Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gauranteed spots at Cal State San Marcos for qualified foster care alumni

Former foster children guaranteed CSUSM slots
Moss, Andrea. North County Times, March 25, 2008.

SAN MARCOS ---- Former foster children in San Diego County who meet minimum admissions requirements will be guaranteed spots at Cal State San Marcos under an agreement that college and county officials are slated to sign today.

The agreement dramatically expands an arrangement reached in May 2007 that covered only San Pasqual Academy, a residential center for foster care just outside Escondido's city limits.

University officials said they believe the San Marcos campus is the first in the 23-campus California State University system to reach an admissions agreement covering every foster child in a particular county.

Jim Mickelson, director of a special program at the university designed to attract children who lived in foster homes, said the new agreement is important because national statistics show that half of children raised in foster care do not get high school degrees, and only 3 percent actually go to college.

Only half of those make it through four years of higher education, he said.

Melissa Johnson, a Palomar College student who was in the county's foster system from the time she was 16 until she turned 18, said Tuesday that a lack of money was only one hurdle for young people raised in foster care.

"I think that a lot of foster youth who are turning 18 and transitioning out of their foster home are already going through so much stress in their lives that they really shy away from more stress, like applying for college," she said, adding that her own attention was focused on earning a living and trying to set up her own apartment.

Her perspective changed, Johnson said, after she heard a grocery store co-worker say she wished she had gone to college.

"She was like 40 and a cashier," said Johnson. "I started really thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided I wanted to go to college."

Her caseworker helped guide her through the maze of paperwork that got her into Palomar, where she is a chemistry major. She also got a financial aid package that made attending college possible, Johnson said.

The new agreement will "absolutely" make the entire process easier, she said. "If they're guaranteed admission, I think a lot of foster youth will really take the initiative and apply for college," she said.

Sarah Colton, a former foster child who attends Cal State San Marcos, said the deal will offer hope to teens who think college is out of reach and fear being rejected if they apply.

The plan is "a huge opportunity" for youth who lack the support given to many of their peers when it comes time to consider college, said Margo Fudge, a county child welfare official.

"Foster youth are challenged with things that many kids take for granted," she said Tuesday. "Simply graduating from high school ---- foster youth change locations many times. That makes it harder to graduate. There's higher rates of homelessness and incarceration."

San Diego County had an average of 6,222 children in its foster care system in fiscal year 2006-07. Fudge said it was difficult to pinpoint the average length of stay because some children enter the system only to leave it within 12 months, while others come in young and stay for 10 or 15 years.

About 200 youth in the system turn 18 every year, though, she said.

The county offers special programs designed to help young adults make the move from foster care to independent living. Those include transitional housing and independent living skills classes that teach young people who lived in foster homes how to interview for jobs, balance a checkbook and other things they need to know to make it on a day-to-day basis.

University President Karen Haynes and Jean Shepard, director of the county's Health and Human Services Agency, are scheduled to formalize the deal by signing a memorandum of understanding at a 9:30 a.m. ceremony on campus.

Mickelson, the university official focused on recruiting former foster children, said he hopes to attract 10 such students each year.

"We'll try to do everything we can to try to get them to think about it," he said.

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Fostering children as an act of faith

Foster care gets help from the faithful
Kearney, Laila. Inside Bay Area, March 26, 2008.

Oakland resident Harold Fortner never thought about taking in a foster child until he learned the shocking number of displaced youth in his community from a church meeting.

The Fortner household is one of more than 100 foster and adoptive homes licensed in the past two years as a result of the Faith Initiative. The initiative was put together by the Alameda County Social Services Agency and the faith community to help abused and neglected children find homes, a plan that other Bay Area counties have begun to model.

"It really is a holistic approach," Alameda County Social Services Agency spokeswoman Sylvia Soublet said of the Faith Initiative. "It isn't just one-dimensional." As part of the initiative, the Faith Advisory Council, a collection of religious leaders, meets once a month at different churches, synagogues, mosques and Buddhist temples and educates the community about how to help abused and neglected children.

"We get together a plan to do outreach for the community to get involved," said the Rev. Raymond Lankford, head of the Faith Council and pastor at Voices of Hope Community Church in Oakland.

Since September 2006, the council has visited more than 125 churches throughout Alameda County.

Fortner said he didn't realize the great need for foster families until the council visited his church, the Liberty Bell Missionary Baptist Church in Berkeley.

"I don't think people realize how many children are in the foster system," said Fortner, who fosters one child, a boy.

About two years ago, Alameda County was in the midst of a child welfare crisis, officials said, with many abused and neglected children unable to find homes.

