Thursday, December 31, 2020

Grieving the unexpected loss of Cleta Kawa

Shared journeys: An adopted son and his mother's support
Richards, Heather Richards, May 28, 2016.

The opening bars of “Pomp and Circumstance” stuttered out of the church sound system Tuesday evening, and Jarret Imes-Kawa rose to his feet. He shifted his 3-year-old sister, Kristine, more comfortably on his broad shoulders and turned to watch their brother, Isaiah, walk the aisle of Paradise Valley Christian Church, wearing the bright red cap and gown of a kindergarten graduate.

On Sunday, Jarrett will make that same walk at Roosevelt High School. It will be the last leg of a long and difficult childhood journey for the blue-eyed, blonde 18-year-old. He was taken from his mother when he was about Isaiah’s age and tossed from foster homes to institutes to group homes until Dec. 21, 2015, when he was adopted by Cleta and Mark Kawa.

Graduation is symbolic. It’s as much a celebration of childhood’s innocence as a moment of promise for the future. But many children in the foster care system reach this point after a childhood that spun in and out of control. For a long time, that was Jarrett’s life. But now he’s moving on. He knows walking over that stage means the past is over and the future is waiting. He also knows he needs help to embrace it.

Jarrett’s adopted mother understands his past and what he has to do to overcome it. She’s been there. She had to overcome it, too.

Life is good for Jarrett. In many ways, it’s the best it’s ever been. He is in the top 10 of his graduating class. He has a new family and scholarships that will pay for college.

But at Isaiah’s graduation, Jarrett is on leave. He’s been committed to the Wyoming Behavioral Institute for threatening suicide.

“When things start going well, he doesn’t know what to do with the good feelings,” Cleta said. “Chaos is comfortable for him, because that is what he’s lived in his entire life.”

It’s true, Jarrett said.

Some of his earliest memories are fear. He was 7 when the state first got involved. The principal at Willard Elementary called him into her office. A stranger was there to take him. His mom was struggling with addiction.

He sobbed. He asked not to go. He and his siblings landed in foster care.

Though he and his brother and sisters eventually went back to his mother, she would disappear for weeks on end and continue using drugs. They were living with her parents in a rental in Casper when Jarrett was 11. They’d trashed the place, he remembered. He would go to school smelling like cat urine and wearing dirty clothes. But it was also during this time that Jarrett started trying to take control.

“I would say at that age I had to grow up a lot. I had to start helping out with my siblings. I fell into that caretaker responsibility for a bit,” he said. “After that I didn’t view myself as a kid. I started viewing myself as more of a 20-year-old in an 11-year-old body.”

One night, while his grandparents were sleeping, the boy and his mother argued. She threw him into the television. Jarrett’s grandpa stormed out of the bedroom to stop the violence.

The 11-year-old walked to the front door, stepped out into the night and resolved to change the course of his life. He walked to the gas station down the road, where there was a pay phone. He rifled through a phone book until he found what he was looking for — the number to the Department of Family Services.

Most kids don’t know that there is an institution that takes children from their homes when their homes are dangerous. But Jarrett knew. Most kids don’t know what meth, heroin or cocaine are, but those were his mom’s drugs of choice, he said.

An on-call case worker showed up at the gas station and drove the boy back to the apartment. Police were already there, taking pictures of the mess the children lived in, to the shame of his grandparents and mother.

The kids re-entered the system.

Unfortunately, things didn’t get better for Jarrett.

He ended up with his father and his father’s girlfriend. After an altercation, the details of which Jarrett no longer remembers, he was punished. He spent every day of that summer sitting in a chair in the basement, no human interaction, no toys, just an 11-year old boy and his thoughts.

He went numb, he said. The days when he was allowed out to visit his mother and grandparents were like holidays.

The years that followed took the same disjointed pattern. He spent months in foster care homes, many positive. He had stints in the Youth Crisis Center, a season with an aunt and uncle in Maryland. He attempted suicide more than once. There was a brief happy time with his father’s ex-girlfriend. She tried to adopt him, but Jarrett’s father intervened. He was put in the Wyoming Behavioral Institute six times in the last decade. But it was there, two years ago, that he met Cleta.

She was working there. They bonded. She knew right away that he was meant to be her son, she said.

*** 

It was six days before graduation. Cleta was visiting Jarrett at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute. She’d brought his cap and gown for him to try on.

They sat in the boys’ lounge area. Someone brought Jarrett a dinner tray — two pieces of sliced bread, pinto beans and a salad — but he slipped it into the garbage. A worker brought him his medication. He stuck out his tongue to show that he’d swallowed it.

It’s the first day in a week that Jarrett hasn’t cried, he said. He misses his family, his siblings and his relationship with a girl at Roosevelt.

It was the breakup that landed him back in the institute. He punched a wall, broke his phone, had a panic attack and threatened to hurt himself.

Cleta and Mark took his threats seriously. They are both Iraq veterans, and a number of people they were deployed with have committed suicide.

And when Cleta was young, she entered the foster care system for self-harm.

Cleta grew up with her grandparents. Her mother and father were unable to care for her and her brother.

“Growing up, that was one of the hardest things for me,” she said. “(My mother) was in and out of my life. I always wondered with both my biological mother and father — why was I never good enough for you?”

When she was 15, her brother died. They were close, and she didn’t know how to cope with the grief. She started cutting herself, became bulimic. Her grandparents put her in foster care.

It took years for Cleta to understand that when her grandparents gave up their golden years to raise children, it was an act of love.

She felt the stigma of being a foster kid, and she was rebellious, she said.

“I thought I knew it all, and I didn’t,” she remembered.

When she left the system, her independent living counselor encouraged her to go to a summit with former foster kids. The oldest woman there was in her 70s. It dawned on Cleta: Her past wasn’t a weakness.

She went into the military, married and had kids. She made a life for herself, and then she met Jarrett.

On the other side of the locked doors of the behavioral institute recently, the sun was shining brightly on the mowed grass. Jarret sat with his back to the window.

