Monday, December 31, 2007

Church support of kinship care

Community helps grandmother care for 8 kids
Chang-Yen, Anna. Ventura County Star, Dec. 29, 2007.

Lola Jenkins, left, is greeted by St. Paul Baptist Church member Pam Thornton after mid-morning services. After word about her predicament was publicized in the church newsletter, donations started arriving.

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas wouldn't come for Lola Jenkins' eight grandchildren.

When she unexpectedly gained guardianship of the children in late October, she was a 56-year-old college student living on disability checks.

The changes were quick and drastic. She needed housing and a host of essentials to care for the children, six boys and two girls ages 5 to 16. Then her church, community groups and individuals came to the rescue. "We've got Christmas gifts going out the front door," she said last week.

On Oct. 25, Jenkins got a call from the children's aunt saying they were being removed from their mother's Oxnard home by Ventura County authorities. Unless a family member could take them, they could be split up into as many as four or five foster homes, she was told.

"I had refused to see them go into foster care," Jenkins said. "I just couldn't do it."

She was renting a room from a fellow church member, but there wasn't enough space for a family of nine. She was able to move into the five-bedroom home where her daughter and the children had been living and receive Section 8 housing assistance. But the home needed repairs, which she had to pay for.

After word about her predicament was publicized in the newsletter at St. Paul Baptist Church in Oxnard, where she attends services, donations started coming: two refrigerators, a washer and dryer, beds, computers, toys, clothes, furniture and other items.

Fellow church member Rene Stewart delivered two baskets full of goodies the week before Christmas, and donated toys were already piled under the Christmas tree.

On Wednesday, there was evidence of an abundant Christmas at the Jenkins home. Gifts covered nearly the entire living room floor: a doll house, games, clothes, a giant stuffed dog and dozens of other gifts seemed to burst from underneath the Christmas tree. One child played a video game, while a keyboard and drums sat ready for action in the family room. In the garage sat a minivan donated to the family by a local business whose owners asked to remain anonymous.

Community groups including ACTION, Catholic Charities, Children and Families and others pitched in. The California Highway Patrol donated a basketball hoop. Eight donated stockings were hung on the mantel.

"There's so many places, I can't start to name them all," Jenkins said.

Stewart said Jenkins had only a small car and had been unable to safely transport all of the children at once. Church members had volunteered to help drive the family to church.

Stewart learned about Jenkins' situation during a church class. "She just burst into tears," Stewart said. "She said, I just don't know what to do.'"

Stewart's friend Al Jones, branch services manager at First California Bank, set up a trust fund for the children, starting with $100. Donations can be made in the name of Lola Wimberly Jenkins at any branch.

Jenkins said the children's mother — her daughter — moved elsewhere in California. For now, Jenkins plans to care for the children indefinitely. "I'm thinking about their futures," she said. "I've got one ready to graduate. I'm thinking about prom."

Jenkins said she had enrolled at Oxnard College to set a good example for her grandchildren, "to give my grandkids the incentive to want to finish high school, finish college." She had finished a child care program and was set to earn her associate degree next year.

She's dropped out of classes for now but plans to enroll again at Oxnard College in the spring, she said. She hopes things will be more settled by then. Her plan is to transfer to CSU Channel Islands in the fall to work on a bachelor's degree to become a resource specialist for children with special needs.

The Rev. Broderick Huggins of St. Paul Baptist Church described Jenkins as "a sweetheart" and "faithful."

"Anytime someone in their 50s is not content with living from hand to mouth and settling for mediocrity, that's the kind of person you can get behind," he said.

"Whatever the community does for her, from my perspective, would be an investment not only in her future but in the future of those children."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Deaf foster children who literally have no voice

Permanent housing is first of its kind in area
Gustafson, Craig. San Diego Union Tribune, Dec. 24, 2007.

CHULA VISTA – He has bounced from foster home to foster home and state to state over the past decade, searching for a permanent place to lead a normal life.

Such has been the plight of deaf children with emotional or psychological scars who are part of San Diego County's foster care system.

But that same boy is now 17 and an aspiring artist who attends high school and lives in a spacious house tucked in a residential neighborhood in Chula Vista, closer to relatives and friends he had long forgotten.

The home, the first of its kind in Southern California and renovated solely to house troubled deaf children, provides a permanent home for the foster system's most difficult-to-place children. The county has partnered with a nonprofit to run the residence and provide 24-hour care for the children, all of whom moved in last summer.

The foster care system has limited resources for the hearing-impaired, and few social workers are trained in American Sign Language. That means the county sends some deaf children to special group homes across the country at a cost of more than $500,000 annually.

The four children who reside in the Chula Vista home have similar stories to tell: They are victims of violence, abuse and neglect, and they often have difficulty communicating with others because of their disability.

County and child welfare officials hope that having a new home will improve the quality of life for the children.

“Most did not grow up in a friendly environment,” said Walter Philips, executive director of San Diego Youth & Community Services, which runs the home. “We're trying to give them a support structure.”

County officials asked that the teenagers not be named because they are victims of abuse.

The 17-year-old aspiring artist is one example of what can happen to these children. He entered the foster system 10 years ago after domestic violence at his family's home became too much to bear.

Since then, he has lived in six places, including homes in San Francisco, Wyoming and New Mexico. Before he moved into the Chula Vista house in June, it had been six years since he had lived in San Diego County, where his sister and niece remain.

The frequent moves were a result of the county's lack of facilities and expertise to help him. The county paid up to $15,000 a month to send him elsewhere.

County Supervisor Greg Cox said he became aware of the problem two years ago after several deaf social workers raised the issue. Cox said the county had failed to look at alternatives for helping troubled deaf children.

The county has roughly 6,400 foster children, including about 30 to 40 who are deaf, at any given time. Of those, a handful have been deemed too troubled to place in a foster home.

San Diego Youth & Community Services bought the 1,800-square-foot Chula Vista home for $655,000 and renovated it for $80,000. The county gave $310,000 in community block grants to the nonprofit for the down payment on the house. State and federal funds pay for operating costs of $570,000 annually, which include specialized residential care and supervision as well as mental health services.

Lights flicker when the doorbell or phone rings. Clocks flash and beds vibrate as wake-up alarms. Carpets were removed to reveal hardwood floors, so the deaf children can feel vibrations. A video telephone was installed.

Cox said he hopes it will be a model for other counties in how to deal with deaf children.

As for the children themselves, there is a sense of relief that they won't be living in a strict group home as far away as Boston. For the first time in a while, they can focus on what teenagers do best: dream.

A 14-year-old resident said she is finally getting caught up on her school work, an important goal for her because she wants to attend the country's top school for the deaf, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She said she wants to become a public-service lawyer so she can help deaf foster children who find themselves in similar situations.

The 17-year-old is an expressive youth passionate about video games and drawing. His room is filled with sketches, including a comical take on President Bush and war.

Through an interpreter, he said his goal is to “create my own healthy family” some day. The comforts of his new home – rather than a group home – will help him toward that goal, he said.

“It's better because we have an opportunity to be in a place where we can stay, learn independent-living skills and become established and achieve our goals,” he said.

“It's home for me.”

I like how this reporter was respectful of the foster children's right to privacy

Gift of giving: Support foster parents, kids
Fisher, Patty. San Jose Mercury News, Dec. 24, 2007.

This time of year can be so busy and stressful, what with partying and decorating and doing our patriotic duty at the mall.

When the holiday hype starts to get to me, I dig into a folder of reader mail I collect all year labeled "inspirational stuff." The other day I pulled out a letter from a South Bay foster mom, and it reminded me about what the spirit of Christmas really means.

This foster mom and her husband take in special-needs children - babies born addicted to drugs, babies with serious mental and physical problems. Over the years they have cared for about 400 foster kids while raising three of their own.

