Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mr. J teaches life skill classes, conducts five college visits a year

County program gets foster kids on right track
Moody, Shelah. San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 25, 2008. pg. G2.

As head trainer for Alameda County's Independent Living Skills Program, Robert Jemerson helps foster children make successful transitions into adulthood.

The program was established in 1988, when the federal government began to take a hard look at the difficulties young men and women were experiencing when they "aged out" of the foster care system at age 19 and had to face life on their own.

Jemerson, who worked as a counselor in a juvenile detention facility before he joined the program, said every state in the United States was given an opportunity to help make the outcomes better. "That's when I got involved - that's right up my alley," he said.

Known to his students as "Mr. J," Jemerson teaches life-skills classes to foster youths ages 15 to 19 and emancipated youths up to age 24. The students learn about housing and home maintenance, education and vocational training, money management, legal rights and responsibilities, transportation and health care.

Most children end up in the foster care system because of abuse, neglect or abandonment by their birth parents. If they don't learn the skills needed for daily living, they're susceptible to homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, drug abuse, criminality and even suicide.

"Trying to get a kid at age 18 to take on the (role) of an adult is very much impossible," said Jemerson.

"It's a process; we have to work with hard- and soft-skills development. I find that without knowledge of the intangible, the 'soft skills' such as communication and self-esteem and assertiveness, that the hard-skills development, such as money management and finding housing, don't work," he said. "We work with image enhancements and conflict resolution. A lot of these kids are bitter. One of my sayings is 'Don't be bitter, be better.' We work on how to be better. We work on communication, both verbal and written, and decision making and problem solving. We also work on time management and setting long-term and short-term goals."

To graduate from the program, high school seniors must complete all of their classes and have a written comprehensive emancipation plan, which Jemerson helps them develop. Last year, 109 students graduated.

Graduation takes place at the Hilton Oakland Airport Hotel on the first Friday in June, and Jemerson emcees at the ceremony. Graduates receive certificates, and winners of the Independent Living Skills scholarship are honored.

After Jemerson helps his clients get either their high school diplomas or GEDs, he encourages them to pursue higher education by helping them with college applications and financial aid packages.

"In our last report, I'm proud to say, we had over 260 youngsters in community colleges and four-year universities all over the nation," said Jemerson.

Jemerson conducts five college tours a year, and his students have gone on to UC Berkeley, Stanford, St. Mary's College, Yale, Cornell, Oxford and Morehouse College. One of his success stories is Sade Daniels, a young poet who had been in the foster care system since age 14. Now a freshman at Clark Atlanta University, Daniels has spoken at several engagements on behalf of the Independent Living Skills Program.

"She's a wonderful kid," said Jemerson. "She's outstanding; a very inspiring story."

The program also partners with other organizations that provide activities for foster children and emancipated youth.

In 2006, Jemerson and Fred Bowe, current president of the Rotary Club of Oakland Sunrise, District 5170 formed the first Rotary Interact Club for foster children ages 14 to 18. It promotes leadership skills such as volunteerism and public speaking. Last year, the club gave away more than 30 food baskets to needy families and also raised money for two wheelchairs to be donated to convalescent homes. In 2007, Jemerson used his own money to help send two foster youths to Ghana to participate in the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards program.

"I have over 200 partners, and I want to get the community to realize that these young men and young women are really our responsibility," said Jemerson. "My goal is to get as many of our young people housed as possible and to have them continue to educate themselves to get scholarships to help in this process, and to send many of them as goodwill ambassadors on trips in the U.S. and abroad. I feel that when people go abroad, they educate themselves further. Also, I'd like to have our young people get involved in community service."

Born in Jackson, Miss., Jemerson moved to the Bay Area as a preteen. After a year at Laney College, Jemerson attended UC Berkeley, where he earned a degree in political science. He went on to Hastings College of the Law, where he received his juris doctorate, although he never practiced law.

