Wednesday, April 30, 2008

25 - 40% transitional youth experience homelessness the first year

Foster Kids No More
The youth housing revolution takes off

Anderson, Bendix. Affordable Housing Finance, May 2008.

GRASSBORO, N.J. -- Fire trucks have been called to the Life Link Homes here seven times since construction finished last October. No one has been hurt, and the fires caused no damage to Life Link’s 30 apartments, which provide permanent housing with services to young people just out of foster care. The tenants are old enough to sign apartment leases, but for the most part, they have little cooking experience. So they regularly set off smoke detectors with minor accidental fires, which automatically summon the firefighters.

“Serving aging-out youth can be challenging,” said Ruth London, chief operating officer of Robins’ Nest, Inc., a nonprofit developer and service provider that helps more than 4,500 children and young adults a year in New Jersey’s foster care system. “It can also be tremendously rewarding.”

From coast to coast, dozens of new communities like Life Link are being built to provide supportive housing to kids aging out of foster care, usually when they turn 18. A few years ago, these communities were rare, but now several states have put funds behind the developments. At the same time, the oldest projects have been operating long enough to show developers planning new ones how it’s done and what to watch out for.

Most of these projects will provide permanent housing along with supportive services. In permanent housing, the tenant signs a lease and has all the rights given to other tenants, including the right to stay in the apartment and renew the lease in most situations, provided he or she can pay the rent. From a renter’s perspective, it’s a step up from transitional housing, in which residents don’t sign a lease and can be thrown out at the landlord’s discretion for reasons including refusing to take a drug test or attend group therapy.

New York state plans to finance 400 new units of permanent supportive housing for youths under its New York/New York III agreement. A hundred of those have already started construction. In New Jersey, 160 units are in development, and officials are planning to build at least 40 more each year for eight years. In California, a state mandate has sparked eight projects in Los Angeles County alone. New developments are also under way in Minnesota and Connecticut.

“New ones are popping up all the time,” said Ruth Teague, an associate director at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH).

This March, 28 foster-kid apartments were slated to open at the David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens in New York City. Developer The Jonathan Rose Cos., LLC, built the apartments to be similar to its other New York projects. In fact, at 500 square feet, the studios are actually a little large for New York. They are certainly larger than the dormitory-style apartments with shared kitchens that are common in transitional housing properties.

The only clues that the 85-unit building will soon house a different population than any of Rose’s other affordable housing properties are the community spaces, which include 2,500 square feet of classroom space for job training and will be open to all of the building’s residents.

The seven-story mid-rise also includes a 300-square-foot office for a case manager hired by Rose’s development partner, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement. The nonprofit has been providing social services to the neighborhood since 1986.

Essential services
It’s easy to underestimate the level of services and support young people need as they leave the foster care system. They can seem relatively healthy, especially to supportive housing developers and caseworkers used to confronting chronically homeless adults damaged by years of addiction or psychosis or both.

However, most children only enter the foster care system after they experience parental neglect, abandonment, or in many cases physical or sexual abuse. Former foster children suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder at nearly double the rate of Iraq war veterans, according to a report by Casey Family Programs, a research foundation. Depression and anxiety can also be debilitating problems, especially to kids starting out on their own.

“They have more mental health issues than we anticipated,” said Diane Louard- Michel, director of CSH’s New York program. To help takes a great deal of care and sensitivity. For example, a job counselor advised by Louard-Michel recently set up job interviews for five young residents for well-paying jobs with UPS that included health benefits. Four of the five missed their appointments. So for the next set of five interviews, the counselor went to the building early to help the job applicants prepare. One young man had to be painstakingly coaxed from his room because he didn’t want to admit that he didn’t know how to tie a tie. Four of the five got the jobs.
But it’s not always as easy as tying their ties and shepherding kids to job interviews. Housing former foster kids, in many cases, requires hiring someone who can act as a surrogate parental figure. Another of the properties Louard- Michel advises recently hired a case manager to work at the site full-time, in part to keep the residents from treating the building like a playground. “Kids were running amok,” she said.

