Saturday, August 18, 2007

ABA gets behind foster youth

Cassell, Heather. Bay Area Reporters, August 16, 2007.

Outgoing American Bar Association President Karen J. Mathis, center, listens as Jessalynn Castaneda, left, recounts her experiences in the foster children program. Another former foster child, Cherese Cronin, right, looks on. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The American Bar Association House of Delegates passed a resolution Monday, August 13 to encourage the federal government and legal professionals to provide comprehensive services to help the estimated 20,000 youths leaving the nation's foster care system – 4,000 of those young people live in California – to succeed.

As part of the ABA's annual convention, which took place in San Francisco this past week, members voted on comprehensive reforms to empower foster youths, agencies, and courts to assist the young people with their transition into adulthood. The reforms call for changes in federal laws to allow access to financial resources; health and education information necessary to provide an assortment of assistance by agencies, judges, and advocates; and services to foster care youths who legally become adults at the age of 18 and are released from the foster care system.

"I'm very happy that the ABA is out in front on this issue," said Karen Mathis, outgoing president of the ABA, at a news conference hosted by Larkin Street Youth Services on August 9. "Every child who is placed in foster care deserves to have a safe environment [and] a healthy environment – one that cherishes them as an individual whatever their lifestyle is."

An estimated 10 percent of youths who "age out" of the foster care system identify as LGBT, according to a report, "Youth in the Margins," published in 2001 by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations.

"We believe that special attention needs to be given to this subset of foster care youth," said Mathis, who plans to continue work as the liaison to the ABA's youth at risk commission. Mathis also plans to request that the ABA House of Delegates look into LGBT foster youth issues.

"We have to protect our young and their sexual orientation should not make any difference about whether we are protecting them and giving them a thriving home life, community life, [and] educational life," said Mathis.

Mathis was joined at the news conference by former state Senator John Burton, who founded the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes; Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services; Will A. Gunn, chair-elect, ABA commission on youth at risk; Susan Weiss, with Casey Family Programs; Sophia Isom, program manager of the city's Department of Children and Family Services; and Cherese Cronin, 18, and Jessalynn Castaneda, 20, former foster care youths, who are both straight.

According to the ABA, 20 percent of former foster youths become homeless at some point, one in three live in poverty, one in four are incarcerated within two years after leaving the system, and one-third to one-half of these youths have significant mental health disorders within five years of leaving the system.

"I don't know anyone who I grew up with, unless they got married out of high school or went into the service, who left home at 18," said Burton.

According to Adams, Larkin Street assists up to 491 former foster youth out of 3,000 youths annually, about 900 of those youths identify as LGBT. Larkin Street provides an assortment of housing and support services to assist homeless and former foster care youths.

"Without the kinds of support that programs Larkin Street can offer ... the chances for successes making that transition are very slim," said Adams.