New program to provide jobs for foster-care youths in Orlando

Foster Care Kids Need Love Too

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For scores of Central Florida foster teens who turn 18 each year, aging out of the state’s custody means no place to live, no job, no drivers license and no transportation.

Although teen unemployment is at historically high levels, for foster youths the rate has been reported as high as 85 percent, and many end up homeless, in jail or on public assistance.

That’s why local nonprofit agencies are teaming with foster-care officials to get them the internships and job-mentoring programs that are typically a rite of passage for other kids.

Several employers — including Panera Bread, Westgate Resorts and Orlando Senior Health Network — already work with such teens. But Workforce Central Florida will approach others to join a new federally funded pilot project that will cover training and three months of salaries and benefits for foster youths.

“We’re looking to manufacturing, we’re looking to hospitality, we’re looking to health care, and we’re looking to where we can align the youth with the right opportunities,” said Workforce President and CEO Pamela Nabors.

Every year, about 170 kids age out of the foster-care system in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.

“These kids are in foster care because the adults in their lives have failed them,” said Joe Kilsheimer, an ApopkaCity Council member who chairs the City of Life Foundation — a nonprofit organization that pushed Workforce to address the issue. “They belong to all of us. And if they’re channeled in the right direction, they can become happy, productive, taxpaying citizens.”

As evidence, there is Nicole Rodriguez, who was placed in an Orlando foster-care group home at 14. When she aged out of care at 18, she had no job, no money and no choice but to return to the family once deemed unfit to care for her. She eventually spent time living out of a car.

But because she had learned job skills in her final year of foster care and had a mentor through City of Life, she was able to land a job at Orlando Senior Health Network, and she enrolled in Valencia. Now 22, she has been promoted, owns a car, is four classes shy of a degree — and just signed a mortgage on a home in east Orange County.

“It was a hard mountain to climb, but it’s possible,” she said. “Foster kids are the same as anyone else, and they need the same chances as anyone else.”

Sometimes, though, they need a little more guidance. Few have had summer or part-time jobs. Their lives often are filled with the instability of frequent moves and changing schools. They may never have learned how to dress for the workplace or developed decent communication skills.

The local franchise of Panera Bread discovered the obstacles after launching a foster-youth employment program three years ago with a simple group orientation, some basic instructions — and not much more.

“We went way too hard way too fast and soon fell right on our face,” said Eryn Catter, director of public relations for the franchise. “We [quickly] found ourselves with only a handful of these employees left.”

A year ago, the company revamped the program to include more one-on-one time with the foster youths to determine what each needed. Transportation turned out to be a major hurdle, and in many cases the teens couldn’t afford their work uniforms. The company started a fundraising initiative to help.

The changes are working.

“We hope to move forward and hire more [foster youths] this year,” Catter said.

Workforce plans to start slowly.

Gerard Glynn, an attorney, longtime child-welfare advocate and City of Life adviser, said the most important elements are having one stable adult in the teens’ lives and simply giving them that first chance.

“We don’t want them to continue to be dependent on government,” Glynn said. “We want to teach them to get up and show up. So we emphasize getting that first job, not getting a forever job. Once they do that, they can learn the skills to work on their forever job.”

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503. Employers interested in joining the Workforce pilot program can call 407-531-1200.

 

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Foster Care Parents Needed in Tallahassee, FL

Foster Care Kids Need Love Too

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — There is a pressing need of high-quality foster parents in the local area, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. To highlight this need, Department of Children and Families leaders  will join local faith leaders, foster and adoptive parents, local youth once in foster care and community-based partners for the “Fostering Florida’s Future” Community Call to Action.

The event will be held at Capital City Christian Church at 1 p.m. on Monday, March 25. The Community Call to Action will enlist leaders from the faith, business and non-profit communities to commit to encourage foster parenting, actively recruit foster parents and support those who step forward to be foster parents. The event will invite current and prospective foster parents, child-serving professionals, the media and Floridians to help in the recruitment of new foster parents.