"We were literally having to place kids in group homes, because we didn't have enough beds in foster homes," Soublet said.

From the early 1990s to 2006, licensed foster homes in the county dropped from a high of 1,000 to 400.

The agency asked University of California, Berkeley, School of Social Welfare to survey current and former foster parents to determine reasons for the drop off. The survey found that many among the aging demographic of foster parents wanted to retire from caring for children. Foster parents also felt they did not receive enough financial support from the foster care system.

Financial support per household varies by the age of the child, said Carol Collins, assistant director of Alameda County Child and Family Services. The basic rate is about $400 a month for infants, increasing to about $600 per month for teenagers. The program also covers foster children's medical care.

The Alameda County Social Services Agency thought religious organizations could help place local children in need of homes. The Faith Initiative began in 2005 with 15 groups. Today, 163 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist groups are involved.

"People have come together regardless of ideologies," Soublet said.

At the start of the initiative, Alameda County Social Services was recruiting about 20 new licensed foster parents a year. In the past two years, 146 homes in the area have been licensed.

"We still have a long way to go," Soublet said. The goal of the initiative is to license 400 homes by June 2009.

Still, Soublet said the Social Services Agency tries to keep children with their biological families: "This is a system of last resort."

The number of children in foster care has decreased from about 5,000 seven years ago, to about 2,400 today, officials said.

Soublet said her agency has worked to help children stay with their relatives and out of foster care.

For the abused and neglected, who cannot return to their biological families, Lankford hopes a home awaits.

"We're just looking for people who can care for children, who love children and who want them to live better lives." said Lankford, also a former foster parent. "You can be rich, or you can be poor, but you have to have space in your home."

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

California dependency courts in need of reform

Commission calls California dependency courts 'overstressed, underresourced'
By Karen de Sá, San Jose Mercury News, March 14, 2008.

A state commission concluded its two-year study of California's juvenile dependency courts Friday by calling for sweeping reforms to make sure children and parents caught in the system are better informed and better served.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care recommended critical changes to ensure that lawyers meet with their clients well in advance of their hearings, that judges preside over all court cases and that children are present and active when their life in foster care is being decided.

The recommendations address several of the critical problems highlighted by the series "Broken Families, Broken Courts," a Mercury News investigation published last month that exposed widespread problems in the courts that oversee 75,000 California children in foster care.

The report of the commission, appointed by Chief Justice Ronald George, echoed the newspaper series with this dire warning: "California's dependency courts are overstressed and underresourced, burdened by crowded dockets and inadequate information."

California's dependency courts decide which children should be returned to their families and which removed permanently following allegations of child abuse and neglect.

The report was posted online Friday, launching a 60-day public comment period. In August, the state's Judicial Council - the policy-making body of the California courts - is expected to consider adopting reforms.

Confirming the Mercury News findings, the commission reported that children and parents afforded court-appointed lawyers "do not meet their attorneys until moments before their hearings." The typical time for hearings is as short as 10 minutes, a far cry from the 30- to 60-minute hearings recommended.

"If we truly are intent on doing better by children and families, we can't ignore the courts and the legal process," said Myriam Krinsky, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission and a state courts consultant. "The commission's recommendations acknowledge that we have to do business differently, and that children and families will continue to pay the price if we don't start to turn the corner."

The commission is the first of its kind in California, focusing on the court's role in the child welfare system. Commissioners included judges, attorneys, legislators, child welfare directors, foster youth, child advocates, tribal leaders, academics and philanthropists.

The recommendations in the commission's 20-page report aim at reducing the number of children in foster care, a system believed to poorly serve the children it is designed to protect. Key recommendations include:

• Removing children from their homes should be a last resort, and children temporarily separated from parents should be returned home by the courts as quickly as possible. If the state does take custody, children in long-term foster care should receive financial and other support through age 21, rather than ending foster care at age 18 as is the current practice.

• Local trial courts should prioritize the often-shunned dependency courts. All dependency cases should be heard by judges, not the court-appointed referees and commissioners who now hear most cases.

All court clients - including children - should have an opportunity to participate in their hearings; with the exception of cases in Los Angeles County, children are routinely absent. Clients should get help with rides to court, and hearings should be set at specific times, so that school and work conflicts for parents can be accommodated.

To improve the quality of representation in dependency court, the commission calls for attorneys to meet with clients "before the initial hearing and in advance of all subsequent hearings," a basic communication now lacking in most courtrooms.

The commission also wants higher pay and lowered caseloads for lawyers who now carry as many as 600 cases in some regions. This is hundreds more cases than competent attorneys can reasonably manage, experts say.