Robins’ Nest also increased its staff by hiring four retired police officers as night watchmen after young people who didn’t live at Life Link began loitering in the property’s common areas late at night. “Many of these kids are much, much younger than their actual age in terms of their maturity,” said Louard-Michel.

However, the residents are old enough to make life-changing decisions for themselves. In January, one resident went into labor at the grand opening of Camden DREAMS, a 13-unit youth supportivehousing community in Camden, N.J. Another had already given birth while waiting for the property to open.

To help steer kids toward lives as productive citizens, Life Link has rules that restrict drinking and ban overnight guests. Residents agree to spend at least 35 hours a week either as students or working in jobs. It’s also important to have strong, charismatic staff to make kids want to live up to rules that would otherwise be hard to enforce. In states like New Jersey, it is very difficult to evict a tenant who has signed a lease at a permanent housing project for any issue other than non-payment of rent.

However, the work is well worth the challenges, said London. All 30 of her current residents are employed or in school. Since the first apartments opened in the fall of 2006, three residents have already moved out to buy or rent their own housing at market rates.

That’s much better than the alternative: Between 25 percent and 40 percent of the young people who leave foster care become homeless within a year, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Most kinship care providers in California are single grandmothers

Making new families for foster children
Biddle, Carol. San Jose Mercury News, April 4, 2008.

As president and chief executive of Kinship Center, a non-profit organization serving more than 1,600 of California's most vulnerable children and their families each year, I watch firsthand the vital role played by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives who raise children in the foster care system.

So do California's children. One 10-year-old girl told us, "Living with my grandparents is like living with real parents that don't do bad things. They are like my real parents, to me. It is good living here."

The vast majority of California's relative caregivers are single grandmothers, and research indicates they are doing a heroic job of keeping children in permanent, loving family settings. Children placed with relatives are less likely to change schools and are more likely to remain with their brothers and sisters and in the same communities.

Although foster care was intended as a short-term safety net for children in crisis, almost half of California's foster children have been in the system for more than two years, and 25 percent of these children have spent five years or more living in foster care. For many of these children, a supported legal guardianship with a relative or another caring adult can be a way out of foster care and into a safe, permanent family.

Most of these devoted caregivers never anticipated rearing a second generation. Many are retired and living on fixed incomes. They have difficulty navigating the bureaucracy of the foster care system, and accessing the supports and services they need for the children in their care. For this reason, children may stay longer in foster care status when placed with relatives, because the change to guardianship currently offers less support overall.

California has been a national leader in recognizing this need by establishing the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Payment (Kin-GAP) Program. Kin-GAP provides cash assistance, medical coverage and independent living services for eligible children. Simply put, Kin-GAP can help relatives provide the things that the children in their care need - school supplies, doctor's visits, new clothes and shoes. Under the Kin-GAP program, relative caregivers become the children's legal guardians, and their cases are dismissed by the Juvenile Court.

But states cannot solve this problem alone. There is a shared federal, state, county and community responsibility to do our best to offer the support relative caregivers need to overcome prior trauma in the child's life, to help them grow healthy and have an opportunity to succeed.

Both adoption and guardianship are federally recommended ways out of foster care when reunification with parents is not possible. However, federal funding can only be used to support some adoptions. The federal government is in a position to close gaps in policy that will erase the current funding inequality that exists for some children. By doing so, low- and fixed-income relatives will have support and services through guardianship similar to those available to non-relative adopters.

I recently spoke before a briefing of the California congressional staff to make the case for federal foster care financing reform. The bipartisan Kinship Caregivers Support Act recently introduced in Congress would provide federal assistance to relatives who create permanent families through legal guardianship and help children leave foster care. The bill would also establish the Kinship Navigator Program, to help relative caregivers learn more about and access existing programs and services.

It will take all of us working together to keep children safe and in nurturing families. We need to support legislation to reform the way the federal government finances foster care, and we need to act now to help the loving relatives who are giving kids in foster care the safe, nurturing families they so badly need.

CAROL BIDDLE is president and CEO of California's Kinship Center.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Next Steps and the HerShe Group Foundation

Answering an age-old question
Alemoru, Olu. Los Angeles Wave Newspaper, April 3, 2008.