Today they have five foster children ranging in age from 1 to 17. One of them is in a wheelchair. (I'm not printing her name because some of the kids' friends don't know they are foster children.)

At 67, this woman considers foster care a "luxury hobby." She can afford it because her mortgage is paid off and her husband, who's 70, has a government pension and a part-time job.

I asked her why two self-described "geezers" open their homes and their hearts to such difficult kids.

Her inspiration
Here's why: In 1911, when her mother was born, her grandmother died in childbirth. A kind woman saved her mother's life by nursing her for two years. Today, this foster mom still gets teary when she tells that story.

When I wrote a column about the need to raise foster-parent stipends, she responded that foster parents need something more than money: They need support and understanding from the community. And for those who don't know how to show that support, she offered these suggestions:

"Do not stare at us. Yes, we are obviously not the standard family, but we are a family, and please do not stare at us. Our kids notice it.

"Do not ask if that darling baby is up for adoption. 'No, it is not' would be the answer, and if it were, there would be a lot of people who have pre-qualified and are waiting for the legal processes to be completed.

"Let your kids be friends with our kids. Let your kids come to their birthday parties; invite ours to your parties.

"If you have the means, share something new or special with our kids. Leave a pack of diapers on the doorstep, or how about a Target gift card in the mailbox? A card of support for the foster parents would be nice.

"We have had two instances of people doing something really fun. At Red Robin one night, the waiter came over and told us that someone wanted to treat us to dinner, and for us to order anything we wanted. We were happily shocked, and as we were finishing our meal, they sent someone to tell us to be sure to order dessert, which we never do. I was in tears.

A nice gesture
"Once at Harry's Hofbrau in Redwood City, some lady came out of nowhere and quietly asked my husband if we were a foster family. He nodded, and she handed him a roll of bills and walked away as quickly as she had come up. It was within a dollar of what we had just paid for our meal.

"Kids don't end up in foster care because everything about their lives is OK. They have some difficult behaviors sometimes, but part of what we feel is our job is to expose them to the better things in life and teach them how to behave as best they can.

"When they are ready for their forever situation, whether it be back with their family or on to a new forever family, then we are ready to take on the challenge of whatever child will be coming through our door.

"Yes, we let them go - not because we don't care about them, but because we do."

Want to donate diapers, clothing and other goods to foster families? In Santa Clara County call the Foster and Adoptive Parent Resource Center at (408) 975-5309. In Alameda County call Katherine Richard of Alameda County Social Services at (510) 780-8987.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

December 2007 Update from Kids Are Waiting

Eshawn Peterson at Capitol Hill

Adults Who Spent Part of the Childhood in Foster Care Stage Thanksgiving Dinner with their 'Parents' on Capitol Hill

On Wednesday, November 21, Foster Care Alumni of America hosted a Home for Thanksgiving dinner on the steps of the nation's Capitol.

More than two dozen adults from across the United States - all of whom spent at least part of their childhood or adolescence in foster care - gathered at the U.S. Capitol to recognize that, this year, more than half a million foster children will spend the holidays without a permanent family.

When children are removed from their parents and placed in foster care, the government assumes the role of parent.

"I'm 21 now and I can't remember a time when I was in foster care that we really celebrated Thanksgiving," said Foster Care Alumni of America member Eshawn Peterson of Tucson, Arizona, who spoke at the event. "I have felt so incomplete during the holiday season, especially since the people I care about most, my six sisters, were separated from me for so long."

Receiving center to ease the trauma of entry into foster care

Feels like home
Foster Care Advocates make new foster kids’ transition smoother
Ryan, David. Napa Valley Register, Dec. 22, 2007.

A Napa house is soon to become the county’s latest boon for foster children.

With only $1 of government money, a community group called Foster Care Advocates is teaming up with county officials to remodel and run Napa’s first foster care receiving center: A homey place that could lessen the trauma for foster children taken from their homes.

Editor's note: Each December the Register profiles Napa County residents who "share the spirit" - the spirit of community service. The people highlighted in this series of stories may not receive the most awards or honors, but they go out of their way to make lives better for fellow Napans and others.

“When a child is being removed from a home ... that child will be taken to this receiving center and the center will be more like a home,” said Foster Care Advocates leader Jim Asbury, president of Bell Products. “It’ll have a bathroom, a shower, it’ll have a kitchen and it’ll be a safe, neutral spot for the kids to pull their thoughts together before they go to a (foster) home.”

Its address is hidden from the public to protect foster children from their parents.

Often, foster homes aren’t ready when the county is called in to take children away from abusive or neglectful parents. Linda Canan, director of the county’s Child Welfare Services, said in September she remembered a 9-year-old boy who spent a night sleeping in the county’s adult psychiatric unit because there wasn’t a foster home available for him immediately.

“It struck me my first day at work that there was a child sitting in the office at Old Sonoma Road,” she said. “I was asking staff, ‘Why was there a child sitting in the office?’”

Auction Napa Valley awarded $75,000 to Foster Care Advocates in October, money that will be used to operate the center. A remodel worth at least $55,000 was donated by local contractors. Legally, Foster Care Advocates had to charge the county $1 for the contract to be approved by county lawyers.

“We are ready to go, waiting for the county counsel to approve the process,” Asbury said. “It’s an unusual process because of the donated labor and materials. County counsel has to make sure the county is protected and permits are followed.”

Foster Care Advocates is a collection of community members dedicated to reforming the foster care process. Along with Asbury, foster parents and foster care boosters comprise the group, partnering with county Health and Human Services officials and local and state government leaders.

Formed in 2006, Foster Care Advocates is boosting aid and public knowledge about the foster care system. The receiving center will be one of the first brick-and-mortar accomplishments for the group.

Asbury said in the future, the group will focus on providing rest periods for foster parents. That issue, called respite care, is viewed as a key foundation to attracting and retaining sorely needed foster care families.

Foster Care Advocates also want to help foster kids establish better, longer-term relationships with families. “If a child is placed in three of four different foster homes, they don’t have a chance to establish a relationship with anyone,” Asbury said.

The group’s local work comes at a time when the state Legislature is moving to reform the foster care system.

Assemblywoman Noreen Evans said this week lawmakers are motivated to improve the system, though they are not in a position to direct more funding for foster care. Evans sponsored a successful bill last session that helps foster children tap into available federal benefits they might otherwise miss.

She said this year, she hopes lawmakers can take other steps to ease the transition for youth emancipating from the foster care system.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I adore Amanda Denara Johnson

No home for the holidays … a former foster youth’s experience Johnson, Amanda D. Johnson. San Francisco Bay View, Dec. 19, 2007.

As an aged-out foster youth, Amanda Johnson is proud she’s now a college student, but where do youth without homes or families go when their dorms shut down for the holidays?

The holiday season is here and the feeling of joy and celebration that accompany it is in the air. This is the time of year when many people look forward to spending time with family and friends. Schools across the country are closing their doors and children are excited about having time off from school to enjoy the season.

I remember being one of those excited children growing up and looking forward to the "joyful" holidays and not having to go to school. I knew that it meant it was closer to Thanksgiving and the time when "Santa Claus was coming to town." I could not wait until we were finally "free" for a couple of weeks to enjoy our special times with loved ones. That, however, was before I entered the foster care system at the age of 14.

Now, as a sophomore in college, you would think that I, like many other students, would have that same excitement as I did when I was younger. One of the perks of being in college is that you have even longer breaks for the holidays - often times an entire month off from school. Colleges and universities across the country lock their dorms and require that all students vacate the buildings and head home for Thanksgiving and winter break.

But what happens to students like me who have recently transitioned out of the foster care system and the dorm that we currently reside in for school is actually our only home? What if you have no home for the holidays? Where and with whom are you going to spend the time when you have no real family who are waiting for you to come home? Where will you put all of your belongings? Unfortunately, these are questions I had to ask myself during last year's holiday season and the same questions I wonder about today.