“We weren’t at all surprised that he has some issues,” Cleta said. “You can’t go through that life without having some kind of effect. As much as we love and care for him, we can’t love those issues away.”

Jarrett is finishing his classes remotely. His family visits often and calls every day. He will be let out on leave Sunday to attend his graduation.

“I’ve got all the confidence in the world that he is going to be successful,” Cleta said. “He’s not that hurt, abandoned child anymore. He’s almost an adult, who now has a family, who has people who are here and care about him. He’s just got to stop looking at yesterday and really focusing on tomorrow.”

Jarrett is starting to come around and makes sense of why he’s at the institute, he said. Graduation is his focus, finishing school.

Like his little brother, Isaiah, did Tuesday, he wants to proudly walk down the aisle and begin the next chapter of his life. But he’s still learning to conquer his fear of abandonment. He’s learning to embrace the family that promises to stand by him.

He told his adopted mother he feels bad for destroying what they worked together to build.

She interrupted him.

“It’s not destroyed,” she said.

“No,” he conceded. “Not destroyed.”

Monday, December 28, 2020

Summary of Provisions Impacting Transition Age Youth in the Recently Passed Federal Stimulus and Funding Package


The Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act (H.R. 7947) includes the following: 

1.) Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act (permanent)

  • Makes the Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) program permanent in statute.
  • Extends the three-year FYI voucher term by 2 additional years for individuals participating in the Family Self- Sufficiency Program (FSS) or similar self-sufficiency activities.
  • Provides $25 million for the Family Unification Program (FUP). $20 million of these funds are for on-demand housing vouchers for young people with a foster care history.

2.) #UpChafee (effective through FY 2021)

  • Increases in Chafee funds by 400 million.
  • No state match is required for this increased Chafee allocation.
  • Youth are Chafee eligible until reaching age 27.
  • States can lift the 30% cap on room and board and provide room and board to young people who are between ages 18 years and 27 and have experienced foster care at 14 years of age or older.

3.) Education and Training Vouchers (effective through FY 2021)

  • At least 50 million of the 400 million Chafee allocation must be used for ETV.
  • The maximum ETV award is $12,000 per individual youth per year (from $5000) through FY 2022.
  • Waiver of the enrollment and satisfactory academic progress requirements (SAP) for ETV through FY 2021 if young people are unable to meet the requirement due to the pandemic.

4.) Preventing Youth from Aging out and Providing Re-Entry  (effective through FY 2021)

  • A state cannot require a child to leave foster care due to turning 18/21.
  • Young people can remain IV-E eligible even if they are not able to meet the participation (work and school) requirements for extended foster care and if they are age 21.
  • States are required (“shall”) to provide re-entry to foster care to youth who aged out during the pandemic and have not attained age 22 and must facilitate the re-entry process.

5.) Provisions to Notify Young People and Streamline Access to Assistance

  • States must notify young people about expanded Chafee eligibility and services, the moratorium, and the re-entry provisions.
  • The law prohibits HHS from requiring states to provide “proof of a direct connection to the pandemic if doing so would be administratively burdensome or would otherwise delay or impede the ability of the State to serve foster youth.”


Also included: 

6.) Relief for Higher Education Institutions and Students (effective through FY 2022)

  • $22.7 billion allocated to a Higher Education Relief Fund for colleges and universities. At least half of this amount must go directly to students in the form of additional financial aid.
  • Increases the maximum Pell grant award by $150, from $6,345 to $6,495 for the 2021-2022 academic year.


7.) Streamlining the FAFSA for Youth with Experience in Foster Care and Homelessness (these provisions take effect on July 1, 2023)

  • Eliminates the requirement that the status of foster youth and unaccompanied homeless youths be redetermined every year.
  • Expands the list of officials and programs that may verify that an applicant is an unaccompanied homeless youth.
  • To verify a youth’s foster care status, institutions must accept official state documents, an electronic data match with the state agency, a documented phone call with a county agency, foster care provider, attorney or CASA, or verification that the student is eligible for a Chafee ETV grant.
  • Requires the development of a simplified FAFSA with a single question on homeless status (this part, I am curious about, because there are pro's and con's to it)


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Housing vouchers for young adults who aged out of foster care quietly becomes law

 


Older Youth and Young Adults

The deal includes $400 million for the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, $50 million of which goes to the college voucher program that supports tuition and other costs for current and former foster youth. The rest of this boost funding can be used for independent living costs (including housing) to support current and former foster youth up to the age of 27.

The maximum amount of the college vouchers was also temporarily raised from $5,000 per student to $12,000.

It also requires that states with a federally-funded extension of foster care to age 21 (just over half of states fit that description) must allow those young adults to remain in care for the time being. And if they have already aged out since the pandemic began, a state must allow them to return to care.

The federal funds for extended foster care flow from Title IV-E, the main child welfare entitlement. For those older foster youth who are not eligible under the rules of IV-E, the bill permits states to use their Chafee independent living money to prevent them from aging out during the coronavirus pandemic.

Housing After Foster Care

For years, a group of advocates led by former foster youth have been pushing for a bill called the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act (FSHO, one of the greatest bill acronyms ever developed). The main tenet of the bill – on-demand vouchers to help support those leaving foster care – was actually put into effect last year as an executive branch initiative by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. His likely successor in that job, former U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), was an early supporter of FSHO.

This deal incorporates the addition of these vouchers into law. FSHO would enable a young adult to obtain a voucher for three years through any public housing authority in the country for three years, with an additional two years of eligibility if they are receiving family self-sufficiency supports.

“It means that older youth who are in foster care never have to fear being homeless,” said Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare. “Youth may have other plans or they may decide that they are not interested in signing a year-long lease and settling down in their own place. But the stability of a housing choice voucher for three years is there if they choose it. If they are enjoying that stability and want to be rewarded for working, they can voluntarily enroll in self-sufficiency program and extend the platform for an additional two years for a total of five.”

FSHO becomes federal law


Quotes from Ruthie White of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare:

  • It is downright poetic that on the darkest, coldest day of a very difficult year, the Winter Solstice, Congress passed the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act #FSHO - bringing light and hope to youth who are growing too old for foster care and have no family to whom they can safely return home. 