Caption: Mentors in the Next Steps program help students with a game that teaches them the value of higher education.

With an estimated 20,000 foster children leaving "the system" annually, private charities play an increased role in preparing them for life after 18.

INGLEWOOD - He may have a bright future one day in science but as a child in the U.S. foster care system he will have faced more challenges than most to get there.

His speech peppered with respectful "yes sirs" and "no sirs," Peter (not his real name), is a 16-year-old student who has lived with his Inglewood foster family since he was 4 years old.

Helping him to reach his goals is a local charity called Next Steps, dedicated to equipping foster youth with job and life skills to help them succeed.

Official figures paint a bleak picture for some 20,000 U.S. foster children who leave or �age out� of the system annually. From the age of 18, there is no mandated support for them at the local or federal level.

Although Peter is not comfortable discussing how he came to be in foster care, he does reveal that he has 14 biological brothers and sisters who are spread out all around the country.

For now he says he is glad to be in a loving family with his two 20- and 30-something older brothers and knows that Next Steps definitely has his back.

"I like the program because it encourages us not to feel like we're alone," he said. "The mentors help lift up our spirits so that we can overcome challenges and teach us to make good decisions. I plan to study astronomy and religion."

Founded in 2005 by Pastor Michael Martin, of the Learning to Live Fellowship, the program caters to youth between the ages of 14 and 18 and targets five main skill sets: computer literacy, writing proficiency, financial planning and understanding, social interaction and life skills.

Martin revealed that the program arose out of original efforts to help AIDS orphans on the African continent.

"We could not ignore the biblical mandate to help widows and orphans in distress and the more we researched it we saw how foster kids in our community fit that description," said Martin. "The Bible also taught us to start at home and work our way out."

Studies show that nationwide, half a million children are currently in foster care.

According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, seven out of 10 foster youth will be homeless within one year of emancipation. Another six out of 10 will be incarcerated within one year of emancipation.

Only one out of 10 foster youth go to college and of those only one out of 100 will graduate. Another dismaying statistic is that one out of two girls in foster care have been physically and/or sexually abused.

"Inglewood, as many other areas, has a great need for these kinds of services," said Next Steps Director April Warfield. "Over the last two years we have helped 20 kids in the program, but the value goes beyond teaching basic computer skills. The youth get to feel they are a part of the community."

Meanwhile, over in Century City, another organization, The HerShe Group Foundation, seeks to specifically help girls who find themselves in the foster care system.

Established in 2005 by television producer Kenadie Cobbin Richardson, HerShe empowers young women in foster care to make a successful transition into adulthood.

The foundation has developed innovative programs such as Camp Cinderella, an annual summer personal development camp that ends with a society ball.

"The number of youth in the Los Angeles County foster care system has come down dramatically from 88,000 four years ago to nearly 19,000 today," said Richardson. "However, much more still needs to be done. Many of the girls end up pregnant and go from foster care straight into the welfare system."

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AB2117 requires greater oversight regarding psychotropic drugging of foster children

Committee Clears Evans Bill to Protect Foster Youth
California Political Desk, April 03, 2008.

(SACRAMENTO, CA) The Assembly Human Services Committee has passed a bill authored by Assemblymember Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) that will require the state to establish additional safeguards in the court approval process for prescribing psychotropic drugs to foster youth.

Assembly Bill (AB) 2117 passed with a 7-0 vote and awaits further review in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

"Children in state care have a lot of unmet mental health needs," said Evans. "I have heard horror stories about foster youth routinely being given meds without counseling. This reckless track record must stop."

Sponsored by the Children´s Law Center of Los Angeles, AB 2117:

- Requires health professionals requesting court authorization to administer psychotropic medications to a foster child to conduct an examination of the child and to document the child's medical history;

- Requires juvenile court judges before authorizing the administration of meds to make findings that (1) a child and his/her 's caregiver has been informed in an age and developmentally appropriate manner, about the recommended medications, anticipated benefits, possible side effects and any other recommended treatment, and (2) that the child has been informed of his or her right to request a hearing on the issue;

- Requires that the child be present in court for a hearing on the request to administer psychotropic medications, unless the child waives the right after consulting with counsel.