When I started college, I began to live my life as an emancipated or aged-out foster youth as we are sometimes called. I was so excited about overcoming the odds and continuing my education to show myself and others who felt I would never make it how far I had come over the last few years in spite of my circumstances.

I settled into my dorm room on campus and finally felt that I had a "place of my own." As the school year progressed and the holiday season approached, one thing I did not consider was that I would have to leave my "home" for a few weeks during winter break and find a place to live in the interim.

Prior to going to college, I would spend the holidays in the various foster homes I lived in throughout my years in the system, but now that I was on my own, where was I to go? What was I to do? Every time I thought about those questions it brought up the reality that I've been trying to hide for so long - I don't have a family, it's only me! And this is how it's going to be for the rest of my time in college.

Unfortunately, I am not the only former foster youth who has had to ask these questions. Each year, more than 20,000 young Americans "age-out" of foster care, most at the age of 18 and without the appropriate resources, skills or options they need to live on their own. Not all of these youth will have to wonder where they will spend the holidays, but there are many other questions they have to ask and challenges they face as they enter the "real world."

While you may not be able to open your home during the holidays to an aged-out foster youth like me, there are many ways that you can get involved to make a difference in the lives of children and youth in care. One way is to become a "Court Appointed Special Advocate" or CASA volunteer. They are called volunteer guardians ad litem in some states.

These volunteers are everyday heroes who stand up and advocate for children and youth who are in the child welfare system as a result of alleged abuse and/or neglect. They are trained and appointed by a judge to serve as the eyes and ears of the court during a child's or family or sibling group's case to provide counsel as to what is in the best interest of the child or children.

The ultimate goal for a CASA volunteer is to find a safe, permanent and loving home for a child. I unfortunately did not have a CASA volunteer when I was in foster care, but I have known other youth who have and they have truly made a difference. Had I had someone to speak up and advocate for me in court, perhaps I might not be asking some of the questions I am today.

I still have not determined where I will spend this holiday season, but more than likely I will house-hop just as I did last year with friends and other people I know. Again, it is just one of the realities that I face as an emancipated foster youth. So often we don't think about issues unless they are ones that hit home for us.

Aging out of foster care can be filled with many challenges people never even consider. While I am not "making a list and checking it twice" this holiday season, one holiday wish is being granted by knowing that I helped raise awareness on this issue of children and youth in foster care that currently impacts more than 500,000 children in the United States.

Not only have I raised awareness, but I have also provided information on a great way for YOU to help make a life-long impact in the life of a child - by becoming a CASA volunteer. Your involvement could help find a home for a child who is currently in the system so that when they do attend college in the future, they will have a safe and permanent home with a loving family with whom to spend the holidays. For that reason alone, it truly is "the season to be jolly."

To learn more about CASA and volunteer guardians ad litem and how you can make a difference in a child's life, contact a CASA or guardian ad litem program in your community. Call 1-888-805-8457 for more information or visit the National CASA Association online at

Amanda D. Johnson is currently a sophomore at Savannah State University in Savannah, Ga. She is majoring in criminal justice and plans to become a prosecuting attorney and ultimately a judge in the future.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

12-year-old girl starts Kits 4 Kids to help foster children

Girl makes kits for foster children
Thomas, Jeff. Mercury News, Dec. 18, 2007.

Although empathy seems to come easily to most 12-year-old girls, for Tahnia Fairbrother of Burlingame, it's not a feeling that simply passes when something else interesting comes along. When she became aware of kids in need - kids going into the foster care system - she didn't just feel bad for them, or ask her parents to donate money.

She started her own charity to help them.

Tahnia launched Kits 4 Kids, a project to give support kits to children being placed into foster homes in San Mateo County. She worried about the kids, that such an experience would be frightening and confusing, and figured that a small pack full of necessities, plus a few niceties, would make the transition easier.

"I think having those things will give the kids confidence that they are going to be OK," said Tahnia one recent afternoon. Her goal is to distribute 240 of the kits by Christmas. A Los Altos-based non-profit called Help One Child is helping her coordinate the effort, and local church volunteers will help put the kits together.

Helping people has always come naturally to Tahnia, although she's never done anything on this scale before.

"For a long time I've loved to help people," she said. "Making people happy is one of my big goals." She often helps with charity drives and fund-raising at her school, and said she enjoys giving things more than getting them.

But it was a unit on West Africa in the third grade - and then a family vacation to Africa
Advertisement the following summer - that convinced her she could be doing more.

"There were so many children there that were orphans, a lot of them," she said. "I thought maybe I could start something for African children. But then when we got back home, as I talked to people, I found out that there are a lot of orphans and kids going to foster homes right here. So doing something here seemed like it would be more helpful to our community."

With the help of her mother, Jenny Heath, Tahnia talked to representatives of social service agencies at the county, who put her in touch with the Los Altos-based Help One Child. That organization's director, Susan Kammerer, was immediately impressed with the idea, and with Tahnia.

"She is an unusual spirit, a true philanthropist," said Kammerer. "She has a unique perspective about what other kids need, and a great enthusiasm for helping people in the community. And she's truly being aggressive about getting this done."

Tahnia doesn't know any foster kids, nor has she been touched by the foster care system herself. But she sees how some less-fortunate students are sometimes teased at school, and her instinct is to help them.

"A lot of children don't think about anything but themselves," she said. "People need to understand that not everyone has it so great."

And Tahnia had the statistics to punctuate her point. She pulled out a sheet of notebook paper with a list of bullet items she had written down about kids in foster care in San Mateo County. Among them: There are about 800 foster children in the county; 50 percent are not taken back to their parents; 25 percent move from home to home until they are 18.

But, of course, the poised and articulate sixth-grader is not a full-time social activist. She loves bike riding, playing soccer, hanging out with her friends and listening to music - Nickelback and Daughtry are current favorites.

Always in the background, however, is her urge to help.

"Eventually, I'd like to have a kit for every foster child in the county," she said.

Tahnia envisions that each kit will include toiletries such as shampoo, a toothbrush and toothpaste and body wash. There also would be some clothing, such as a T-shirt, sweater, underwear and socks. Other age-appropriate items, like stuffed animals, games and books, would complete each kit.

Wish Book readers can help. A donation of $75 will purchase items for an infant or toddler kit, $85 for preschoolers and elementary-age students, and $100 for junior high and high school youth.

Questions about Wish Book stories? Call coordinator Holly Hayes at (408) 920-5374.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Way to go, Melissa!

When a child can't be home for Christmas
Smith, Melissa, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 17, 2007.

For youth from foster care, the holidays are often a stark reminder of what it means not to have a family. We miss the comfort of knowing we have a place where we are always welcome, year after year. We don't know the family traditions of mom's best tablecloth and china, dad's carving the turkey, grandma's famous stuffing recipe, football in the den with the cousins, or even the inevitable family dramas.

I know these feelings well. I spent six years of my childhood in foster care in California, moving eight different times during this period and separated from my brother, friends and relatives. Foster care had estranged me from my family, so I usually saw them only on Christmas Eve. We would talk and socialize for that one night. But there was no sense of community, no sense of home.

In college, the holiday break was a time to figure out where I would stay. I knew one other foster child who went to my school. However, she dropped out after a couple of years, and then there was only me. Since I didn't have family to be with, I usually stayed with friends - and, because I was independent, I needed to make money to support myself. So I spent the holiday break working to save money for the next semester's financial obligations.

The experience of spending holidays in foster care changes a person's life forever, as I know from my own experience - as well as from my friends and colleagues in Foster Care Alumni of America. Michelle Dalton McGarity, now age 49, recalled, "I hung up the phone, sobbing, the year I was 14. My mother wouldn't take me for Christmas. Not all the begging and pleading could change it. Nobody wanted me. In my foster home, we weren't a family. The foster kids were outsiders looking in. It was one of the two days a year we were allowed to eat at the table with the others, but we saw the glances that told us we didn't belong."