  • Written and spearheaded by foster youth and alumni from ACTION Ohio in partnership with NCHCW, #FSHO eliminates homelessness (and the fear of being homeless) for all older youth in care.  Youth who are interested in signing a lease for their own apartment and partnering with a local Public Housing Agency for three years to receive income-based assistance in paying their rent. 

  • Perhaps more importantly, all youth who participate will be able to enroll in HUD's Family Self-Sufficiency Program (#FSS) which rewards tenants for increasing their income.  And by volunteering to enroll in FSS, youth will extend their voucher from three years to FIVE.  

  • It would be impossible to overstate the amount of work and heart that all of the youth and alumna put into designing this legislation and the unwavering leadership exhibited by Lisa Dickson, Jamole Callahan, Doris Edelmann is a recipe for how to usher in wholesale child welfare reform.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Housing options are a vital element of transition planning

Foster youth throughout the nation deserve to have housing options thoughtfully considered prior to their transition to adulthood.  

Effective transition planning begins far earlier than 90 days before aging out. 

The housing plan should NOT include:

  • Dropping them off at homeless shelters

  • Reunifying youth with unsafe family members, shortly before they are scheduled to “age out” of the system. This might look good on AFCARS, but it makes them ineligible for supports that could otherwise help them succeed in young adulthood.


Tuesday, December 08, 2020

A news story that deeply resonated with me.

Tamara Vest's story deeply resonates with me. Both her father and my mother died of cancer. School was an escape for both of us. Her journey started at age 16, and I started college at the University of Kentucky in 1989 when I was 16 years old. Within a year of college, I experienced homelessness, and ended up finding my first home at the UK Wesley Foundation, a Methodist dorm that was willing to stay open over the holiday breaks.

Tamara's story and the fact that UK chose her as a graduation speaker illustrates that universities and colleges have opportunities to support the retention of students that need it most, and that doing so reflects incredibly well on them as an institution. 

Outcomes can be improved when higher education institutions chose to support students without family support. For me, UK admissions counselor Randy Mills was a lifeline to my future. For Tamara, it was Kalea Benner, associate dean for the college of social work.

We who are helped will choose to give back, and definitely want to do so in order to improve outcomes for our brothers and sisters. During her time in college, Vest became chairwoman of Voices of the Commonwealth, a group of former and current Kentucky foster youth who advocate for foster youth in part by telling their own stories.
 
Vest’s advocacy helped pass Senate Bill 115 — a tuition waiver for state higher education for Kentucky foster and adopted youth.
 

FSHO Senate Push

 


Throughout the month of December 2020, foster care youth, alumni and allies throughout the nation are invited to call their United States Senate representatives and ask them to champion the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act of 2019 (S. 2803).  

Since 2013, Ohio foster care youth and alumni have traveled to DC each year, in partnership with Ruth Anne White and the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare to work with federal officials and HUD to design a way to weave together existing federal resources in order to eliminate the gaps through which foster youth fall into homelessness.

Ohio foster care youth literally wrote the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act, which passed unanimously in the House of Representatives on November 18, 2019. This week, the partner bill (Senate Bill 2803) is being reviewed by the United States Senate. 

Here’s a link to an online toolkit that includes talking points, a sample letter, and other information that might be helpful.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Messages of thanks from Lorain County FYI recipients

 






Virtual Meeting with HUD Secretary Ben Carson



On Monday, November 30, 2020, some of the architects of the Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) initiative from ACTION Ohio, and young people who are currently participating in the program from Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Ohio and Oklahoma, met with HUD Secretary Ben Carson for a conversation about the incredible impact of this program! 

In the words of Ruth Ann White of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare:
  • HUD FYI Lead Chris Patterson was there to support his brothers and sisters of the foster care system. 
  • Jamole Callahan facilitated the event, birthday girl, Doris Edelmann held down the fort, and Lisa Dickson, who was hard at work was missed, but she trained us well! 
  • A huge thank you to Adaora Onuora, April Mcmullen, Love Williams, Eshawn Peterson, Tony Parsons, Tatyana Rozhnova, Violet Ramunni, Allison Rettker Pearce, Betsy Dodd Farmer, and CloĆ© Cooper. 
  • The Lorain County Team of youth was amazing and very articulate.
  • It was wonderful to have author and advocate Alexis Black there to support the event as well!  
Love Williams, FYI recipient from Alabama

Sunday, November 29, 2020

What love looks like on a Sunday morning

 

Click to enlarge

Child Protection Must Remain the North Star

The North Star, Polaris, marks the way due north. The reason the North Star is so important is because the axis of Earth is pointed almost directly at it. During the course of night, the North Star does not rise or set, but remains in very nearly the same spot above the northern horizon year-round while the other stars circle around it. This makes the North Star incredibly important for navigation. 

I was recently asked what my biggest struggle was this year, and the answer was most definitely trying to help a young person who only just turned 15 years old successfully advocate to be removed from an abusive kinship care placement.

The process took way too long and was impeded by multiple barriers. Far too many avenues that he turned to for help were ineffective and/or incredibly difficult to access - and this continues to make me deeply worry about other young people in his situation who don’t have outside help. 

I firmly agree with the remarks of Governor Mike DeWine during his recent press conference when he stated that child protection needs to be the North Star.   

There can be a pendulum swing of extreme opinions when it comes to politics and fields of study. I would love to see this North Star perspective be accepted and embraced by others who are in positions in which they have the power to create positive change.

Politics are real, and we cannot abandon the North Star.

Meaning that #Child Protection needs to take precedence before putting #Family First.   

Children and teens do not choose the family into which they are born. If additional services can help the family stay together safely, that is wonderful. But I don’t think that is all that is at stake here, or that it reflects the true narrative about what is going on. 

Positively transforming the foster care system here in Ohio needs to be more than a cost-saving, time-saving measure. It needs to actually reflect the voices of the many Ohio foster care youth and alumni who shared insights during the forums about how to help current and former foster youth succeed.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Excellent Webinar on Effectively Communicating With Teenagers

Ryan Dowd of the Homeless Training Institute is one of my favorite trainers. 