- Requires the court to ensure that a child who receives psychotropic medications also receives concurrent therapy, behavioral intervention or other recommended treatment, and that the effects of the medication are monitored.

- Requires the child welfare agency to report in all subsequent reports to the juvenile court on the effectiveness, any side effects and the child's statements about the medication, as well as recommendations by the health provider and the child's progress in treatment and therapy.

"Youth are being prescribed multiple medications at the same time, and having their medications changed frequently and abruptly each time they are moved to a new placement or new mental health care provider," added Evans. "We have little to show that this is helping kids."

In testimony provided before the Blue Ribbon Commission on Foster Care (June 2006) and the Select Committee on Foster Care (September 2006), some youth reported being put on medications when they were as young as 4 or 5 years old and remained on various medications for their entire childhoods. Youth reported experiencing serious side effects – drowsiness, weight gain, insomnia, drooling, facial tics, etc. – and receiving little or no monitoring of the effectiveness of their medications, nor efforts to mitigate side effects. Other foster youth on medication indicated that they did not receive effective therapy and/or behavioral interventions that could have reduced or eliminated the need for medication. Youth also complained that they were not given information about the purpose or potential side effects of their medications, and had no opportunity to participate in decisions regarding their medication and other mental health treatment.

Further information about AB 2117 is available online at

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Emancipation Village sounds cool...

Faces of Foster Care
Foster children are center of focus in photo exhibit
Molloy, Alex. March 7, 2008.

OAKLAND - GONE ARE the stoic mug shots of the past, where an orphaned child stared vacantly at the lens.

The Bay Area Heart Gallery is taking a different approach in recruiting adoptive parents by using professional photographers to show that a child is more than his foster care file.

"This is one of many recruitment efforts raising consciousness within the community," said Fredi Juni, management director of Alameda County Social Services and co-founder of The Bay Area Heart Gallery. "A lot of families who never knew, never considered adoption, are considering it (after seeing the photos)."

The gallery, an annual exhibit, is a partnership between four private and public adoption agencies and 30 professional photographers in Alameda, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. This year, it features 54 photographs of children eligible for adoption,as well as the families that already have been successfully matched with youths. Each photograph, taken by a professional volunteer, is displayed alongside the youth's story to promote awareness and involvement in the foster care system.

The photographs are on display locally through the end of the month at county government offices in Oakland and Hayward.

The gallery is modeled after similar galleries nationwide, but focuses on the involvement of diverse family types, adoption and the creation of permanent connections with older youth instead of only younger children.

Robin Fryday, the event's photography chair and co-founder of The Bay Area Heart Gallery Photography chair, said seven of about 45 youth featured in The Bay Area Heart Gallery exhibition last year were adopted. But finding the right family for a child is only the beginning in a long process.

Steep steps of foster care
There are 10,000 children in foster care in the Bay Area, nearly 50 percent of them over age 10. For older youths, there are fewer options and the alternatives are bleak. This is the reason The Bay Area Heart Gallery is trying to spread awareness about the adoption alternatives for children 11 to 18 years old.

"We want to emphasize the older youth," Juni said. "Your average person thinks of a baby (when thinking of adopting). We are putting an effort out for older children."

Once a child reaches 12, Juni said, they have to consent to being adopted and surprisingly, many older youths have no interest in adoption.

"Some older children and teenagers still have ties to their birth family or just don't understand adoption," she said.

But once they reach 18 or graduate from high school, there is no stable foundation for many foster youths. Alameda County Social Services is using the Heart Gallery to facilitate another option for them.

"A permanent connection is for an older child that may be aging out of the system," Fryday said. "A youth may be 18 years old, but doesn't have someone to share the holidays with."

"We want to match them with adults who may want to be there for a child, but are not looking to adopt and are looking for another option," Juni said.

Without a permanent connection or someone to fall back on, the 4,000 foster children in the Bay Area who "age out" of the system annually face a grim future.

More than 60 percent are not able to support themselves, and one in four have experienced homelessness. Only half have earned a high school diploma. Many struggle with emotional and physical problems that increase the likelihood for situations such as being homeless, alcohol and drug abuse, and incarceration.