Leaders who attend will be asked to sign commitment pledges, telling us what their church or organization will do to support the initiative and recruitment needs of the Tallahassee area. Local foster care licensing and adoption-related services agencies will be available to provide information about fostering and other ways to help.

The following speakers are expected to attend: Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins, Florida’s Advocate for Foster Care and Adoption Tanya Wilkins, Pastor Curtis Clark of Thomasville Road Baptist Church, foster parents, a former foster youth and a foster home recruiter. Confirmed pledges from Rev. R.B. Holmes, Bethel Missionary Baptist Church; Pastor Curtis Clark, Thomasville Road Baptist Church; Pastor Joe Davis, Truth Gatherer’s Community Church; and Becky Pengelly, Fostering Achievement Fellowship Program at TCC.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, there are currently more than 80 children in foster care in the Tallahassee area. Foster parents provide a home until these children can be adopted into a permanent home.

La. foster care system to undergo new initiative

Louisiana unveils new 'Faith in Families' initiati...

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Lasting connections for foster children is one of the new goals for Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services, Secretary Suzy Sonnier said Thursday in Alexandria.

A new initiative the department is rolling out, called “Faith in Families,” looks to safely reduce the number of children in foster care, decrease the amount of time children spend in the system and ensure that each child has a permanent connection when they leave foster care, Sonnier said.

“Children deserve strong and loving families. This initiative will bring positive and life-changing impacts to children in our foster care system,” she said.

Last year more than 7,500 children were in the foster care program in Louisiana, according to DCFS statistics. About 3,710 were discharged from foster care during the year and about 3,180 children were placed in foster care in 2012. There are currently 4,031 children in foster care across the state.

Additionally, DCFS plans to work aggressively to improve permanent connections for youth on the verge of aging out of foster care.

DCFS, Sonnier said, “will work to identify family or other community members who can provide lasting relationships for young people ensuring that no children exit the foster care system without someone to call family.”

Research shows that children who age out of foster care without a permanent connection face significant challenges including homelessness, unemployment, mental health and substance abuse issues and involvement with the criminal justice system.

“Life-long connections are key to ensuring that these children have a place to live, stay in school and make positive decisions about their lives going forward,” Sonnier said.

The initiative sets the following goals to be met by 2015:

» Safely reduce the number of children in foster care by 1,000.

» 95 percent of all children returning home will not return to foster care.

» 85 percent of children will exit foster care within 24 months of entering — either through reunification with family or adoption.

» 50 percent of those in foster care will be adopted within 24 months, exceeding the national standard of 37 percent.

» 75.2 percent of children will be reunified with their family within 12 months, achieving the national standard.

» 85 percent of all children will exit foster care in a permanent placement — adoption, reunification, guardianship.

» All children exiting foster care will do so with permanent connections.

“DCFS’ over-arching focus is to keep children safe,” Sonnier said. “We will build partnerships with a variety of organizations that can assist us in accomplishing our mission, use existing best practices and tools and drive performance to continue to improve the way we provide services.”

The new initiative follows a record year for DCFS in adoptions. Last year, DCFS saw 652 children adopted by 468 families. Today, there are 638 children who are immediately eligible for adoption.

DCFS features profiles of foster children eligible for adoption on its website, www.dcfs.louisiana.gov.

Be Inspired with Raquel: Adoption is about love, not skin color

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Love is colorblind. This also is true for adoption.

While it is important for a child to know his history, that knowledge doesn’t translate into who he is or how he should govern his life. His history doesn’t define him; the love he receives does.

By choice, I don’t have children — but if I someday decide otherwise, I’m totally open to adopting a child outside of my race. I don’t believe there is anything such as “black love” or “white love” — there is just love. The same type of love God gives to us all regardless of skin color or ancestral past.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen more parents adopting babies and children of different races. I’ve seen it in everyday working folks as well as celebrities. The issue has prompted some discussion of whether it’s right or wrong for a white couple to adopt a black child; for an Asian child to be raised by a black family … or any combination of nationalities.