Here's a link to the workbook, and here's a link to register for this free pre-recorded training. I could do without the word "ornery," but the material is on point. 






Monday, November 23, 2020

2020 Thanksgiving Together ~ What No One Ever Told Me About the Workplace

Workplace Tips were shared on Sunday, Nov. 22, at 1 pm: Amber Dudsak did an excellent job of facilitating the conversation. Cloe Cooper of FAN and Jaye Turner of El’lesun shared about Project PASSION. 

Here are links to Workplace Tips that were shared, Living Wage per Ohio County and how current/former Ohio foster youth can apply for workforce attire through Project PASSION.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Notes from Governor DeWine's Press Conference on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020


On Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, Governor DeWine held a press conference to announce the final release of the Children Services Transformation Advisory Council's final report and recommendations to reform Ohio's children services and foster care system.

Governor DeWine's heart for foster youth was reflected in his opening remarks, during which he reiterated the need to focus on children and their best interest. He spoke about about giving foster youth a shot at living the American dream, and said, "Foster youth's health and safety needs to remain the North Star... The children/teen's rights need to come first."

The second speaker was Office of Children Services Transformation Director Kristi Burre. She spoke about trying to improve the lives of families and children throughout Ohio, and trying to include the voices of all Ohioans, across the entire continuum of the system. Her focus was broad, but she did include the quote that, "Foster youth have a right to be at the table."

Some of the highlights she mentioned were consistent screening of child abuse and neglect reports, the establishment of a statewide Ombudsman's Office, the need for normalcy, and the creation of a Bill of Rights for foster youth and for foster caregivers. 

She also spoke about Adoption Best Practices, such as Wendy's Wonderful Kids and Permanency Roundtables, and juvenile justice collaboration -- which will include establishing some Best Practices regarding GALs.

The third speaker was Melinda Sykes Haggerty. As an adoptee and former foster youth, Melinda shared that she feels this is her life mission. She thanked Governor DeWine for his unwavering dedication to improving outcomes for foster youth throughout his career. 

Melinda reflected on her experience on the Advisory Council, and shared that it was a balance of complicated family dynamics and interests. She spoke about the listening tour, and the honor and necessity of listening to and responding to those who have lived experience. 

She said that, out of all of the recommendations, she is the most proud of: 

  1. The future establishment of a Statewide Ombudsman's Office, especially with Ohio being a county-run system 
  2. Efforts to improve normalcy 
  3. Efforts to promote permanency, especially for older youth, in order to support a successful transition into young adulthood

Final remarks were made by ODJFS Director Kim Hall. Her closing words included the desire for a continued collaboration with foster care youth and alumni. 

After that, they opened it up for questions from reporters. The first reporter asked about child fatalities, and referred to a specific case of child abuse in Dayton. 

Governor DeWine responded that, "We have to do better for these kids. The child's rights need to come first. These are tough decisions, but we need to focus on children."


Reflections, when it comes to the OHIO YAB and ACTION Ohio:

  • The beauty and clarity of our work as foster care youth and alumni in the state of Ohio is that we can hone in on what can best improve outcomes for the young people themselves.

  • And have the ongoing responsibility to do so. 

  • Let’s make sure that the health and safety of Ohio foster care youth and young adults remains the North Star.



2020 Thanksgiving Together ~ College Survival Strategies

Discussion on Saturday, Nov. 21 focused on resources, partnerships and strategies to continue to work together to help improve post-secondary outcomes for young adults with a foster care history.

Here's a link to the Top 10 College Survival Strategies and Top 5 High School Tips that were shared. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

2020 Thanksgiving Together ~ What No One Ever Told Me About Relationships



Here's a glimpse of our "What No One Ever Told Me About Relationships" Zoom on Sunday, Nov. 15. 

Olena Sowers shared awesome insights, Donte Woods-Spikes offered ally support, and insights were shared by all participants, including authors Ruth-Ann Jones Thompson and Deanna Jones. 

This is a summary of the Top Five Relationship Tips that were shared. 


Saturday, November 14, 2020

2020 Thanksgiving Together ~ Cooking Zoom


 Foster care alumni Antonio Sledge of Le Sledge Catering did a wonderful job during today's Thanksgiving Together Cooking Zoom. Also, very much looking forward to future partnership between Chef Kibby and CSCC, OSU and Scholar House 3.

Cooking videos: 

Friday, October 23, 2020

When the helium runs low in your personal balloon

I remember being a child after a birthday party, watching as the helium balloons began to sink. They would drift down, closer and closer to the floor, and I would tap them to try to keep them up in the air. 

Coping in the midst of COVID can sometimes feel like being one of those balloons. I want to keep my heart strong, my energy level high and be my best self for other people. 

This week, I received a message of encouragement from someone I appreciate and trust. She said, “Lisa, in the midst of an international pandemic, it’s okay if your balloon isn’t floating all the time. It’s okay to have moments of discouragement. The year 2020 has been exhausting.”

Just receiving permission from her that it’s okay to struggle was like a dose of helium that raised my spirits. Sending hugs to others who might be struggling in the same way. My balloon might sink once in a while, but it hasn’t popped yet --  so my focus will continue to remain on moving: “Upward and Onward.”


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Responding to the passage of HB 8

In response to the passage of HB 8, which reduces the number of training hours required for foster parents, Ohio foster care youth and alumni have talked about:

  • Launching an advocacy effort to “Make Every Training Hour Count” that focuses on the need for training tracks vs. just getting enough hours.

  • We would really love to see mandatory training tracks on independent living/life skill resources for foster parents (and caseworkers) who take in teens.

  • And to address situations like the foster parent who said she takes the same classes every year just to get hours in.