"I am turning 33 years old in two weeks," said Markell Harrison-Jackson. "I have obtained five college degrees, but I have only eaten Thanksgiving dinner in a family setting twice - with my friend's family."

Even when the holidays include a visit with birth families, there are often disappointments. "I was usually able to spend the holidays with one or both of my parents, but when I was 16, I chose to stay in my foster home to see how a "normal" family spent a holiday together," said Jackie Janesh. "My father proclaimed me 'disowned,' and a year passed before we spoke again."

Foster youth may also feel concerned about family members left behind. "I spent the holidays alone and did not get to see my brothers and sisters," Melinda Foy recalled. "I was the only child removed from my home, and I knew that my siblings were still being sexually, verbally and physically abused. Holidays were especially sad for me because I was worried about them."

Even when supportive adults do their best to make the holidays special, feelings of separation can be strong. "I spent nine years with six different families as a foster child. Watching what it was like for them to all get together and reminisce about the years of good times they have all shared together. Knowing that even though these people were kind enough to allow me to join in their celebration, they are not my family, and I am not part of their past. I remember feeling like an outsider at every holiday event," was Sherry L. Gray's reaction.

Along with other young adults who experienced foster care as a child, I see a critical need for federal child welfare financing reform, so that children who are following in our footsteps can be moved swiftly to safe, permanent families, and other youth may avoid the need to enter foster care in the first place.

We want a better life for children now living in foster care. We want the federal government to change the way it funds the child welfare system, so more will be done to prevent abuse or neglect from occurring. We want families to be reunified whenever safely possible. We want to support extended family members who step up to provide valuable stability when the nuclear family cannot meet a child's needs.

People are starting to pay attention. A new brief, "Hoping for a Home for the Holidays," released by FosterClub and Kids Are Waiting, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, reports many of the challenges faced by foster children who spend the holidays with unrelated foster families, or in group homes or institutional settings. FosterClub's "Hope for the Holidays" includes a guide to getting through the holidays for foster youth and ideas of ways that foster parents, caregivers, and other supportive adults can help kids get through the holidays.

Now I am married to my college boyfriend, and we have become family. I haven't seen my other family during the holidays since I left college, but even today I carry my foster care past with me. Though I know my life will not be just another statistic, it was not easy. Every child deserves a place, a home, a family. Every child deserves the care and support to help them reach their dreams.

Along with more than half a million children currently in foster care and over 12 million adults who came from care, I share one heartfelt holiday wish - that Congress takes action to change the foster care system so other young people will find permanent families and not have to spend lonely holidays the way I did.

- Melissa Smith, a former foster youth from Pasadena, is now a graduate student in Psychology at American University. She is a member of Foster Care Alumni of America.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A receiving center - can it possibly "feel" nurturing? I'm curious

Foster care center to break ground Monday
New receiving center in San Mateo County will replace the old one
Bishop, Shaun. San Mateo Daily News, Dec. 10, 2007.

Palo Alto,CA - Construction is slated to start Monday on a new receiving center for San Mateo County's foster children.

When it is finished in August 2008, the $3.6 million facility will replace the Human Service Agency's receiving center, which was built in the 1950s.

Youths ages 12 to 18 who are victims of abuse, neglect or maltreatment are sent temporarily to the facility to receive medical care and a nurturing environment. Approximately 120 youths go through the system annually and are moved to more permanent housing in an average of 29 days.

The new center will have roughly the same amenities as the old one, but will be newer and more centrally located, said Pravin Patel, human services manager for the agency.

"It sends out a very loud and clear message to the community that we value our children and, as I see it, this as an investment for our future," Patel said.

The 12,720-square-foot facility at 31 Tower Road will contain 12 beds, four less than the old building. But that will motivate workers to place youths more quickly into permanent housing, Patel said.

The new building will also sport two recreation rooms, two living rooms for boys and girls, space for staff, a dining room, kitchen, laundry room and an outdoor basketball and recreation area.

Funding is coming from three sources - $1.6 million from a past bond, $1 million from the Human Services Agency and $1 million from the county, Patel said.

The groundbreaking is scheduled to take place at 2:30 p.m. Monday at 31 Tower Road in San Mateo.

Insurance company drops coverage for Clark County foster parents

Advocacy group seeks federal intervention in Vegas foster care
KSBY, Dec. 7, 2007.

LAS VEGAS (AP) - An advocacy group wants the federal government to step in after an insurance company dropped Clark County from coverage for foster families.

The National Center for Youth Law says the lack of insurance will make a severe shortage of foster parents in the Las Vegas area even worse.

State and county officials say the county isn't required to provide insurance, but is still trying to find a way to cover families.

United National Insurance Company cited excessive claims for dropping the county in October -- including $300,000 paid out over a lawsuit involving a 2-year-old girl who disappeared in 2006 while in foster care.

The girl, Everlyse Cabrera, has never been found.

After Foster Care: A Look Into the Lives of Homeless Youth in San Mateo County

Foster care worker describes system’s troubles
Norwood calls for greater state support, programs
Limaye, Maneesha. Stanford Daily, Nov. 16, 2007.

Palo Alto,CA - In honor of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Amanda Norwood, housing advocate for Youth and Family Enrichment Services (YFES), spoke last night to a group of about 20 Stanford students on the problems of housing foster youth before and after emancipation.

Students Taking on Poverty (STOP) hosted the event, titled “After Foster Care: A Look Into the Lives of Homeless Youth in San Mateo County.”

“We try to put on events and programs and campus awareness campaigns that increase knowledge about a whole variety of issues that relate to poverty in the U.S.,” said STOP co-president Debbie Warshawsky ‘08, adding that foster care “is so often overlooked and neglected as a social issue.”

Supported by a two-year funding grant from the state, YFES provides housing advocacy services for any youth previously or currently in San Mateo’s foster care system.

“Housing is extremely expensive in the Bay Area and most of these kids work at minimum wage jobs,” Norwood said. “It’s nearly impossible for them to do it on their own.”

She added that the consequences of homelessness for foster youth are far-reaching and perpetual.

“Not having affordable housing can mess up other aspects of their lives like school and work,” she said. “Essentially, they are living in a state of continual chaos.”

For those who are ready to live on their own, Norwood said she assisted clients all throughout the housing process.

“I explain what leases are, how to prepare for meetings with their landlords and basic advocacy,” she said. “Lots of landlords don’t want to rent to 18-year-olds and prefer the 40-year-old with a good credit history. They aren’t supposed to discriminate, but they do, and I make sure that my clients’ voices are heard.”

She said, however, that most of the youth are not ready for the responsibilities that go along with taking care of themselves.

“We want them to make the most independent decision, but a lot of these young adults coming out of the system aren’t as equipped as they think they are to live independently,” Norwood said. “We show them what other options they have.”

Many of the better options are transitional programs, which house foster youth in groups of 10. She said, however, that the turnover rate can be problematic and living conditions are usually crowded.

Among other issues, Norwood mentioned that many of the youth do not have adequate knowledge about finances and contracts that are required to live on one’s own.

“Independent living is so much,” she said. “It’s not just about getting a paycheck or frying an egg. There are so many more skills that these youth need, but do not have.”

She said that there needs to be more accountability within the state to create programs that teach the youngsters about necessary life skills.

“You can say ‘teach kids budgeting,’ but what does that really mean? And how is it implemented?” Norwood asked. “There need to be state mandates that tell us how to better handle these issues.”

Alyssa Battistoni ‘08, STOP co-president, said she was happy with the student turnout.

“I thought it was really informative about an issue that is overlooked to a large extent,” Battistoni said. “The statistics Amanda mentioned are just stunning, and I am glad Stanford students want to be informed about this.”