For me, it isn’t a question of right or wrong, but one that pertains to the well-being of that child. We don’t know the backstory of these children. We don’t know the alternatives they are confronted with in relation to orphanages, foster case or homelessness. What’s wrong with a family of a different nationality opening their home, arms and hearts to children that need love?

I am an American who happens to be of a certain ethnicity, but before any of that I am a human being, which bridges all gaps and connects us all to a common theme: God.

I don’t believe the question should be about whether a parent can successfully raise a child of a different race. Instead, the question should be about whether the parent can successfully love a child … period. Clearly, some of society is focused on a small piece to a very big puzzle.

Growing up in a family that shares some of your social and ethnic concerns is important. I understand the point made that a white mother can relate to the trials and tribulations facing a white child better than a mother of another nationality might. I can relate to the fact that a black child can better empathize with the black experience by way of parents who look like her and have a comparative story to share.

I understand these well-intended points. But, if you look at today’s teens and young adults, many of them are unaware of their heritage and historical backgrounds. Many of them are accepting of all nationalities and they see themselves as Americans — and this phenomenon is partly due to a big shift in our culture.

Actually, I think interracial adoptions could be a good thing for the children, because they are being reared from a different perspective, leaving behind some of the self-imposed limitations some races have passed from generation to generation.

If I were a child without parents, living with uncertainty and the odds stacked against me, I’d want someone to take me into their home and love me, feed me and grant me a somewhat normal childhood. I would want someone to give me an opportunity to attend school and become something great. It wouldn’t matter if that person was Chinese, Japanese, American or Sudanese.

As I previously mentioned, knowing our history and where we come from is important, but in order to even care about our background, we’ve got to be loved. Love helps us identify with groups, communities and the world, but that love must start within and most of us are able to get that process going by way of a loving parent, no matter her genetic makeup or skin color.

Many Homeless Adults Start their Journey in Foster Care

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Foster care placement is one of the childhood risk factors, which predicts adult homelessness. A mother with a childhood history of foster care is far more likely to become homeless than one who has never entered the foster care system.

Darlesha Joyner is one such mother who comprises more than 6,500 District residents without permanent homes.

“I’m tired and frustrated,” said Joyner, 22, who entered Maryland’s foster care system at 14 years old. Her 18-month-old son rested on her hip with his legs akimbo. “My issue is not only with living in the shelter but even before. I don’t want to be here.”

Since January, Joyner, a mother of two, has lived in the old D.C. General Hospital, which was repurposed as a family shelter in Southeast. Recent reports indicate it houses 284 families with nearly 600 children, more than half of them under the age of 12.

Joyner experienced a series of losses over a short time. At four years old, her mother died. Her father followed at seven. One grandmother died when she was 10 and another at 14. Since the age of seven, she was bounced around by family members, living from house to house, until she entered foster care, the native Washingtonian said.

“My family said I was hard headed,” said Joyner who has a learning disability. At 18, she emancipated herself by leaving the foster care system, got into domestic violence situations, lived in hallways and slept outdoors.

She joined several persons who testified at Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham’s public oversight hearing on D.C. General’s services and management onsite at the shelter on Feb. 28.

“These children are wards of the city and we have special responsibility for them,” said Graham, chair of the Committee on Human Services with oversight authority over D.C. General. “In the process, we become their parents, and we should anticipate their needs when they’re emancipated.”

One woman revealed she was a foster child from 2 to 21 years old, and now lives at D.C. General.

The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), the city’s child welfare agency, reported in 2008 that more than one-third of the youth leaving the system at 21 did so with “few or none of the supports and resources … to ensure sustainable independent living.”

This vexing national problem of foster care becoming a breeding ground for future homeless adults isn’t new.

The 1994 Green Book from the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, reported that mid-1980s surveys indicated significant numbers of homeless shelter users were recently discharged from foster care. The book provides data under the committee’s jurisdiction.