What's more, new attorneys should be encouraged to enter a field too often shunned, the report stated: Juvenile dependency law should be a mandatory area of study for the California Bar Exam and student loans should be forgiven for those entering the field.

Some dependency court insiders viewed the long-awaited report with some disappointment, fearing that the language is too vague to have an impact. Others fear the state's dire fiscal crisis will be an obstacle to the legislation and resources needed to make lasting change.

Jonathan Pearson a 25-year-old former foster youth who serves on the commission, said he hopes the recommendations will be strengthened and improved following public comment.

Pearson, removed from his drug-addicted mother at age 3, lived in nine different court-ordered placements. Going to court often meant a four-hour wait, before a minutes-long hearing with a lawyer he had just met.

For the commission to have the impact Pearson and others desire, "I think that we have more work to do," he said. "We need to make sure that not only is the report politically viable, but there's a clear way to implement every recommendation."

Commissioner Darrell Steinberg - who is incoming president pro tem of the state Senate - said the state's fiscal crisis makes it impossible to implement reforms that cost money. But the Sacramento Democrat is hopeful there will be future opportunities to spend money on desperately needed change.

"If we don't help children and families during these most difficult times," Steinberg said, "they will bear the consequences and so will we."


The commission report may be seen at:

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Margaret Iuculano speaks out about the need for foster care reform

Is Foster Care Failing America's Most Helpless Children?
Piazza, Judyth. NewsBlaze. Feb. 27, 2008.

Folsom, CA - May is National Foster Care Month and according to government statistics, there are over half a million children in America's foster care system today. For perspective, that's more than the population of pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Beyond the numbers, each child bears a personal story that starts with heartbreak and almost always ends with it, too. Is the system failing America's foster children?

"Yes," answers foster child advocate Margaret Iuculano, whose tragic trip through the system is documented in the new book "My God Box." "Children are ripped from their less than idyllic homes and shuffled around to foster parents who don't always have the child's best interest in mind," she continues.

The now successful mother, wife and businesswoman found many of the families that took her in during those horrifying childhood years were using her and the system as an additional source of income.

"I'm not saying all foster parents are bad," says Iuculano. "That would be unfair to those who foster for the right reasons. But there are many unscrupulous people who bring emotionally fragile and physically wounded children into their homes simply for the paycheck. And the more kids they bring into their home, the more money the government pays them. The system needs a major overhaul."

Another issue of particular concern to Iuculano is when foster children 'age out' of the system once they turn 18-years-old or complete high school. Are vulnerable youths who have bounced from home to home and school to school able handle life on their own?

According to Iuculano, despite having access to free college, many 'aged out' adults are not prepared for higher education since they did not grow up in a stable learning environment. "Couple that with the fact that only 38% of foster care kids are employed 12 to 18 months after their discharge from the system, and it's sadly obvious why there's an upward trend of homelessness among those who have aged out."

As survivor of the system, Margaret has moved on to own two businesses and serve as the President and CEO of a multi-million dollar Microsoft consulting company. She is now focused on the mission of shedding light on the secret lives of foster children and doing what she can to help and motivate, "I was inspired by faith and overcame the victim mentality so it's my responsibility to help other foster children triumph as well."

Iuculano explains her long term goal is to open a group home for 'aged out' foster care kids, "I want it to serve as a transition from a system life to a self-sufficient life. The plan is to offer a happy environment that encourages bonding with others, not treatment like a second class citizen." In the meantime, proceeds from her book, "My God Box," will go to many different not for profits dedicated to children.

For Iuculano, even the slightest failures in the foster care system are unacceptable, "These children are already at risk. Leaving them unprepared for adulthood is a travesty." It's not realistic to have everyone write a book about their foster care experience or open a group home for 'aged out' adults, but Iuculano points out, "You can do something. Get involved with a local charity. It's up to all of us to try and change the failures of the foster care system this month and beyond."

About Margaret Iuculano
Margaret Iuculano's personal account of how the foster care system failed her and others and the subsequent triumph over her childhood demons to become a successful wife, mother and CEO is chronicled in her book, "My God Box."

Once she accomplished professional success that included owning two companies and serving as President and CEO of a multi-million dollar Microsoft consulting company, Iuculano turned her focus to children's advocacy.

Iuculano was habitually beaten by an alcoholic step-father, who labeled her an 'incorrigible' child and insisted she be placed in foster care. She then was a firsthand witness to the shattered foster care system, which was commonly used by foster parents as source of added income, not a way to make a difference in a vulnerable child's life.

Iuculano, who currently lives in Tampa, FL with her family, hopes her story will encourage activism on behalf of America's forgotten children and inspire others who have faced seemingly insurmountable struggles. Iuculano's website is