The week’s events conclude today when a group of STOP members will travel to the Opportunity Center, a comprehensive homeless shelter that provides services such as transitional housing and medical care in Palo Alto. Students will provide two computer-training sessions to help the foster youth create email addresses and find tools to search for jobs online.

“Everything we do,” Warshawsky said, “is to try to increase access to information for low-income communities that enable them to fight for an improvement in their quality of life.”

States trying to extend foster-care benefits
Vestal, Christine. Stateline, Aug. 23, 2007.

Foster care alumna, Kristal McCoy, graduated from California State University, Hayward in 2006.

In most states, youths in foster care are on their own when they turn 18.

That’s because federal funding for payments to foster parents and group homes is cut off when foster kids reach 18, leaving those who have not been adopted or returned to their families to fend for themselves, with little state support.

Two states are footing the bill to help foster-care youths who turn 18. Vermont this year became the second state, after Illinois, to use state money to extend its foster-care services to age 21, if a youth chooses to remain in the program.

While other states have adopted programs to help youths who are “emancipated” from foster care without permanent homes, states say their options are limited without federal funding.

Federal matching funds could become available to states under the Foster Care Continuing Opportunities Act (S. 1512), proposed by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The bill is aimed at helping states provide essential foster-care services such as food, housing and legal help to age 21. Without this kind of support, Boxer said, “the future for foster youth, once emancipated, is often bleak.”

“One of the most important factors in whether a person succeeds in life is whether they have a family they can depend on to help them,” said Julie Farber of Children’s Rights, a national watchdog group. If states fail to either reunify children with their families or find them permanent adopted families, “the least they can do is continue to support them through their transition to adulthood,” she said.

For those living in group homes, “kick out” happens within days of their 18th birthday, explained Robin Nixon of the National Foster Care Coalition, an advocacy group for children. “They sometimes end up sitting on a curb with their belongings in a black trash bag and nowhere to go,” she said.

Kristal McCoy, 23, who spent eight years in the foster-care system, became homeless at the end of her freshman year at California State University, Hayward, and started “couch surfing” with friends or relatives. Although the stress took a toll on her grades, McCoy graduated and now has a full-time job at the California Youth Connection, which lobbies for increased state support for foster youths.

McCoy beat the odds, but many others don’t.

Of more than 24,000 youths who leave foster care each year without a family, one in four is incarcerated within the first two years, according to a new report – Time for Reform: Aging Out and On Their Own – by a project of the The Pew Charitable Trusts that is pushing for changes in how the federal government funds foster care. The Trusts also funds, a news site that does not engage in advocacy.

One in five becomes homeless at some time after age 18; only 58 percent complete high school, compared to 87 percent of youths in the general population; and only 3 percent earn college degrees, compared to 28 percent in the general population, according to the study.

While the total number of children in foster care has decreased over the past decade, the number of teens who “age out” of the program without finding permanent homes has increased 41 percent since 1998, the report found.

In response, states are finding new ways to continue supporting these vulnerable youths, despite the lack of federal money. All states provide some level of assistance to youths who leave the foster-care system, but only Illinois, the District of Columbia and now Vermont maintain formal foster care, said Gary Stangler of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a foundation that supports programs for youths leaving foster care.

In most states, foster kids who reach their teens without being adopted are offered courses on “independent living.” They learn a variety of life skills such as how to open a checking account and budget living expenses, what to wear to a job interview and how to get a driver’s license – since many states do not allow foster kids to drive. They also learn how to take advantage of other state, local and nonprofit assistance – such as temporary housing programs – once they leave foster care.

At least 18 states offer Medicaid health-care benefits to youths up to age 21, and all states provide some housing, counseling, scholarships and career training through a $140 million federal grant known as the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program.

In addition, states are starting to find mentors – or “lifelong family connections” – for youths who have not found permanent families, said Stangler. This gives young adults someone they can call for advice, spend the holidays with, and in some cases, get financial assistance from, he said.

McCoy said she took advantage of independent-living classes before she graduated from high school, and it made all the difference. A friend who did not attend the classes had “a horrible kick out and had no idea what to do next,” she said.

While extending the age of foster care has few critics, most say it is only part of the solution. Unless states do more to find kids permanent homes and prepare them for adulthood, they could end up just as vulnerable at 21 as they are at 18, said Nixon from the National Foster Care Coalition.

Advocates for extending foster care say states would spend less money helping youths between 18 and 21 than bailing them out later.

“Getting these kids to services they need to heal and be better prepared for adulthood is a wiser investment than having them end up in the criminal justice system or needing other types of assistance down the road,” said Rutledge Hutson of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a national nonprofit group that works on issues affecting low-income people.

States differ widely in the percentage of foster kids that leave the program at 18 without a permanent family. Connecticut and Alabama have the lowest rates at 1.9 percent and 1.6 percent respectively, while Virginia (21 percent), Maine (20 percent) and Illinois (16 percent) have the highest rates. Experts say failure to find placements is largely due to a shortage of trained social workers.

McCoy dealt with several social workers during her years in foster care, but she says the one assigned to her from age 15 to 18 helped her the most. “She still sends me gifts,” she said. Without her, McCoy said she might not have pursued the independent-living classes that helped her get where she is today.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of young adults ages 18 to 24 in the United States live at home with their parents.

“When we’re talking about our own kids, we understand that the transition to adulthood is lengthy and they often leave and come back home. We need to provide a similar experience for kids aging out of foster care,” Nixon said. “Legally, we are their parents,” she said.

Foster children are individuals - not just a statistic

California Group Matches Faces with Families

More than 4,000 teens age out of California's foster system annually. More than 50 percent of these youths leave the state's care without high school diplomas, jobs or families of their own.

To curb those numbers, the Sacramento-based Sierra Adoption Services launched the "Capitol Kids Are Waiting" program, which displays selected children's photos and biographies in the rotunda of the state Capitol. In its first year, each of the 16 highlighted children were adopted within two months, as The Davis Enterprise reports.

"It's phenomenally effective to be able to make the individual children real, rather than making them just a statistic," states Gail Johnson, Sierra's executive director. While Sierra is not the first to tap the power of pictures and print, it remains to be seen whether the California group can successfully scale its programs. CFK and CA360 will monitor the response.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Voice Our Independent Choices for Emancipation Support

Napa foster care group builds a dream house
Ryan, David. Napa Valley Register, Dec. 4, 2007.

At 1801 Oak Street in Napa, the children of the foster care system are finally getting a home of their own.

Voice Our Independent Choices for Emancipation Support, the two-year-old Napa nonprofit group, is busy putting the final touches on a remodel of the first two floors of a Victorian house just across the street from Fuller Park.

For the past 20 Saturdays, 200 volunteers have teamed up with local contractor Steve Carlson to knock down walls, install a kitchenette and rework computer wiring in an effort to make the house more comfortable as a home-like space for the VOICES crew.

The house is a far cry from the cramped office park off Soscol Avenue the group used to inhabit, and the group's move from its old location symbolizes the growth it has enjoyed as a nonprofit. Already it has helped more than 200 teens ease their transition from the foster care system to the real world with housing, education and employment programs.

"Not only are youth using VOICES' services, we are running the center, making decisions, leading and developing the programs," said Mitch Findley, assistant director of VOICES and a former foster youth, in a prepared statement. "We are respected and given responsibility. That is what makes the difference."

In addition, VOICES staff have traveled the country, preaching the benefits of youth-run care for emancipated foster youth. VOICES is the first program of its kind in the country.

Now with the new home, the group hopes to help even more foster youth than before in ways it couldn't quite do out of an office park.

"The whole point of this community build (of the VOICES headquarters) is to build community," said Alissa Gentille, VOICES program director. "So I hope young people can come into this building and feel a sense of family and home and comfort when they're going through a really challenging transition."

That sense is important. Sometimes, the youth who come to VOICES for services find the camaraderie and sense of family they've missed. Other times, clients are homeless, aged-out foster youth who store some of their belongings at VOICES. Now in the new space they can also do their laundry and fix themselves something to eat.