Children “age out” of the system when they’re discharged from government care, between 18 and 21. As young adults, they’re forced into pseudo independence with little resources to assume adulthood.

Earlier this month, the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA), a coalition of youth-engaged organizations and residents found that 40 percent of D.C.’s homeless youth were in the foster care or juvenile justice systems.

“Young adults, under the best circumstances, don’t turn 18 or 21 years old and magically become rational, self-sufficient adults; and a history of trauma, abuse or neglect further impacts their social-emotional development,” said Maggie Riden, a DCAYA senior policy analyst at a council oversight hearing. “To achieve lasting stability, this population needs an array of supportive resources … not defined by age, but by scope of need.”

Young people in foster care leave placements due to conflicts, or they seek more familiar surroundings, Riden said.

But, to Ressurrection Graves, reasons for leaving are more ominous. She said national evidence-based studies maintained that 20 to 30 percent of children in foster care are sexually abused, which leads to early emancipation.

“Child sexual abuse has its own set of traumas, which are linked to adult homelessness,” said Graves, a child sexual abuse expert and survivor, and a homeless mother for three years. Due to her traumatic experiences Graves, who was raised in the D.C. area, will launch in August a nonprofit that offers alternative shelter solutions for those seeking transitional housing.

“The trauma of being removed from the home causes disruptions, and those build over time,” said Nicki Sanders, a Columbia, Md., social worker. “Children in foster care move on average about seven times. They have new schools, rules to follow, values, academic and social challenges. There’s instability in the life of a foster child on a consistent basis, in many cases.”

This cycle will probably continue for Joyner’s children. Her three-year-old daughter is in foster care.

“Our child and family welfare system continues to be a pipeline into homelessness and instability for hundreds of youth each year,” Riden added.

 

Troubling spike in foster children prompts budget shortfalls

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The number of children in foster care in Haywood County is on the rise, a depressing sign for Department of Social Services workers whose first goal is to keep a family together.

“Growing up in foster care or growing up in an institution is no way to grow up,” said Ira Dove, director of the county’s Department of Social Services. Dove presented his case to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners Monday, requesting additional money to pay for the increasing costs of running foster care.

 

The commissioners agreed to give DSS $342,113 to cover a budget shortfall between now and the end of the fiscal year in June brought on by increase in foster kids. The federal government will reimburse the county between 60 percent and 66 percent of that cost.

Despite efforts by the DSS to keep children in the same home as their parents, the number of children in foster care rose 53 percent during a 12 month period. There were 102 kids in foster care in October 2011, and by October last year, there were 156 kids in the program.

Part of the problem is children kept entering foster care last year quicker than they left.

“We didn’t move a lot of kids out of foster care last year,” Dove said.

The number has come back down, with 109 Haywood County children in foster care as of this week, but the spike caused DSS to burn through its budget allotment before the year was up.

Haywood County is not the only county in the state seeing such an increase. Jackson County’s foster care population doubled, and Swain saw similar increases to Haywood.

Dove said he could not name a single correlating cause of the statewide rise in foster children. It is usually a combination of factors, he said.

In most cases, the parents of foster care children have substance abuse and/or mental health problems. In more than 30 percent of cases, the child was physically and/or sexually abused. Nearly half of the time, there is a history of neglect and no stable housing.

Both Haywood County commissioners and Dove indicated that a rise in prescription drug abuse may have influenced the number of cases moving through DSS.

“It appears the foster care population grows and fades with the (popular drug of the day),” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

Some parents with drug addictions end up in prison, leaving children without a guardian. Chairman Mark Swanger postulated that the increase might be a result of concerted efforts by police to crack down on prescription drug abuse in Haywood County.

“It’s ironic the more effective law enforcement is the higher foster care costs we have,” Swanger said.

Dove assured the board that DSS tries every other option before separating a child from their family. The first strategy is having social workers visit the family regularly and work on rectifying issues affecting child safety.

If the child cannot remain with a parent, DSS searches for other family members willing to care for the child. But it can be difficult to track down relatives living outside North Carolina or, in some case, convincing them to take the child.

