trust and to set limits. I knew that it wouldn’t always be easy, and it wasn’t. But I also knew that when I chose to marry my husband, I was making a lifelong commitment to his daughters as well.

Adoption needs to be perceived as a serious commitment. A child is not a defective product. A child cannot be taken out on a trial run. You can’t have buyers’ remorse, and then take that child back for a refund.

And yet, prior to adoption disruption, adoptive parents allow themselves to fantasize about what it would be like if this child were no longer a part of their family. Finally, they issue an ultimatum to the child.

The Aftermath
Most articles about disrupted adoption focus primarily on the emotions of the adoptive parent. But what does it feel like to be the child, undergoing that level of rejection?

For children and teenagers who have experienced disrupted adoptions, this experience impacts both their personal identity and long-term survival.

They often wind up in limbo:
1.) Their birth certificate has been permanently changed. It is now inaccurate, because it has been rewritten to state that their adoptive mother gave birth to them. They aren’t allowed to have a copy of their original birth certificate without approval from both parents. In fact, they aren’t allowed to have personal documents, such as their (doctored) birth certificate, until they are 21 years old.

2.) Not only can they not rely on their former adoptive families, they are no longer legally related to their biological siblings. An adoptee explained it to me like this: “We are brother and sister, but on paper, it looks like we aren’t even related. I can’t even be his next of kin.”

3.) As they transition to adulthood, they are often unsure of how to fill out their taxes or the federal student aid application for school. They are asked to “prove” that their adoption was legally disrupted. If their adoptive parents have simply abandoned them, as happens all too often with teenagers, they can’t.

These transitioning young adults are unable to receive benefits such as ETV funds, because they were adopted and the assumption is that their adoptive parents – who have been receiving adoption subsidies for their care – are financially providing for them.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the "limbo" that adoptees whose adoption has been "disrupted" can experience... Think about international adoptees who wind up in the United States foster care system.

Recommended Policy Changes
Adoption agencies should be held to the standard of full disclosure. Research has demonstrated that parents who understand beforehand about a child’s previous physical or sexual abuse are less likely to disrupt the adoption. Sometimes, such as in the case of international adoption, there might not be a lot of information available. However, inasmuch as it is possible for an agency to fully inform adoptive parents about a child’s background, they should do so.

Screen adoptive parents’ motivations and expectations. Is the adoption based primarily on the needs of the child or the adoptive parent? Many people adopt due to their inability to conceive. Sometimes disruptions occur because parents feel entitled to some wonder-child that they’ve been imagining and the child doesn’t meet those expectations.

Training for adoptive parents should include the “what if” scenarios. What if you adopt a child, and discover that child has been sexually abused? Adoptive parents should be prepared in advance, and encouraged to create a financial and emotion safety net in the event that a child might need residential care.

Facilitate an atmosphere of trust, by allowing the child contact with loved ones. An adoptee shared with me her experiences on the day of her “Goodbye Visits” prior to her adoption.

During the course of one day, she had to say goodbye to her birth family, the foster family with whom she had been staying for years and her brother. That day was the most horrific day of her life.

Three months later, her new adoptive parents were upset that she didn’t want to call them “Mom” and “Dad.”

The term Reactive Attachment Disorder makes me nervous because I believe it is a diagnosis that is given too quickly. This label makes it easier to underestimate the resilience of an adoptee and to magnify their problems. It makes it easier to blame the adoptee when things go wrong.

Imagine if someone came to you and said, “You are going to enter the witness protection program. You need to go and say goodbye to all the people that you have ever loved. You can no longer have any contact with them. It is for their safety.”

In a witness protection scenario, national security might be at stake. But whose needs are being met when an adopted child is denied contact with loved ones from their past?

When I asked my friend why her adoption meant that she was denied contact with every person that she had ever loved, her explanation was, “Adoptive parents are insecure, especially with older kids. That’s why the government allows them to cut all ties.”

I believe that if her former foster family was safe enough to place her with during the interim, she should have been allowed to maintain contact with them. If she was allowed sibling visits prior to the adoption, they should have been continued afterwards as well.

I would like to invite readers to weigh in on this issue…