There are about 80,000 foster youth in the state, and Napa has about 100 at any given time. Studies have shown that foster youth who have aged out of the system -- which happens in many cases on their 18th birthday -- face more challenges than other teens. Often they have emotional difficulties or developmental problems caused by having bounced from home to home during their time in the system.

As VOICES grows, it is also trying to find a way to start another VOICES-like group in another county. Merced, Shasta and Los Angeles have been mentioned as possible sites, Gentille said.

On Wednesday, the group will host more than 200 guests at its new location in a kind of open house.

"We work hard together, laugh together, cry together and we celebrate together just like all good families do," Gentille said in a prepared statement. "That's what our Dec. 5 event is all about: celebrating our family and a year's worth of transformations."

California's first Foster Youth Career Dev. and Employment Summit

Foster Youth Career Development and Employment Summit
January 8-9, Sacramento, CA

California's first Foster Youth Career Development and Employment Summit will bring together representatives from all systems that touch the lives of foster youth to examine solutions and innovative work at the national, state and local levels. The focus is on programs that demonstrate specific outcomes in areas such as career development for foster youth, connection to education and workforce programs, and transition support.

For more information, contact Lisa Elliott at

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kinship Caregiver Support Act

Living in the Homes of Strangers
Chen, Michelle. Nov. 29, 2007.

Over half a million children are in foster care today, many of them shuttling from placement to placement.

After spending years living in the homes of strangers, Andreah Moyer finally found her way back to her grandfather at the age of seventeen.

One question had burned in her mind all that time: “Why didn’t you come get me?”

For her first eight years, Moyer’s grandparents helped raise her in rural Iowa. But her parents’ substance abuse eventually forced the household apart. Moyer and her two brothers were swept into the state’s foster care system, and she spent most of her adolescence isolated from her family. By the time she left foster care in her late teens, Moyer had bounced through more than 15 state-funded substitute homes.

After they reunited, her grandfather told her that throughout those years, her grandparents desperately wanted her back home again. But as a farm family living on a fixed income, they were convinced their hearts stretched beyond their means.

"They wanted to and they felt bad,” she recalls, “but they knew they couldn't afford it.”

Things would have been different, Moyer says, if the state had found a way to help her grandparents care for her and her brothers, instead of paying strangers to temporarily replace their parents.

Moyer’s family disintegrated in foster care. Her brothers were relatively lucky, adopted by a foster family early on; however, Moyer, an older child, was passed onto other “placements.” Some foster caregivers were supportive and loving, but to others, she was just a way to bring in cash and was treated coldly.

And the system continues to linger in Moyer’s life. Earning a college degree at 29, she is making up for years of disrupted schooling. Meanwhile, she has taken on the family responsibilities that her grandparents, now deceased, were never able to see through: she is raising a half-brother whom her father left behind when he went to prison.

Reflecting on her separation from her grandfather, Moyer says, “I felt cheated out of all of those years with him and the rest of my family.”

With stories like Moyer’s clogging foster-care case files, advocates say child-welfare policies must be restructured to protect children without uprooting families and communities.

‘Who loves you?’
Foster care was designed as a short-term last resort for kids with no other options – whose families were struggling with violence, drugs or mental illness, or were simply too poor to raise them. But critics say the system too often does more harm than good. Today, over half a million kids are in foster care. Many spend their childhoods drifting from one house to another, saddled with long-term emotional and social trauma.

One first step toward reforming the beleaguered system might be the expansion of “kinship care” – placing children with relatives when parents cannot care for them.

Ben Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois who has worked on child-welfare cases, says that for kids caught up in the system, relative care provides an essential sense of family identity.

He says, “the first thing you should ask a child is: ‘Who loves you?’ ‘Who can help you best maintain your bonds, both with your community and with your family?’ It's much more likely that a relative is going to make the child feel like they're a part of something.”

The Kinship Caregiver Support Act, introduced earlier this year by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York), would make federal subsidies available to relatives who become permanent legal guardians to foster children. It would also give states more flexibility to simplify licensing requirements for relative-run foster homes.

Currently, most federal child-welfare funds go to maintain stranger-run foster homes, or to subsidize families who adopt foster children. The financing system leaves out legal guardians. But advocates say that subsidizing guardianship is key for establishing more permanent homes. While state and local funding policies vary, many relative caregivers rely on monthly foster care payments to make ends meet. Becoming a permanent guardian might mean losing hundreds of dollars a month in assistance, forcing relatives to choose between family bonds and economic stability.

Keeping it in the family
Relative foster care has grown since the 1980s to encompass nearly a quarter of the foster-youth population - about 124,000 kids, according to federal data. Nationwide, over two million children live under relatives’ care without parents, including households outside the foster care system.

Research has found that placing children with relatives instead of strangers helps keep the family intact.

Recent studies on kinship foster care indicate that kids placed with relatives generally have more contact with birth parents when possible and are less likely to shift to different homes. Moreover, relatives share a familiar culture and language.

Yet according to research by the liberal think tank Urban Institute, compared to non-relative foster parents, kin caregivers face additional challenges: they are usually older and poorer, with worse health and lower education levels.

Advocates view subsidized guardianship as a crucial alternative mid-way between parental and kin relations. Becoming a guardian enables relative caregivers to solidify their authority without officially taking over the parent’s role, which could create tension in the family.

Rose Canales, 62, a retired medical assistant in Union City, near San Francisco, is as close to being a mother to her 15 year-old nephew Michael as she could ever be. She began raising him ten years ago, when her sister Theresa’s substance abuse pushed Michael and his siblings into public custody. Canales became Michael’s guardian under California’s Kin-GAP program, which provided a formal legal bond as well as a crucial supplement to the family’s modest income.

Canales says she wanted Michael to have a permanent home with her after seeing what happened to his older sister Desiree: shuffling through various foster homes, she became emotionally scarred and alienated from the family in her teens.

“I wanted stability, and I wanted a structured life,” Canales says. “Stick it out, and just have that child stay in one place with the family.”

Yet Michael’s maternal ties remained a delicate issue. He clung to Theresa as a young boy, Canales recalls, planting himself by the door awaiting her visit. Hopes of reunification vanished tragically when Theresa lost her struggle with substance abuse in 1999.

Later, given the choice of being adopted, Canales says, Michael told her, “‘Please don't think that it's because I don't love you. I do. But I really want my mom's last name.’”

“He still felt that connection,” she says, “especially after she died.”

Subsidized guardianship opens the door to co-parenting
Guardianship enabled Jaunice Johnson, 46, of Chicago to hold onto her role as a mother after crippling depression made her unable to care for her children. Chrissy, Debra and Robert were initially placed in foster care with their godparents. But over time, Jaunice recalls, she sensed that the children were troubled and discovered their caregivers were physically abusing them. Jaunice’s sister Carol then took custody of the children and became their guardian under Illinois’s subsidized-guardianship program.

The sisters “co-parented” the children through their middle- and high-school years while Jaunice underwent treatment. Today, the extended family continues to move forward together: as Robert and Debra pursue college degrees, Jaunice, who considers herself recovered, is working toward hers.

As a guardian, “[Carol] was not looking to take my children,” says Jaunice. “She was willing to take custody of them so that they could be nurtured back to health, and that I would be able to be with them and be their mother again.”

Guardianship also liberated Jaunice from oversight by caseworkers. State foster care authorities typically place tedious restrictions on caregivers, such as requiring approval for out-of-state vacations or parental visits.

While the government has instituted broad surveillance to ensure foster children’s safety, critics say it often creates needless hassles for close relatives providing long-term care. They also warn that the system might apply protective measures unevenly: in Jaunice’s case, restrictions on contact with her children made it harder to detect their mistreatment in foster care.

Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an advocacy group representing grandparent caregivers, says that under the rigid rules of foster care, “it's the extra bureaucracy and intrusiveness that keeps the grandparents from doing what grandparents and parents do well, which is raise children.”

Fostering kinship and community
A few states have experimented with federal guardianship subsidies through specially authorized “demonstration” projects. The results so far suggest supported guardianship could move thousands of kin foster families toward stable independence.

Under Illinois’s project, about ten thousand children have moved from long-term foster care into subsidized guardianship since 1997. A controlled study of foster families by the Children and Family Research Center found that over a five-year period, around 17 percent of kinship homes entered permanent guardianship, and the program maintained a remarkable safety record. Other children were adopted or returned to their birth parents.

Alternatives like California's Kin-GAP program and Illinois' demonstration project give children stable homes with their extended families where they share a common culture, even if their primary family unit has been torn apart.

However, reformers see guardianship as just one part of the deeper shift in policy priorities that is needed: federal funding should focus not on temporary care, but on family-based social services, like housing programs or mental-health treatment.

Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services in Pennsylvania, cautions, “the federal financing mechanism is broken and needs to be overhauled.”

Allegheny is not waiting for Capitol Hill. Joining many other communities nationwide, the county pursues foster care reform independently by investing in measures to help families adequately care for their children.

The department prioritizes kinship care over stranger foster care whenever possible, and uses state and county funds to support kin who become guardians. The main goal, however, is to keep at-risk families out of the system altogether by providing services and financial support through community-based organizations. Minimizing foster care has saved the county millions of dollars, in turn driving reinvestment in preventative services.

Reform advocates say policymakers must also address institutional inequalities in foster care.

Mike Arsham, executive director of the New York-based advocacy group Child Welfare Organizing Project, says agencies have historically targeted families in low-income households and communities of color, assuming that children must be removed to be “protected.”

“The premise and practice of foster care,” he says, “runs in direct contradiction to the cultural traditions and survival strategies of many of these families,” which are rooted in extended social networks common throughout black, native and immigrant communities.

Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, says the placement of Native children in non-tribal foster homes has undermined generations of indigenous communities. But the pending kinship-care bill, he adds, coupled with broader reforms to give tribes more control over child-welfare funding, could help repair the social damage.

“The ability to support extended families as substitute care providers would support the cultural identity so important to the self-esteem and well-being of our children,” he says.

But while the push for systemic change gathers momentum, limited federal resources are running just as thin as ever. The congressionally authorized program for sponsoring demonstration projects, such as Illinois’s subsidized-guardianship initiative, recently expired. And the limited government support kinship caregivers do receive may not be enough. Researchers in Illinois found that over 60 percent of relative caregivers had trouble getting by on their subsidies, which averaged only about $440 a month.

Still, whatever hardships they face, many kinship families cannot imagine life without the challenge.

"Keeping the family together and making that sacrifice – it really is a big experience, and I thank God for it,” said Canales. “It's not always easy, but the rewards are really great.”

- November is National Adoption Month. To find out more about the expansion of kinship programs, visit Kids Are Waiting - a project by the Pew National Trust. To learn more about children who need loving homes internationally, visit the The National Adoption Council.

School receives funding to expand programs for foster care youth

Foster care program gets $490,000
McLaughlin, Tara. Bakersfield Californian, Nov. 23, 2007.

Kern County Superintendent of Schools will receive $490,000 to support and expand its programs for youth in the foster care system, according to a California Department of Education news release.

"Children from a troubled environment need extra support to succeed academically," said Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction.

The Kern County Network for Children under KCSOS provides students in foster care with academic support services.

Programs include partnerships with Cal State Bakersfield, whose teaching credential students tutor and mentor foster students who are struggling in school, said Tom Corson executive director of KCNC.

And liaisons in schools ensure records for students in foster care are in order and teachers and administrators are aware of foster youths' special needs, he said.

"These kids are really falling through the cracks," Corson said.

KCNC will be building a new resource center and cafe off of 18th Street downtown, Corson said. It will employ "emancipated" youth, those who have turned 18 and are no longer in the system, house offices for probation and health and human services departments, and provide training and a computer lab.

Corson said he expects it to be up and running by spring.

In Kern County:
3,000 — Youth in foster care.
200 — Foster care youth in group homes.
40 — Foster youth expected to enroll in tutoring.
250 — Foster youth who received Kern County Network for Children services last year.

Source: Kern County Network for Children

In California:
75 — Percent of foster youth below grade level.
83 — Percent of foster students held back by third grade
46 — Percent of foster students who drop out of high school.

Source: California Department of Education

After Foster Care: A Look Into the Lives of Homeless Youth in San Mateo County

Foster care worker describes system’s troubles
Norwood calls for greater state support, programs
Limaye, Maneesha. Nov. 16, 2007.

Palo Alto,CA -In honor of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Amanda Norwood, housing advocate for Youth and Family Enrichment Services (YFES), spoke last night to a group of about 20 Stanford students on the problems of housing foster youth before and after emancipation.

Students Taking on Poverty (STOP) hosted the event, titled “After Foster Care: A Look Into the Lives of Homeless Youth in San Mateo County.”

“We try to put on events and programs and campus awareness campaigns that increase knowledge about a whole variety of issues that relate to poverty in the U.S.,” said STOP co-president Debbie Warshawsky ‘08, adding that foster care “is so often overlooked and neglected as a social issue.”

Supported by a two-year funding grant from the state, YFES provides housing advocacy services for any youth previously or currently in San Mateo’s foster care system.

“Housing is extremely expensive in the Bay Area and most of these kids work at minimum wage jobs,” Norwood said. “It’s nearly impossible for them to do it on their own.”

She added that the consequences of homelessness for foster youth are far-reaching and perpetual.

“Not having affordable housing can mess up other aspects of their lives like school and work,” she said. “Essentially, they are living in a state of continual chaos.”

For those who are ready to live on their own, Norwood said she assisted clients all throughout the housing process.

“I explain what leases are, how to prepare for meetings with their landlords and basic advocacy,” she said. “Lots of landlords don’t want to rent to 18-year-olds and prefer the 40-year-old with a good credit history. They aren’t supposed to discriminate, but they do, and I make sure that my clients’ voices are heard.”

She said, however, that most of the youth are not ready for the responsibilities that go along with taking care of themselves.

“We want them to make the most independent decision, but a lot of these young adults coming out of the system aren’t as equipped as they think they are to live independently,” Norwood said. “We show them what other options they have.”

Many of the better options are transitional programs, which house foster youth in groups of 10. She said, however, that the turnover rate can be problematic and living conditions are usually crowded.

Among other issues, Norwood mentioned that many of the youth do not have adequate knowledge about finances and contracts that are required to live on one’s own.

“Independent living is so much,” she said. “It’s not just about getting a paycheck or frying an egg. There are so many more skills that these youth need, but do not have.”

She said that there needs to be more accountability within the state to create programs that teach the youngsters about necessary life skills.

“You can say ‘teach kids budgeting,’ but what does that really mean? And how is it implemented?” Norwood asked. “There need to be state mandates that tell us how to better handle these issues.”

Alyssa Battistoni ‘08, STOP co-president, said she was happy with the student turnout.

“I thought it was really informative about an issue that is overlooked to a large extent,” Battistoni said. “The statistics Amanda mentioned are just stunning, and I am glad Stanford students want to be informed about this.”

The week’s events conclude today when a group of STOP members will travel to the Opportunity Center, a comprehensive homeless shelter that provides services such as transitional housing and medical care in Palo Alto. Students will provide two computer-training sessions to help the foster youth create email addresses and find tools to search for jobs online.

“Everything we do,” Warshawsky said, “is to try to increase access to information for low-income communities that enable them to fight for an improvement in their quality of life.”

Barks & Books Program

Barks & Books Helps Foster Care Children Learn to Read
Open Press, Nov. 17, 2007.