We truly have a wonderful partner in Kim Eckhart of Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio. Her blog post about the passage of HB 8 was excellent, especially the following quotes:

  • Training for foster caregivers gives them tools to be effective. Part of being a supportive caregiver includes knowing how to navigate the resources provided by the educational and health care system so that children can flourish. This is especially important as teenagers learn independence and prepare to live on their own. Advocates in Ohio have fought hard to create programs that benefit youth during this transition: namely housing supports and educational vouchers. But these programs only benefit youth if they know about them. Foster caregivers must be trained in the application guidelines for these programs.

  • Leverage youth voice and experience to improve training effectiveness. The change created by HB 8 must be accompanied by a vision from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services for comprehensive, standardized, and accessible training. This vision should be informed by current and former foster youth, whose lived experience is the most valuable expertise.

Kim also shared that, with the passage of HB8, CDF-Ohio may have an opportunity to be a part of a workgroup to review the rules around training. 

Here are two testimonials that were recently submitted by former foster youth:

1.) Raven Grice serves on the OHIO Youth Advisory Board, and after conferring with her fellow Youth Advisory Board, she compiled three specific recommendations, which are included in her written testimony:

  1. Independent Living Departments should be mandated in every county.
  2. Foster parents and caseworkers that serve teens should be mandated to attend training on resources to assist in the transition to young adulthood.
  3. Private foster care agencies that are entrusted with teenagers should be held accountable to adequately and consistently prepare them with life skills.

2.) Merri Haren, a former foster youth from Stark County, wrote her testimonial to support Raven's recommendations. She shared her own experiences and how life skills preparation in Stark County helps her, ending with the final message:

  • Raven Grice, a fellow member of the Ohio foster care system, has listed specific recommendations in her testimony to the Independent Living system that I believe will provide the structural framework necessary to get this program back up and running with clearly set guidelines and steps.

  • Her suggestions and specific calls to action are backed by the end result of someone who received those services. There is a reason former youth are coming together now for the youth that are still in the system- we know how essential this program is and we want better for our fellow brothers and sisters aging out of it. Please hear our words and consider the benefit to the economy, but more importantly, society, that this program has on our youth.”

As of this morning, additional young people are writing testimony as well.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Letter to the Editor, August 2020

Letter: Young people in foster care authored housing-voucher bill
The Columbus Dispatch, August 24, 2020

Many thanks to The Dispatch for recognizing the needs of the 3,000 young people who experience homelessness every year in Franklin County, including former foster youth who enter into young adulthood without being adopted (“Dream house,” Dispatch article, Aug. 15).

In addition to our joy regarding Marsh Brook Place and appreciation of Star House and Huckleberry House, ACTION Ohio is deeply proud of what Ohio foster youths accomplished by designing federal housing mechanisms that are creating a positive ripple effect throughout the nation. Their 2019 meeting with HUD Secretary Ben Carson led to the creation of the Foster Youth to Independence Initiative.

Ohio’s foster care youth and alumni have authored a federal bill, which passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. House of Representatives, and is currently being considered by the Senate. This bill is based on the ability of child welfare to anticipate the date when a young person ages out of foster care, and to access a housing voucher that is timed with their exit.

This cost-neutral solution was designed by the young people themselves, with support from the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, to weave together existing resources to create a platform for economic independence, resulting in employment, improved educational prospects and self-sufficiency.

Lisa Dickson, Communications chair, ACTION Ohio (Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now), Columbus


Monday, August 03, 2020

Tree Swing Illustration of the Legislative Process

Yay - I've been wanting to update this diagram for a while. The original version I had was from 1985.

Click to enlarge image

State and National Advocacy for A Foster Care Ombudsman's Office


Here in Ohio, we are advocating for the creation of a statewide Foster Care Ombudsman's Office on both a state and national level.

When it comes to the most effective, efficient and speedy way to move forward to create this Office, the road to passing statewide legislation here in Ohio might be shorter, simpler and less complicated. This also be a first step in figuring out a national solution. But, we are going to go ahead and pursue both opportunities at the same time.
We have learned the hard way in our state that, even with the best of intentions, after being urged to create, operate and publicize a Foster Youth Ombudsman's Office, their first response might be to try to put it "under" child welfare and/or to replicate models (such as the one for aging adults) that they already know.

And, in a way that makes sense, because the way that each of us makes sense of the world is to try to put new information into existing categories. However, these two things matter most when it comes to moving forward, and we definitely aren't willing to compromise on them.


 1.) The need to house this office outside of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services:

Our young people have requested that this future office be:
  • Housed under an independent and autonomous agency with oversight specific to child welfare, and not part of the state's division of child and family services.
  • It is vitally important that the Ombudsman's Office have regulatory power, in order for youth concerns to be independently investigated. 
  • Here in Ohio, our young people have suggested that this office be housed under the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. This would allow this office to be staffed by paid lawyers, as they investigate the safety of young people as potential "victims of crime."

Why independent investigation of youth concerns matters:
  • The very reason this "Ask" came up in the first place is because Ohio foster care youth shared concerns about:
    • Being placed in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and their basic needs were not met in certain placements. Regarding residential facilities and group homes, this was often accompanied by the repeated phrase: "Need more cameras," and this direct quote from a young person that: "The danger of some group homes and residential placements is that things happen behind walls, and other people don’t know what’s really going on."
    • Trying unsuccessfully to reach out for help, including being unable to reach their caseworker and/or GAL and/or trying to call their local agency hotline and experiencing long wait times, lack of follow-through on reports made directly by youth, and staff answering the phone who are not youth-friendly.
  • In California, one of the learning curves and hard-earned lessons that they have learned in the process of creating and maintaining a Foster Care Ombudsman's Office is the need for this office to have more authority and more independence.
  • To quote from one of our young people: "I have great concerns about the Foster Care Ombudsman being under the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. If the Ombudsman were being paid by the same organization that funds, the Foster Care System it would be impossible for the Ombudsman to be impartial. Therefore, as former foster youth we had hoped that the Ombudsman would under the Ohio Attorney General’s office.