“Those kids have some pretty significant traumatic issues,” Dove said.

If the in home program is ineffective or willing relatives cannot be found, the child is placed in foster care.

“This is the last resort for us. It’s not where we go first,” Dove said.

Although the department goes through several steps before resorting to foster care, Dove told commissioners that he would not be happy until the program was not needed.

“As long as there is one child in foster care, we can do more. We can do better,” Dove said.

DSS is in need of volunteers willing to take in foster children. To start the process of becoming a foster family, call DSS at 828.452.6620.

Support Safe Housing for All Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

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Imagine a world where your child is forced to leave your home at age 18. You can no longer provide the love, support and roof you worked so hard for throughout your child’s life. On his or her 18th birthday, your child must instantly transition into adulthood with little more than a suitcase of their belongings. Would your child be ready?

This is the reality for too many of the nearly 10,000 children and adolescents who have been removed from their families and placed in the foster care system because of abuse or neglect.  They enter the foster care system in a time of crisis only to be kicked out at age 18, unprepared for the crises to come.

It is unacceptable that in a society where approximately half of all youth live with their parents until age 24, we expect those who have experienced PTSD-inducing childhood trauma to be the ones surviving completely on their own at age 18 – with no family to fall back on when things get rough. And what happens to these youth? Study after study demonstrates that they end up homeless. In its most recent annual survey, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimated that one of every eleven youth from foster care will experience being homeless.

The Mockingbird Society, in collaboration with community partners, foster parents and legislators, is laser focused on reversing the longstanding pattern of Washington discharging youth from foster care into homelessness.  This pattern is not unique to Washington. In fact, it is a national epidemic.  The NAEH has rightly identified stopping foster care systems from this practice as a key strategy for ending youth homelessness in America.

In 2006, Washington established the Foster Care to 21 pilot program thanks to forward-thinking legislators. This program allowed up to 150 youth to remain in foster care to age 21 to pursue their post-secondary education.  The evaluation results are consistent with national research as well as what most parents and grandparents might say: youth who had safe housing and other supports did significantly better than those who were literally on their own.  Not only did they reduce their negative behaviors such as stealing, early parenting, and reliance on public assistance, but they also increased their academic achievement, gained valuable work experience, and began the successful transition to healthy adulthood. In fact, for every Washington tax dollar invested in this service, our community received a return on investment of $1.35.  Ensuring youth have safe housing to utilize as a foundation for achievement makes both fiscal and common sense.

Thanks to the bi-partisan support of our Legislature, we have made great gains ensuring foster youth have the opportunity to remain in foster care to age 21.  Currently, youth who pursue their secondary or post-secondary education are eligible to remain in foster care to age 21.  But certain populations don’t get this support.

Now, we are asking our elected-leaders and community members alike to provide this opportunity to those youth who need it most. Current proposed legislation (Extended Foster Care HB 1302/SB 5405) would extend this support to the remaining youth who are not able, or not yet ready, for the educational track.  This includes youth who have serious medical issues including cognitive or physical disabilities, youth who have significant barriers to employment or academia, and youth who are working part time but still unable to afford full independence.

Earlier this year I testified in favor of HB 1302 with a courageous young man with a seizure disorder which would have qualified him for Extended Foster Care had this legislation been in effect when he turned 18. He modestly said that his condition made things more complicated after leaving care, and that pursuing his education or employment was not a realistic option for him at 18. Soon after his testimony he had a minor seizure, right in the hearing room. Are we really going to kick youth like him out at age 18?

Imagining a world where we cannot provide our children the support they need to be successful, independent adults is a nightmare. The moment the state decides to remove a child from their home, that child becomes our collective responsibility as a community. As parents, our care and support guides our own children safely into young adulthood. Our commitment should be no less for youth in foster care.

I call on legislators and community members alike to fulfill this responsibility and support Extended Foster Care, House Bill 1302 and Senate Bill 5405.