Monday, March 28, 2016

FOSTER CARE - Repairing Broken Lives

"Can an innovative Pittsburgh program help repair the broken lives of foster kids?" by April Brown and Mike Fritz, PBS NewsHour 3/22/2016


PITTSBURGH — At 13, Lafayette Goode had to face a situation that, for most children, is unimaginable.  He had no place to call home.

“I got kicked out of my house,” Goode said.  “That was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with because I couldn't believe my mom was really trying to kick me out at this age.  I'm so young, where am I going to go?”

Goode was among the roughly 400,000 young people in foster care in the U.S. at any given time, according to David Sanders of the Casey Family Programs, an organization working to improve foster care across the nation.

“I think, often times, we forget that, to get into foster care, they were abused or neglected probably to a level that is quite significant,” Sanders said.

Those personal traumas, coupled with the fact that many often move from home-to-home and school-to-school, has led to grim educational outcomes for foster youth nationally.  Only about half finish high school and of that group, only 20 percent go on to college.  Fewer than one in 10 of those students actually earns a bachelor's degree.

Goode, now 19, is proud to have graduated high school on time and plans to enroll at a trade school this spring.  He credits the help of Allegheny County's Youth Support Partners, including Justin Quast for helping him reach those milestones navigate the difficult and often confusing world of foster care.

Youth Support Partners like Quast are young adults who were, themselves, involved in the child welfare system, but have since been trained to become peer-to-peer mentors and advocates for young people currently in foster care.

“He's close to my age [and] we understand each other,” said Goode.  “As soon as we met we just clicked.”

“We feel strongly [that], if you've been there, if you've walked in their shoes, you are much more effective and can relate,” said Marc Cherna, Allegheny County's Director of Human Services.

Creating Youth Support Partners for foster youth is just one of the many changes Cherna has made in his 20 years with the county in an effort to improve lives and outcomes for children in the system.  He also created Educational Liaisons, which makes sure that foster youth are not only staying in school, but succeeding by getting them tutoring or other supports when needed.  They also help with credit recovery, scholarships, university applications and take high school seniors to visit college campuses.

In addition to creating those positions, Cherna's reforms have included reducing caseloads, increasing family support to keep youth in their own homes and schools when appropriate, and collecting data to determine which programs are effective and where investments should be made.  Allegheny County's efforts to improve the lives of foster youth are considered a national model and Cherna often visits cities around the country to share what has worked in his community.

But he remains realistic, acknowledging there is much more work to be done.

“I've been doing this work for over 40 years and if there was a magic bullet we wouldn't be talking about it today,” Cherna said.  “This is very complex work.  There is no easy solution.”

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