2.) The need for this office to specifically serve youth and young adults:
  • The population served would be youth experiencing abuse in foster, adoptive, kinship, respite, residential and group home placements.
  • Ohio foster care youth and alumni repeatedly requested that this office needs to be separate from whatever mechanism is established to support foster caregivers, in order to avoid a conflict of interest. For example: A youth reports abuse; their foster parent wants to protect themselves from the allegation.
  • Likewise, the model for service delivery should be based on a Youth-Centered Framework, rather than mirroring the existing ombudsman for aging adults, which was one suggestion that had come up on our state that the youth vetoed.
  • With services to include toll-free statewide hotline that young people can contact directly with concerns about their current placement and their rights and well-being, to be resolved within a speedy timeframe.

Why focusing on young people and a youth-centered approach matters:

  • The very reason this "Ask" came up in the first place is because Ohio foster care youth shared concerns about:
    • Not feeling seen or heard, or even listened to when they tried to express concerns: “If a caseworker would open a case against my biological parents for this allegation, then if it happens in a guardian, kinship, respite, foster, adoptive, group home, residential placement, it should also be thoroughly investigated.”
  • Additional quotes from current/former foster youth during statewide Foster Care Forums:
    • It has come to our attention that Ohio foster parents are requesting that the needed Ombudsman be available to them too. While I care what foster care and kinship care parents go through, this would be counter-productive and a conflict of interest.
    • I think that it is important that youth have their own Ombudsman office separate from one that cares for foster parents because the two needs will likely come into conflict and potentially make youth reports futile.
    • The struggles that foster adoptive, respite and primary families face are important, and we care about and recognize the need for better accountability and communication between foster parents and their agencies. However, this needs to be addressed by a different mechanism, such as a separate office or a statewide grievance procedure.
    • Because it doesn’t make sense for a future Ombudsman’s Office to both defend allegations against foster parents and safeguard young people from further abuse. The office can’t do both of those things at the same time. Those two tasks will inevitably come into conflict with each other.

Monday, July 27, 2020

FYI: An example of legwork leading to success


On Friday, July 24, 2020, former foster youth and allies came together for a Virtual Celebration of the One-Year Anniversary of the Foster Youth to Independence Initiative.

Former foster youth from Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia each shared their goals for the future and how this resource has helped them personally to move forward to build their futures.

With help from FYI, a 22-year old young man named Love from Alabama is working to attain a business degree and hopes to one day start a business of his own. Love lives out the very meaning of his name by caring for others. His main goal and priority is to help the youth in his community and he is also working to become a professional speaker. His FYI voucher is helping him to focus on those goals for the next 36 months while being housing secure.

Amanda Metivier Hernandez of Facing Foster Care in Alaska is an alumna of foster care herself. She shared how meaningful it was for her to witness the advocacy for this through social media, and then to receive a call saying that 25 former foster youth in her area could get housing support. In her words, “This has been the greatest thing to happen to us in Alaska. We definitely feel the impact... I just want to say thank you to everyone, but especially the alumni who have gone to DC, shared their experiences and made this happen.”

What gave Amanda the most joy was to be on the ground to witness young people actually moving directly from foster care to vouchers, and also from homelessness to housing stability. One of these young people was Rae Lynn, who shared that FYI vouchers have helped her to build stability. Life before, during and after foster care can be chaotic, and Rae Lynn’s voucher has made it possible for her to live on her own and maintain housing without disruption.

In Colorado, young people came together with their adult supporters to have a viewing party for this virtual celebration. Participants shared that FYI have been an amazing resource that has made so many things possible in their lives. This included being able to focus on their college journey, attend college full-time and dedicate time to grades in order to work towards their future careers.

In Florida, Pam Bress, the founder of Ready for Life Brevard, shared her gratitude for the Fostering Youth to Independence initiative, “It is the absolute game-changer for us in Florida and Brevard County. Props to everybody for doing what needs to be done for the youth aging out of foster care. After ten years of being an attorney, representing youth in transition and seeing the need, this was the reason why I left Legal Aid and started Ready for Life Brevard.”

So far, Florida has been able to house twelve young people, and three of them shared their gratitude and experiences on Friday. Lajoya said that FYI has been a blessing in her life, and has helped her in so many ways. She had previously spent a year paying rent to sleep on someone’s couch, “not having a place to just settle down and grow and be a woman and bloom.” 

Destiny shared what it was like to transition from foster care at age 18, and to feel pressured to financially support her biological mother. FYI gave Destiny a chance to focus on building a future for herself -- it allowed her to focus on her own destiny. She is now living in her first apartment. Waking up in her own place makes her grateful every day, and she is eager to help others and to be a spokeswoman for FYI in the future.

Desiree participated in the call from work, while wearing a mask that said “No Legwork, No Success.”  Desiree exemplified that message by working during the call, with her manager’s permission. In the midst of her efforts, Desiree always took time to cheer on the goals and accomplishments of other youth.

Desiree shared what she desires for her future, “My goals are to eventually own my own house, and to create multiple sources of income for myself. To make sure to prepare; to put myself in a situation where I never need to worry about where I’m going to sleep. I’ve kind of dealt with that my whole life.

Desiree wrote a personal thank you to HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his staff (including Chris Patterson, Danielle Bastarache and so many others) and to everyone who made this possible for her and others to have this opportunity:

“Thanks for making this opportunity possible for people who don’t have much opportunity. People who don’t feel seen in the world. I can only speak for myself so thank you for making me feel seen and heard in a world that makes me feel less than. 

“Thank you for empathizing and for reaching for more - to give other people a chance to reach for more. A lot of people grow up like us, in situations that makes them cold, but instead their hearts grew fonder for the idea of everyone getting a chance to excel.  So for that, I thank you. (FYI) teaches me not to give up on myself... Resilience has been my biggest strength, and now I live in gratitude.” 

Isabella from Ohio also wrote up her goals ahead of time. She wants to become a therapist, a future homeowner and to become a wife and a mother. She plans to pursue a PhD, while also exploring her creative talents as a singer, songwriter and future author.

FYI is making it possible for Isabella to build a savings account. She deeply appreciates the economic stability that FYI makes possible. Isabella also wanted to share how FYI has the potential to help former foster youth throughout the country avoid unnecessary debt. She expressed heartfelt appreciation for the independent living preparation that she had received.