Pasadena, CA -- Learning to read is an important milestone in every child’s life. Better reading skills mean better grades and more confidence in the classroom. Many children are asked to read aloud in class, but feel embarrassed when they make mistakes or feel their classmates may tease them.

For the children at Hillsides, a Pasadena charity that creates safe places for children in foster care and prevents the cycle of domestic violence for families, they have the opportunity to practice their reading to a captive audience that will always listen and never criticize.

Manny and Yogi are two dedicated therapy dogs from the Pasadena Humane Society’s Barks & Books program that come to visit the library and children of Hillsides. They sit patiently, watching and listening intently to the children read, offering their support.

“It encourages the children to read out loud, having an audience who responds to them with unconditional love and without fear of criticism,” said Hillsides librarian Sherri Ginsberg. “It is so much fun to have a dog in a library setting where it is not expected, which leads to the children’s excitement of having a dog in the library and in school.”

The children at Hillsides, having been through countless foster care placements and many difficult times delight in having Manny or Yogi visit with them to help sooth and emotionally heal. Since many of the children live at Hillsides, they don’t have the opportunity to have pets of their own so having the dogs visit gives them the chance to socialize with an animal as well.

“The intent is to make reading fun and to boost the child’s confidence in reading aloud,” said Elana Rose Blum, the educational outreach coordinator for the Pasadena Humane Society and the creator of the Barks & Books program. “The animal-related books the kids read also help them realize that animals experience a range of emotions similar to their own and that they have basic needs much like people do.”

Thanks to the charity of the Barks & Books program at the Pasadena Humane Society, the foster care children at Hillsides are able to feel more comfortable in their reading ability and look forward to spending time reading to their friends Manny and Yogi.

About Hillsides
As a Pasadena charity founded in 1913, Hillsides creates safe places for children in foster care living in its residential treatment center and is a community treatment center preventing the cycle of domestic violence for children at risk and their families. To learn more about Hillsides, visit

Sunday, December 02, 2007

California officials 'parent' 77,000 foster children

Parenting our foster children
Fellmeth, Robert. San Francisco Chronicle. Nov. 25, 2007, pg. E-5.

Our state officials are the parents of 77,000 children. These foster kids have been removed from their homes and their biological parents. In supplanting parental authority, the state in a democracy makes them part of our family. Their parents are our three branches.

So how did their legislative parents perform in 2007?

A few glimmers of responsibility: an increase in housing help for foster kids who turn 18; increased transparency when kids die from abuse; and some additional screening of foster kids for disabilities and possible federal SSI (disability) help.

But the final grade, as with recent performance, is not better than a D, reflecting California's three continuing basic deficiencies:

a) We refuse to recognize the right of a child simply to be intended by two committed adults. Within a generation, the unwed birth rate has climbed from 8 percent to above one-third of all children. Though child support by absent fathers averages just $50 a month per child, we have not increased our commitment to collecting child support. And we have engaged in no public discussion of reproductive responsibility. This is a verboten topic in a state dominated by liberal ideology.

b) We have underpaid the family foster-care providers who are the next-best option for these children - a personal parent. Most adoptions come from this group. But we pay these folks $450 to $700 a month per child - not close to out-of-pocket costs. The supply of these providers is down, and so we now have few places to put foster children except marginal kin and group homes. Yet we manage to find almost $5,000 a month per child for group home placements - eight times more! (Group homes have lobbyists in Sacramento.) So kids are split from their siblings, moved from the longtime school districts, and shuffled through multiple placements.

c) The typical American youth does not become self-sufficient until age 26. Private parents give their children a median of $45,000 after the age of 18 to help out. All government help for these kids reaches less than $10,000 per child after they emancipate.

Those emancipating kids hit the streets and now amount to 40 percent of California's homeless. Twenty-five percent will end up in prison within two years. More than 50 percent have no place to live and do not have a job. We kick them out anyway. To survive, they become addicts, turn tricks, commit crimes.

These statistics are well-known to every leader and staffer in the Legislature who handles these issues. The numbers have been reported and documented for years. That acknowledgment covers both parties. Each has allowed the other to cancel the child-friendly aspect of its political philosophy - accomplishing a kind of "contract" to the detriment of children.

Republicans appear to most support the wealthy class, particularly tax breaks that "starve the beast of government." Those tax expenditures also remain in place forever unless affirmatively ended by a two-thirds vote. And their party leadership denies the right of Republicans to vote their conscience on such matters (they are bound by caucus votes).

Meanwhile, Democrats support public employee and other unions, and the expansion of existing social services - lobbied by those now performing them. The end result tends to be a foster care system where children become pieces of paper flowing across the desks of probation officers, and caseworkers, and counselors, and attorneys, and judges, and psychologists. Each desk is manned by changing faces. And from the child's point of view, they get phone calls from strangers and are moved into institutions with names like "Promises" and "Progress Ranch" and "Morning Sky."

New money goes to expand such impersonal services - what folks are already doing. Most of the new money in 2006 reduced social worker caseloads. Most of the paltry addition in 2007 is for transitional housing that will allow group homes to expand and extend care. Both expenditures have merit, but they betray a bias against directly helping children. Contrary to Hillary's slogan that it "takes a village to raise a child," it takes a family.

Optimum solutions that involve personal help matched to an individual child - such as a "transition guardian" plan to replicate what parents do for children post-18 - get short shrift. There is no existing bureaucracy to advocate for that important alternative.

We now collect $1.7 billion per year in mental health money under recently enacted Proposition 63 - and it is accumulating. One stated priority here is mental health prevention and transition to adulthood from age 18 to 26. What population more fits this initiative's stated purposes? But these foster kids are not organized to lobby for that money, and their share is likely to be negligible.

We have heard the same song from legislators for the past 17 years of lobbying for children. "We just do not have any money. . . . Impossible. Wish we could help."

Meanwhile, both parties ignore the $30 billion in annual state tax "expenditures" (special favors), and also the federal tax reductions giving California taxpayers more than $37 billion a year since 2003. About 1 percent of either of these sources would provide prevention investment, adequate family foster care placements and more adoptions, and an eight-fold increase in assistance to emancipating foster kids - simply matching what private parents provide for their children.

That would discharge the state's parental duties responsibly and earn it a B or better. But none of these proposals is on the table.

Rather, both parties support $75 million for a February 2008 primary to vitiate the term limits for the Assembly and Senate leadership and for national attention and political ego gratification. They can find money for that, although we already have an election scheduled in June - just four months later.

The prison guards get legislative attention, as do most groups with political money. The Assembly budget included $145 million in new tax breaks over three years for multinational Hollywood corporations. We added $45 million in yacht tax breaks. Foster kids do not attend too many fundraisers.

So who is representing these children and their primary needs? To be intended at the start, to have a personal relationship with someone who they know will stay up all night worrying if they screw up, and to help achieve self-sufficiency in the years between 18 and 26? Children had their champions in 2007 - Karen Bass, Darrell Steinberg, Carole Migden, Noreen Evans, Bill Maze, Mark Leno, Jim Beall, Dave Jones, among others.

But the Big Five making the real decisions at the end are not among them - the two top Democratic and Republican legislators and the governor.

Foster kids usually get orphaned at the end of each session by a device called the "suspense file." It happened again this year, with a dozen bills - costing even a trivial amount of money. Bills are introduced with fanfare, win big votes in policy committee and one house, only to be marooned in the appropriations committees - where they are killed without a vote by a confidential decision of the legislative leadership. But the leadership of our state gives high praise and low priority to these children of the state, their own children.

So who is at fault? In a democracy, we can point fingers. But in the final analysis, it is our failure. We allow it to happen, and we countenance it year after year without political consequence for those who are designedly our servants. The grade of D for the Legislature implies a similar judgment for those who continue to elect them.

- Robert C. Fellmeth is the Price Professor of Public Interest Law and the director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law.