Saturday, August 16, 2008

Listening to Foster Kids

Yesterday, I attended an incredibly eye-opening forum.

Its aim was to help shape future legislative efforts to improve opportunities for kids who "age out" of the foster care system. As I explained in an earlier blog, these are the young people who reach majority age (18) as foster kids, because the system was unable to find them a permanent adoptive home. Like all other kids, they face many challenges as they enter adulthood, but they must do so without the benefit of having grown up in a stable, supportive, loving family. And they don't have that family to lean on after 18, either.

Sadly, facing these hurdles, many fall through the cracks. Nationally, 56 percent become unemployed; 27 percent of males end up in jail; and 25 percent end up homeless.

I went to the forum because I want to be sure we are doing all we can to help these kids succeed as they enter adulthood. And at the forum, good ideas to assist them--including college assistance, job training, transportation, and housing--all were discussed.

But these good ideas weren't why the forum was eye-opening. What really made an impact were the handful of foster kids who helped lead the discussion. As the discussion took place, we went beyond just discussing these ideas, to really hearing how they felt. They really laid it out there. And it was sobering:

- they have been bounced around from foster home to foster home, and from case worker to case worker, and as they are, they trust adults less and less, and work less and less hard to build that trust

- one child had not seen a guardian ad litem in years; another had repeatedly not received the bus tokens she needs to get to her job and school

- one child explained that while she works hard to find jobs, her next move to a new foster home can come so suddenly, she will then have to quit that job almost right away

- some said they have experienced foster parents who seemed more concerned in collecting checks than caring for them, and perceived that too few of the dollars are spent on their needs (clothes, food, etc.); one young woman said she did not have shoes for the start of school in a few weeks

- and they expressed one basic desire: to be treated, to be perceived, and to live, as "normal" kids do. To see their siblings, as other kids do. To learn how to drive, as other kids do. To return from college on a holiday and have loved ones to spend time with, as other kids do. And to have real opportunity, in the short and long run, that others kids do.

I am confident that the young people who were in this room will not be the ones who fall through the cracks. They were bright. They were confident. They were direct, but civil.

But if we listen to and act on their input, as we must, perhaps we can create a better system that will help all their peers succeed as well.


The Dean of Cincinnati said...

Your post makes me wonder if there is a systematized way of helping these kids pursue college scholarships, financial aid, or job training programs...

David Pepper said...

Good question, and I think the answer must be yes. We have to create such a system.

The good news is work has begun. Indeed, that was the point of the forum. It was hosted by an organization that is working to push statewide legislation on exactly those issues.

Second, our County's Department of Jobs and Family Services is working to do just that at the county level. The director and I both think this is a priority. And she has already begun discussing how to incorporate such an approach with the broader Strive initiative.

I'll keep you posted as we make progress on this important front of helping and investing in our most vulnerable young people.

The Dean of Cincinnati said...

The key will be not subjecting these kids to any level of red tape. For many seniors who live with natural parents, the simple act of filling out applications can cause stress.

Add things like scholarship applications, FAFSA, and all the papers, forms, letters, transcripts, that stuff requires, and lots of kids fold.

I don't know too much about Strive, but the key, I imagine, for succeeding with such a high-risk profile will be ease-of-use and inherent expectations. Perhaps Strive can have a liaison type office at Cincinnati State, or something.

Also, I wonder if it would be possible for linking payments to foster parents with senior aged kids with producing documentation -- you know, to force the foster parents into helping the kids get it done. Or, conversely, if it can be incentivized.

Anne said...

There are many (if somewhat belated) good "aging out" programs in the world, thanks to foster children/foster young adults who speak out and the adults who listen to them.

These stories are very moving. To everyone who thinks they got where they are "on their own" without assistance, look around you. 99.9% of people who succeed in life do so because they have -- at the very least -- a strong support system.

Think to yourself where you would be today if you had to strike out on your own at age 18 with no "wind beneath your wings," no safety net, no roof over your head or job under your feet.

I am happy to see this issue getting some attention in this area.

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