Likewise, Shadjah from Virginia expressed her gratitude that FYI has helped her with stability and saving money. Her caseworker Vickie shared that this incredible resource is helping young people focus on work, education and building positive relationships and community networks.

It isn’t easy to be the parent you never had. Lindsey from Iowa aged out when she turned 18. She is a proud mother who plans to enter police academy in January 2021. FYI is making it possible for her to provide for her children, and focus on buying diapers, wipes and other necessities.

Holly of Oklahoma aged out of foster care at 18 years old, and experienced homelessness. “Now that I have a place to sleep at night, it’s very very helpful.” FYI is providing a platform for Holly to create a stable home for her children, maintain employment and seek to attain her GED and pursue college. Trying to juggle all of those goals without having a place to sleep at night was incredibly difficult. 

There is no blueprint for building a family after foster care, and FYI is helping many young people successfully navigate this unfamiliar territory. More than one participant shared that having this housing resource makes it possible for them to provide for and maintain custody of their children.

Dakota from Oregon had experienced three years of homelessness after aging out of of foster care. This is lost time that could have been avoided if he had been able to receive a housing voucher when he first left care. He is incredibly grateful that this resource exists now -- it is making it possible for him maintain full-time employment. In his words, “What does this resource mean to me?  It means stability and a brighter future.”  

Joelle, also from Oregon, shared how much it meant to no longer have to live out of a short-stay hotel. The sense of permanency that she is experiencing by not having to live in such impermanent status is helping her to create the foundation of stability that she has always craved.

Every young person on the call was clearly dedicated to maximizing this opportunity by making the very most out of it, and then paying it forward to help others. 

Other amazing speakers during the call included  Chris Patterson and Ryan Jones from HUD, HHS Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson, Jamole Callahan from ACTION Ohio, Ruth Anne White from the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, and foster care alumna Christina Meredith who is heading up efforts to move FYI forward in Texas.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson celebrates the one-year anniversary of FYI

If Ohio foster care youth, alumni and allies had never traveled to DC from 2013-2019, these vouchers wouldn’t exist - and that is truly humbling.


Saturday, July 25, 2020

2020 FYI Virtual Celebration

Click to enlarge


#FosterYouthtoIndependenceMonth
#FYIworks

Young people throughout the nation who are participating in the Foster Youth to Independence initiative expressed their thanks to HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his staff on Friday, July 24, 2020.

Former foster youth from Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia shared their goals for the future and how this resource has helped them personally to move forward to build their futures.

Additional speakers included HUD FYI Lead Chris Patterson, HHS Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson and foster care alumna Christina Meredith who is heading up efforts to move FYI forward in Texas.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Leaning into the wind



This has been has been a whirlwind of a morning, filled with challenges, opportunities, and solutions-based brainstorming with many others behind the scenes.

It has been a day that reminds me that former foster youth can so easily become housing-insecure. Especially in the midst of an international pandemic.

  • Their campus might go virtual.
  • Their job might be furloughed.
  • Their unemployment might be denied or delayed.
  • Their health might be impacted.
  • They might experience isolation and discouragement.
  • They might fall through the gaps that exist in their local support network.
  • They might -- heaven forbid -- make a mistake, and then experience magnified consequences due to lack of family support.


Which leads me to then remember how deeply grateful I am to HUD and for FYI.

In the midst of this complicated year --- during which housing resources are needed more than ever ---it is downright beautiful that FYI continues to move forward and change lives.

#LetsLeanIntoTheWind
#LetsContinuetoCraftSolutions
#LetsNeverForgetToSayThankYou

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

#FosterYouthtoIndependenceMonth (Part 2)



It makes my heart incredibly happy to know that my hometown of Lexington has received Foster Youth to Independence vouchers to support the success of former foster youth who are at risk of homelessness, and that 12 former foster youth have been housed so far...

This is the city where I was born, where I experienced homelessness after foster care, and where I ultimately attained my Bachelors and Masters degrees before moving to Ohio.

There are so many layers of what this means to me, including:
  • that youth voice matters
  • that all of the staff at HUD are amazing, including the always on the move and making a difference Chris Patterson
  • that Ruth Anne White and the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare never tire
  • that my younger brothers and sisters in Lexington KY who are transitioning from foster care to adulthood won't have to experience homelessness and that their journey will be supported

Thursday, July 09, 2020

#FosterYouthtoIndependenceMonth

I remain deeply impressed and ever grateful for the dedication of HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his staff when it comes to seeking to improve housing outcomes for former foster youth.

On July 2, HUD staff issued a notice extending a waiver through the end of the year that will allow Public Housing Authorities to support young people who might otherwise be homeless.

Here are three things this notice allows Public Housing Authorities to do, in order to protect former foster youth who are participating in FUP and FYI:

1.     The ability to extend the age that a youth can be referred to up to the 26th birthday to December 31, 2020. This applies to both FUP and FYI.

2.     The ability to avoid terminating assistance for youth who reach the 36 month time limit of between now and December 31, 2020. 

3.     The option to extend the referral period before a youth ages out of foster care from 90 to 120 days. 

The thoughtfulness and intentionality of HUD leadership is exemplified in this statement, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be difficult for youth to find units that are available for lease within the 90- day timeframe, increasing the risk that such youth may experience homelessness. To prevent such an outcome, HUD is waiving the statutory limitation and establishing an alternative requirement.”

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Cloe Cooper shares about FYI on CDF Ohio webinar



Cloe Cooper did an amazing job of explaining how FYI works during a webinar for the Ohio Children's Defense Fund.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Ohio foster care youth and alumni featured as Humans of HUD

Ohio foster care youth and alumni are honored to be featured as Humans of HUD:
Each of the individuals listed below is one of 60 former foster youth representing ACTION Ohio, who traveled to DC between 2013 and 2019 to partner with the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (NCHCW) in pursuing national solutions for young people aging out of the foster care system and at risk of homelessness. In March 2019, ACTION Ohio and NCHCW met directly with Secretary Carson to present a proposal to house former foster youth. Within four months of their meeting, Secretary Carson launched the Foster to Youth Independence initiative, providing housing vouchers to public housing authorities to prevent and end homelessness among young adults who recently left the foster care system without a home. Since July 2019, HUD has awarded $5.4 million and 654 vouchers nationwide to assist young adults.