Reuniting with Isaiah
Shoshana and Nann Phoenixx-Dawn of Oakland were reunited with 4-year-old Isaiah nine months ago. The couple had wanted to adopt the boy since they saw his photograph in The Bay Area Heart Gallery last year but were told that he was going to be placed with someone else.

But after the first couple could not complete the process, Isaiah returned to the foster care system.

"For the next year, when we were waiting for him, he went through two other placements of temporary foster homes," Nann Phoenixx-Dawn said.

Although Isaiah had places to go to, rotating foster homes can have lasting effects on a child.

"By the time he was 31/2, he had been in three different homes and had done a fair amount of regressing," Nann Phoenixx-Dawn said. "He was born three months premature, substance exposed, and he had a brain leak in the hospital. So with his file, there was a big question mark."

Today, Isaiah shows that a 4-year-old can overcome a rough start.

"When we first got him, he couldn't play in the park with other children, he couldn't climb up on a chair. He was definitely regressed," Shoshana Phoenixx-Dawn said. "Now we have developed a lot of routines. He is pretty close to not qualifying (for special education classes)."

"He has already surpassed, in the nine months he has been with us, the expectations (specialists) had for him for the rest of his life," she continued. "This is a young man that is working as hard as he can to be a part of his new family."

The couple is still waiting to officially adopt Isaiah as well as their other son, a

3-year-old who they found through Alameda County Social Services and have cared for since infancy. Because all facets of reunification with a child's birth family must be attempted before adoption is approved, their other son is still going through the adoption process.

"We all know how crazy the system is, once we're in, but none of us regret doing what we have done," Nann Phoenixx-Dawn said. "We have our stories of heartbreak, we have our stories when the system was really screwed up, but remember you are working with a bureaucracy."

Looking to the future
While there is not stability for many youths, there is progress.

Five years ago there were 5,000 children in the foster care system in Alameda County.

"Today, there are 2,252, with the bulk of the children between the ages of 11 and 18," said Carol Collins, executive director of Alameda County Social Services.

More than 300 youths age out of the county's foster care system each year, and there is little to no foundation for a youth to fall back on.

One recent effort is Emancipation Village — a college-like campus for teenagers 16 to 18 who are aging out of the system, and young adults 18 to 24 who have nowhere to go.

Emancipation Village, which plans to break ground in 2010 on what was formerly an orphanage in East Oakland, shows there are steps being made in the right direction. Once complete, it will include five two-bedroom apartments for 16- to 18-year-olds in foster care and 30 studio apartments for youths who have recently aged out.

Emancipation Village also will provide an array of services, including health care, employment and education resources to help prepare youth for the next step.

"You need this so young people can plan their lives independent of the system. To emphasize transition into more permanent housing," Collins said,

Emancipation Village is being built through a $1.6 million grant from the city of Oakland Housing Department.

The Bay Area Heart Gallery seeks to increase adoption of older youths before they need a program like Emancipation Village.

But for now, the group transforms these youths from a statistic to a face.

"It was Isaiah's photo that told us there was someone else there," Shoshana Phoenixx-Dawn said. "His photo told a bigger story than his file."

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Children Have A Right to Attend Court Hearings

Santa Clara County foster-care court struggles to adjust to kids' larger role
de Sá, Karen. Mercury News, April 5, 2008.

After years of being largely left out of proceedings that decide their fates, more children are now joining the flurry of parents, attorneys and social workers churning each weekday through the Santa Clara County Juvenile Dependency Court.

A February memo to social workers titled "Children Have a Right to Attend Court Hearings" - coupled with new efforts by children's lawyers - jogged the local system that decides whether to remove children from their homes following allegations of child abuse and neglect.

The change began within days of a Mercury News series highlighting systemic flaws in California's dependency courts. But the results - while pleasing many participants - are roiling San Jose's ill-equipped garment-factory-turned-dependency-courthouse.

The influx of child clients has fed an already tense and chaotic scene outside the three bustling dependency courtrooms handling 13,000 hearings a year for more than 2,500 children.