Part of Jemerson's passion for helping foster children began with his own experience. His parents, Edgar and Aylne Jemerson, took in his childhood friend Ed as a teenager.

"His mother went back home to Louisiana and left him here," said Jemerson. "He was my friend, and I wanted to help him. I asked my dad if we could help Ed. Dad, being an old Southern gentleman, said, 'Let's do this.' He lived with us for one year until he graduated from Berkeley High with me."

For more information, visit or

Each week, The Chronicle features a Bay Area resident who has won a Jefferson Award for making a difference in his or her community.

The awards are administered by the American Institute for Public Service, a national foundation that honors community service. Bay Area residents profiled in The Chronicle are also featured on CBS 5-TV and KCBS-AM, which are Jefferson Award media partners, along with The Chronicle.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

It's a CRIME that an abusive foster parent can apply successfully to several different agencies

Foster mom was cited
Agency found 'unexplained' scars on girl later killed in arson attack
Jewett, Christina. Sacramento Bee, Jan. 16, 2008, pg. B3.

A cross honoring arson victim Amariana Crenshaw, 4, marks the house where she died. An agency says it had started decertifying her foster mother because of violations.

The foster mother who cared for the 4-year-old girl killed in an arson attack early Friday had been cited for "unexplained" scars and bruises on the little girl's face, for locking her refrigerator and having deadbolts on all the bedroom and bathroom doors in her North Natomas home, public records show.

The foster family agency that discovered the violations in April – Homes with Heart – was in the process of decertifying Tracy Dossman as a foster mother. However, Dossman stopped communicating with the agency and became certified by another foster family agency, said Jennifer Neutzling, director of Homes with Heart.

"The lock on refrigerator, the locks on the door – everything you have in front of you," Neutzling said, referring to findings by state authorities that also say the temperature in the home was 62 degrees and that toxic substances were accessible to foster children. "Those are very serious allegations."

Officials at the state Department of Social Services, which oversees foster care licensing, said officials investigated the allegations and decided they did not threaten a child's safety.

"Sadly, a 4-year-old is no longer with us," said Shirley Washington, a spokeswoman for state Social Services. "But I don't know … that (these reports) would be a glaring alert that something was awry with the foster mother." (Umm.... would you want YOUR child to live with this woman?)

Criminal investigators stressed Tuesday that Dossman has been cooperative and is not a suspect in the search for who dropped an incendiary device into her home on Sweet Pea Way in Natomas just after 3:30 a.m. Friday, killing little Amariana Crenshaw.

The foster agency that now works with Dossman, Positive Option Family Service, did not return a call for comment Tuesday, but released a statement saying Dossman "has been a model foster parent with our agency" and has "experienced what can only be called every parent's worst nightmare."

Dossman, who had been in the process of adopting Amariana, has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

Court records show Dossman filed a restraining order against the child's biological mother in 2006, saying she threatened to "burn my house down." She also had gone to court and had sheriff's deputies evict tenants from the Sweet Pea Way home the day before the fire.

"We're taking it all in, really trying to get at the heart of all these different allegations and determine which motive is the most likely that someone would try to kill someone over," said Graham Barlowe, agent in charge of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Sacramento.

Sacramento County Child Protective Services officials refused to comment Tuesday on Dossman's record or discuss department policy on foster family oversight. Lynn Frank, county Department of Health and Human Services director, said she was "appalled" at questions over the case.

Efforts to reach Dossman – including dropping off a letter at her home and calling her cell phone – were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Complaints investigated by the state against Dossman began in April 2005 and ended in April 2007, a period during which she was certified as a foster mother by three different agencies.

While certified by the Growing Alternatives foster family agency, Dossman was cited in April 2005 for not being home to accept a child from the bus after school.

"According to those interviewed, child #1 was returned to the school a minimum of two times because there was no one in the home to accept her," the complaint findings say.