[Natasha from Ohio]
Natasha
Ohio
"When I traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary Carson, I wanted to help lay a foundation to improve housing outcomes for my brothers and sisters. I wanted to help map out housing solutions for young people aging out of foster care. My biggest fear growing up was becoming homeless. Knowing I would have an opportunity to advocate for individuals that were just like me, made this my lifelong mission. My advice to youth leaving the foster care system - be your own best advocate. Only you can make the choice to know your value, share your voice, be a voice for yourself and then become a voice for others."

[Michael from Ohio]
Michael
Ohio 

"I had traveled with ACTION Ohio several times over the years to propose housing solutions with my fellow brothers and sisters. The meeting with Secretary Ben Carson made me feel like our solutions for the first time were being recognized and that validated our efforts. As someone who has struggled with housing insecurity, it makes me hopeful to see housing authorities across America working with child welfare agencies creating FYI [Foster Youth to Independence] programs to serve other foster youth. I know housing resources are scarce and what makes me most proud about FYI is that it does not disenfranchise other vulnerable populations. No one gets bumped down on the waitlist for housing because of our efforts. I felt inspired to become involved because of the support and encouragement I experience from my chosen family. If not for the support of my chosen family and countless people along the way, I would never have made it. I wanted to continue to pay it forward to others so that they do not have to struggle in the same ways I did. My advice to youth leaving the foster care system - surround yourselves with people who believe in your greatness. No one succeeds alone, it takes a village to become stable. Find folks who encourage you to pursue your goals and can be there to help you when you need it."
[Kimberly from Ohio]
Kimberly
Ohio
"My time in DC meeting with Secretary Carson meant so much to me because we were doing more than just calling for change. We were helping to design a way to make that happen. As a former foster youth who has experienced homelessness at various stages in my life, this issue is incredibly personal for me. I'm deeply proud of the countless number of foster youths, who have demonstrated tremendous courage by using their voices to be the driving force that brought about this program. My advice to youth leaving the foster care system - you aren't defined by your past experiences. You are worthy of love, respect, and taking up space on this earth."
[Marcus from Ohio]
Marcus
Ohio
"When I traveled to Washington, DC to discuss and propose housing solutions with Secretary Carson and legislators, it was one of the most meaningful things that I had ever done. It was an amazing opportunity to speak directly with the decision makers and create thoughtful change that would positively affect foster youth. I was inspired to help after visiting a statewide meeting. It was my first exposure to a platform that truly gave me a step to stand on and a microphone for my voice to be heard. Being a teenager in foster care your life is dictated by policy. These organizations [ACTION Ohio] gave me the opportunity to address flawed policies on a local and statewide level. This is where I was able to begin advocating for housing solutions and many other issues that foster youth experience during foster care and after emancipation. My advice for someone leaving foster care is - to be bold in everything you do. Be the best version of yourself and never accept the unacceptable."
[Lisa from Ohio]
Lisa
Ohio
"When I aged out of foster care in 1989, there was no plan for my future. I started college at age 16 and was homeless within a year. At age 18, I moved into a dorm, and having housing helped me move forward and earn a Master's degree. Upon hearing from foster youth that this struggle was still happening, I wanted to empower them to share their insights to make a change. I am honored to have played a role in mobilizing my brothers and sisters of the system, and deeply proud of each of them. I am grateful with all my heart that HUD listens to those with lived experience, and in awe of how quickly Secretary Ben Carson moved forward to make FYI [Foster Youth to Independence] vouchers a national reality. What inspires me most about our group is the focus on coming up with proactive solutions. Statistics tell a story, and we can improve outcomes by addressing the factors that perpetuate them. Each of my brothers and sisters of the foster care system throughout the country have the ability to generate positive change. My advice to youth leaving the foster care system is to seek out trustworthy people and let them know when you need help. There are amazing allies out there and partnering with them can only improve our effectiveness."

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

2020 HUD Regional Roundtable and Plans for Moving FYI Forward

 

Link to video that shares HUD's plans for moving FYI forward.

ACTION Ohio and the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare were honored to work with Rosa Ailabouni, Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator, HUD Region V to help plan a virtual roundtable on May 28, 2020.

Youth Speaker Bios:
  • Former foster youth Ciara Richey received an FUP voucher at age 21, which made it possible for her to continue to pursue higher education. She is currently working two jobs and attending Ohio University Zanesville. She is close to receiving a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice, after which she plans to enter the Columbus Police Academy in order to become a private detective.
  • Former foster youth Desaray Lavery works full-time at Arby's. She will be using an FYI voucher to move into her new apartment next month. The new apartment is close to her job, and will allow her to have a dog and work as a groomer.

Additional Speakers During the Roundtable:
  • Joseph GalvanRegional Administrator, US Dept of Housing and Urban Development, Region V
  • Elizabeth DarlingCommissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Kara Wente, Assistant Director of Health and Human Services at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services 
  • Chris Patterson, Regional Administrator, US Dept of Housing and Urban Development, Region IX
  • Joaquin Cintron VegaPresident and CEO, Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority
  • Sonja NelsonAssistant Vice President of Resident Initiatives, Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority
  • Cassie Snyder, Associate Director of Youth Transition Services, Franklin County Children Services
  • Brianna MooreSocial Service Worker, Portage County Job and Family Services
  • Travena KaminskiSection 8 Assistant Manager, Portage County Housing Authority

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Housing After Foster Care ~ CMHA Video

ACTION Ohio was honored to work with CMHA on this video project, and deeply appreciates their work on Scholar House 3.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

2020 better check itself

Neither wind nor rain nor COVID nor "murder hornets" shall keep Ohio foster care youth, alumni and allies from advocating.


Saturday, May 02, 2020

Thinking about Amy Roberts today

Learned yesterday that someone I care about is in hospice...