On a recent weekday at the Terraine Street facility, a toddler threw his sippy cup across a crowded bank of plastic chairs in a court waiting room. A shell-shocked teenager stared dully around her, and a small girl leaned against her caregiver, practicing her reading on a SpongeBob SquarePants coloring book.

"I am really happy to see kids in court. It's important that they are there because it's their lives we are deciding," said Supervising Judge Katherine Lucero. "I just want to be responsive and make a way for this trend to be continued. We're concerned that the court experience for children is not as easily facilitated as it might be if we had better accommodations."

Memo's result
Although there are no hard numbers available, dependency judges and lawyers confirmed they've seen an increased number of children at hearings in the last two months, following a Feb. 6 Department of Family and Children's Services memo. Officials say children were offered the opportunity to go to court even before the memo, but acknowledge there were "inconsistencies" in practice among social workers.

"Under no circumstances should a social worker tell a child they cannot or should not come to court," states the memo. ". . . if a child asks to come to court, then the child's request must be honored. One of the major complaints from former dependent children who emancipated from foster care is that they never knew they could come to court and talk to the judge."

Among lawyers for children, there also have been changes as a result of the memo and the newspaper series, said Nick Muyo, spokesman for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office. In an unusual arrangement, Santa Clara County uses prosecutors to represent children in dependency court; those lawyers receive information from investigators who interview child clients.

"One thing we are doing now is we're making it a point when the investigators meet with the kids to ask them whether they want to go to court," Muyo said. "And if they do want to go to court and for whatever reason cannot make it, we make it a point to continue the case."

Deputy County Counsel Michael Clark, who helps direct the legal office representing social workers, said judges too have played a role, by requesting that teenagers with "high-risk behaviors" come to court to discuss their cases.

Kids' crucial role
Children's active participation in dependency court is seen by experts as vital to good decision-making. It allows them to weigh in on their futures and gives an overloaded court system the opportunity to connect a face with a file.

State lawmakers are now considering the issue as well, with a new bill, AB 3051, sailing through a key Assembly committee this week on a vote of 10-0. The bill, by Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, the chairman of the Assembly's Judiciary Committee, requires willing children to be active participants in court, and emboldens judges to push lawyers for explanations when child clients do not appear.

But courts statewide, as in San Jose, may struggle to make the adjustment.

The dependency court boasts a small children's waiting room, with toddlers' toys and Disney movies. But the space does not serve older children braving the often hours-long wait for court. The congested main waiting room places foster children alongside parents and relatives - even relatives the court may be seeking to separate from the children.

"I'm a big proponent of kids coming to court and being able to participate, but we don't have a place for them to wait," said Jennifer Kelleher, directing attorney for the non-profit Legal Advocates for Children and Youth. "We need to make sure they are physically and emotionally safe when they're going to attend a hearing. We need to make sure that court is a positive experience."

Dan Weidman, a longtime social worker and union officer, said the tedious wait for court - in a building with little to occupy them - turns children off to the whole experience.

"The kid gets frustrated and then the next time you're going to want to bring them to court they're going to put up real resistance," Weidman said

The Santa Clara County court is now searching for a new building, and looking for ways to set dependency hearings at specific times to cut down on the wait.

"We need to conform ourselves to this trend and accommodate children in court and not in any way give a message that they have created a problem for us to solve," Lucero said. "We need to make it as child-friendly as possible."

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Four times as likely to receive public assistance

Girls leaving foster care more likely to go on welfare
Agoura Hills Acorn, April 3, 2008.

According to the United Women's Leadership Council, women in the U.S. continue to make leaps and bounds both as professionals and as students.

By 2010, American women will account for $13 trillion of the country's private wealth.

Since 2002, women account for more than half of undergraduates in colleges and universities and make up 49 percent of law school and 50 percent of medical school students.

For girls in the foster youth programs across the U.S., however, the statistics are far more grim.

Of the 85 young women age 16 to 19 in Ventura County's foster care system, 16 are parents or pregnant. An estimated 25 to 30 will age out of the system this year. Once they leave the foster care system, they're four times more likely than the general public to receive public assistance.