Foster youth get a voiceNew policies focus on lasting connections
It’s not often anymore that California is regarded as a bellwether for how to make good policy for children, but that’s what’s happening with the foster care system. This week, in Oakland, representatives of eight counties presented their final reports on a six-year effort to transform foster care, known as the California Connected by 25 Initiative, or CC25I.
“In terms of planning, you’d be hard pressed to find a planning process anywhere in human services at the state level that has involved as many people over as long a period of time as this has,” said Mark Courtney, a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.
CC25I released two reports highlighting the model programs and successful strategies developed by the pilot counties to improve life for foster youth who are aging out of the system. Promising Strategies from the California Connected by 25 Initiative contains tips on developing community partnerships, collecting data, and getting current and former foster youth involved in policy discussions.
The Premise and Promise of the California Connected by 25 Initiative describes how well the strategies worked. Nearly all the counties created collaborative programs with community organizations, schools, and businesses. Santa Clara County, for example, received an award for partnering with the county’s human resources office to create a process that allows foster youth to apply for multiple job openings with a single application.
In everything from education to housing, things improved for foster youth in a relatively short time. Between the 2008-09 academic year and 2010-11, the number of
students passing the high school exit exam increased by 25%, and the percentage completing some or all of the A-G courses required for admission to UC or CSU jumped from 31% to 45%.
The six-year, $6 million effort was funded primarily by the Stuart and Walter S. Johnson foundations* to correct what they saw as a huge gap in foster care, namely creating lasting relationships. But what made the project truly unusual, and so successful so quickly, was including former and current foster youth as equal participants.
Respecting youth voices
Lyssa Trujillo was 17 when she and her younger sister and brother were placed in foster care. She and her sister were split from her brother and sent to live with an aunt and uncle they barely knew, who forbade them from having any contact with her father. Trujillo did anyway, emailing him on the sly.
She said child welfare didn’t intervene and she felt insignificant. “My voice as a young person wasn’t respected and honored because it was more about maintaining the placement so that I stayed there until I was 18,” said Trujillo.
Now 26, the soft-spoken, poised young woman has a baccalaureate degree from UC Santa Cruz and a job as a youth engagement technical assistant with CC25I, and said she feels like she’s witnessing a culture shift within child welfare, that now a team is making the decisions and all voices are heard.
“I would say there have been times of awe for me that I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘You know when you said this one thing it has resonated with me since then, and I work with youth differently, and I really think about my preparation with them,’” said Trujillo.
Kareena Blackmon’s experience in foster care went far beyond frustrating rules. During 14 years in foster care, she said she was moved nearly every year, often placed with adults who meted out harsh punishments like holding her head under water and beating her with a weight belt.
Like Trujillo, the 23-year-old Blackmon is drawing on her experiences to help reshape policy as a youth advocate for child welfare services in Solano County. But there’s still a lingering anger at state officials for permitting the abuse to continue.
“The state decided that my parents were unfit, so you became my parents,” Blackmon said she told state and county child
welfare officials at their meetings. All she wanted, she explained to them, was for someone to find her father’s relatives so she could be with family, but it never happened. “Imagine just not even having that. That’s the least you can do, I tell them.”
Through CC25I that’s changing. The current philosophy is finding a permanent place for foster youth, either with relatives or other families who will create similar bonds.
What would a good parent do?
Having basic needs met – food, shelter, clothing – is critical, but doesn’t provide the close human connections that most of us take for granted. Even after kids graduate from high school and go off to college, they have a lifeline. That’s not the case for foster youth when they turn 18 and age out of state care.
Half of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States live with one or both parents, said the University of Chicago’s Courtney. At age 24, a quarter of them are still at home. But for foster youth, until recently the policy was just the opposite. When they turned 18, they could live with anyone except their foster family.
Courtney is preparing to publish the first longitudinal study of foster youth, which had some unexpected findings. “I would say one of the things I was surprised by is how many of the young people in Illinois, when given the option to remain in state care, did,” said Courtney, “because there was a sort of narrative out there that young people hate foster care, they can’t wait to get out.”
The report, known as the Midwest Study, followed more than 700 teens in foster care in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin from age 17 to 26. Of the three states, Illinois allows foster youth to remain in the system until they’re 21.
On January 1, 2012, California foster youth will have that option when AB 12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, takes effect.
“We need to make it so if you’re the place they want to come back to, we maximize the likelihood they can do that. But at the policy level, the policy must be that they can come back,” said Courtney, thumping his hand on the table for emphasis. “That’s how to think about it – what would a good parent do? That’s how our policy and practice should be carried out.”
*Stuart and Johnson are funders of TOP-Ed