Another substantiated complaint filed at the same time said a foster child under Dossman's care wore inadequate and dirty clothing. Also at that time, allegations – which later were deemed "inconclusive" – were made that a child was not given enough to eat and slept on the floor.

At the time, Dossman was licensed to care for as many as 20 children.

By February 2007 Dossman was licensed by Homes with Heart to care for four children in her upscale two-story home on Pop Becker Drive in North Natomas, documents show.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Transitional-age youth deserve to be a high priority

Improving services for youth exiting foster care a 'priority'
The Reporter, Jan. 11, 2008.

Vacaville,CA - Solano County will be assessing later this month its foster-care system for transitional-age youth.

The Board of Supervisors' Health and Social Services Committee will discuss the issue at its next meeting on Jan. 24 at 1 p.m. in the Board Chamber, 675 Texas St., Fairfield.

"Transitional-age youth and their needs are one of the highest priorities for Solano County," said Supervisor Barbara Kondylis, co-chair of the HSS Committee. "We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to ensure that the youth leaving foster care get a positive and strong start to their independent adult lives."

Dr. Sonja Lenz-Rashid, a licensed clinical social worker, will present research on Solano County's policies and services related to transitional-age youth emancipating from foster care. Service providers who focus on the needs of this target group are encouraged to attend.

"The goal of this meeting is to use the assessment findings to develop a county-wide plan to improve services for transitional-age youth emancipating from foster care," said Linda Orrante, Health and Social Services deputy director for child welfare services.

Based on interviews with service providers and focus groups with former foster youth, Lenz-Rashid has identified current gaps in services and recommendations for improvement. Her findings will address some of the following:

• transition planning;

• transitional housing for 16- to 19-year-olds who are emancipating;

• housing for 18- to 24-year-olds who are former foster youth;

• independent living skills programs;

• and, employment training.

The research was funded with a grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation. Lenz-Rashid completed a Bay Area-wide examination of transitional age youth services in January 2006.

For more information about transitional-age youth and the presentation, call Orrante at 784-8331.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Graduating into abandonment

All grown up and no place to go
Film showing in Piedmont explores the lives of teens after foster care
Oakland Tribune, Jan. 7, 2008.

AGING OUT follows former foster children (from left to right) Daniella Anderson, David...

The obstacles these youths face are unpredictable and seemingly insurmountable: one young man grapples with the effects of being abandoned by his mother, a young lady has no place to go during her breaks from UC Santa Barbara, and another young woman tries to raise her newborn child while attending college.

Although the film's premise is tragic, its outcome is thought-provoking and inspiring. The three young people are resilient in the face of all their challenges, and are determined to make lives for themselves.

"The outcomes are uncertain — and sometimes different than the audience might predict," said event organizer Maude Pervere. "I think people will be deeply moved."

Pervere hopes the film and the discussion afterward with Sam Cobbs, director of First Place for Youth, an Oakland organization dedicated to helping foster care youth transition to adulthood, will help shed light on a problem affecting many young people from Bay Area communities, as well as inspire Piedmonters to find ways to help.

"We live in a community where most if not all of the children have the support of at least one, and most, two parents from infancy through adulthood," she said. "In Oakland, many children have a far different growing-up experience. Sam Cobbs, the director of First Place for Youth, will speak after the film, so that Piedmonters can be more aware of an important issue in the Bay Area, and think about what they might do to help."

Piedmont Adult School joined the Appreciating Diversity Film Committee, Piedmont's League of Women Voters, and Diversityworks in choosing and screening "Aging Out." The adult school collaborated with the other agencies on this project because of the film's emphasis on parenting and youth development. The adult school has listed the screening and discussion with Cobbs as a course in its winter catalog.

WHAT: "Aging Out," a documentary in Piedmont's Appreciating
Diversity Film Series
WHEN: Jan. 17, 6:30 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. screening
WHERE: Ellen Driscoll Theater, 325 Highland Ave., Piedmont
COST: Free
DETAILS: For more information, visit http://www.diversityfilmseries.