by Natalie Goodnow, LSA Fellow
How can we prepare youth aging out of child welfare to be happy, productive adults? Is it important to for youth to have a permanent, positive adult relationship as they age out of the foster care system? How can we help them establish and maintain these relationships? These and many other questions were raised by members at the June meeting of LSA’s second learning cohort with the Provider Exchange®.
The cohort met in New York at The Children’s Village, a nonprofit organization that works with children and families, to discuss improving permanency outcomes – both formal and informal – for youth aging out of the child welfare system. Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago has found when comparing these young adults to their peers, on average they are “less likely to have a high school diploma, less likely to be pursuing higher education, less likely to be earning a living wage, more likely to have experienced economic hardships, more likely to have had a child outside of wedlock, and more likely to have become involved with the criminal justice system.” When young adults age out of the system, they often disappear, lacking supports and unconnected to resources. Unfortunately many reappear on the radar through negative situations: homeless, arrested, in hospital emergency rooms.
Research has repeatedly shown the benefits of permanency for youth, whether with a permanent family (through reunification, adoption or guardianship) or through a lifelong connection to a committed, caring adult. When youth have that stability of knowing they belong to someone and someone belongs to them, they are better equipped to thrive as they enter adulthood.
Expanding the definition of permanency, agreeing on its importance, and engaging family members and community members to help achieve these goals takes a new way of thinking about traditional residential programs and intentional engagement with families and their communities. As Mike Bertrand, president and CEO of Lutheran Family Services of Illinois, a member of LSA, put it, “We are exploring different ways to strengthen families and develop life-long connections for youth.”
The cohort meeting in New York revolved around best practices, program models, and tools for the members to utilize as they expand and improve their community-based services for older youth in child welfare. Three primary areas of focus were how to find ways to successfully mentor older youth through the transition into adulthood, creatively identify adults for permanent relationships with youth, and support men in being engaged fathers.
Members had the opportunity to speak with the president and CEO of Children’s Village, Dr. Jeremy Kohomban, who has expanded a traditional residential model of care and now provides vital community based services to at-risk youth and their families in Harlem and other NYC neighborhoods. They also were introduced to some of Children’s Village’s creative approaches as they toured its facilities and heard from multiple staff who lead the family finding work, mentoring and fatherhood programs, oversee residential care, and more.
“In this active learning cohort, we are exposed to different program ideas and ways to achieve permanency for older youth. It’s an opportunity to take ideas and concepts back to the organization, think them through and explore ways to implement them in our own organizations and communities, and innovate to achieve better outcomes for our youth.” – Jerrad Rimel, Director of Operations Bethesda Children’s Home
The conversation at the New York meeting was robust and thoughtful. Participants explored why children’s fathers and paternal family were so often overlooked during the permanency process. They considered how they could change the child welfare culture in their communities to recognize that fathers are equal parents, capable, and should be considered along with mothers when looking for family to take the children.
Another question raised was how could they, as providers, remodel and integrate the programs they saw at Children’s Village for their own organizations. What would the risks and benefits be? One example of this was the mentoring programs that Children’s Village offers its youth. They credited success to having credible messengers reach out to these young men and women – people with similar backgrounds could relate to the issues and feelings they were experiencing. Sometimes, they pointed out, the best person for a job may not be the most professionally qualified one. The LSA providers began brainstorming who would be credible messengers for the kids they work with and how to incorporate them into their programs.
Overall, the goals of these ideas and models were focused on supporting and educating youth as they enter adulthood. Whether through mentorship, instructing new young parents on what their role means and how to parent, helping youth reconnect with positive people from their past, pursue adoption, or reunite with their family. As this year of learning progresses, the cohort will continue to seek the most innovative and effective ways to help these youth find a permanent, lifelong adult connection so they can lead happy, stable lives. As speaker Donald Somerville, program manager for the Bridge Builders Community Partnership Program at The Children's Village put it, “Every child needs one adult who is unconditionally committed to their success.”
The 2016 LSA member cohort organizations are:
- Bethesda Children's Home
- Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch
- Lutheran Community Services Northwest
- Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois
- Lutheran Social Services of Northern California
- Wernle Youth and Family Treatment Center
- Oesterlen Services for Youth
To learn more about LSA’s work on behalf of children, youth and families, please visit: http://lutheranservices.org/cyf