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Volunteer program aims to point foster care alumni toward success

posted Mar 2, 2014, 5:03 PM by Steve Waggoner   [ updated Mar 5, 2014, 8:50 AM ]

Once you know Darryl Hinojos’ background, it’s hard to imagine that today he is studying at North Carolina Central University and playing football for the NCAA Division I school. 

It’s not that — at 6 feet 5 inches tall and 255 pounds — the Kansas man isn’t qualified to play tight end. It’s just that after he got into his teen years, he wasn’t on a path toward college, mainly because he was dealing with anger issues, home displacement and a few scuffles with the law.

But the former foster child, now 21, found a guardian angel in Raeann Rose, a social worker in the state foster care program who offered the support and advice that has helped carry him to North Carolina. 

“If it wasn’t for Raeann, I don’t know how I would have made it,” Hinojos said this week in an interview from North Carolina.

Hinojos was one of the lucky foster children in Kansas, where many age out of the system at 18. It’s easy for them to drop out of high school and fall off the map. 

But now a group has begun training volunteers to help.

CASA, the Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, whose volunteers act as advocates for children who are victims of abuse or neglect, wants to identify guardian angels for foster children and, beginning when the children are 12, help point them toward a successful life, said Lois Rice, the executive director of CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties. 

The program is called Fostering Futures, and ideally, CASA volunteers would be trained to work with the youths and identify supportive adults in their lives, Rice said. The program has received a small grant and is also getting support from Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church in Overland Park. Training for the first six volunteers began last week, with hopes for more in the future.

Before 2009, foster children didn’t age out of the Kansas system until 21, keeping in place a strong support system. But that year the Kansas Legislature cut the foster care budget to save $3 million and the age limit changed to 18. Now, a youth must petition a court to stay in the system until he or she is 21, or 23 if he or she is in college. 

(In Missouri, according to Jackson County CASA, the court decides when children leave the foster care system and usually keeps them until 21.)

Without adult anchors after 18, foster children in Kansas are at a disadvantage, statistics show. In Johnson and Wyandotte counties, the high school graduation rate for foster children is 22 percent, less than half the national rate. 

Foster children face other challenges after leaving the system. According to national statistics, 35 percent become homeless and 25 percent become incarcerated soon after leaving foster care. By age 20, 40 percent of them are parents.

At 18 years old, youths who leave foster care face a severe loss of support, Rice said. They don’t understand how to get a job, find a place to live or buy a car. They don’t know how to apply for technical school or college. 

“They may be impulsive,” Rice said. “They may on one day have the ability to think more strategically but then backslide the next day.”

Many times, the youths want to leave the system because they desperately want their independence and feel foster care carries a stigma. 

“Many of them are limited on what kinds of jobs they can get, and that is why so many end up homeless or in jail,” she said. “If we can make any inroads into those percentages, that would be helpful.”

Being a foster child does have a silver lining: Tuition to most colleges or technical schools is free, along with room and board for students who qualify. But few use it.

Karl Ploeger, a local foster parent and a CASA volunteer, said he recently had a teenager who was aging out of the system. He said the girl, who was 17 and an orphan when she came to live with his family, just wanted to be done with foster care. He tried to persuade her to take advantage of the tuition-free education but she said no and moved to Texas, where she works in retail. 

“She was very excited about turning 18 and being free of the system,” Ploeger said. “She did graduate from high school. Unfortunately, she is missing this opportunity in education.”

Ploeger said the younger that mentors can begin working with kids about their futures, the better. 

“Some of the life circumstances that have been put upon these kids, it’s amazing how resilient many of them can be,” Ploeger said. “But not every story turns out great.”

Somehow Daniel Martin’s did. He had a stepfather who constantly belittled him, telling him he would not amount to anything and would end up in jail. He was taken by the state as a runaway when he was 15. But he had people who made it clear that graduating from high school was not an option — it was mandatory. 

Out of high school, he joined the military for two years but returned to the foster program and then earned an associate degree and a bachelor’s in sociology and criminal justice.

Today, Martin, 27, is employed by the Kansas Department for Children and Families and is working on his master’s degree. He recently was recognized by Gov. Sam Brownback for his work identifying and surveying youths who have aged out of the system.

“Daniel serves as an example to other children in foster care,” Brownback said. “A little support, encouragement and care can go a long way.”

Raeann Rose, the social worker and independent living coordinator who is mentoring Darryl Hinojos, said one of the reasons foster children are not more prepared for the future is that until they are age 17 or so, the push is to get them adopted long-term instead of pushing to put them on track for further education.

Rose works with foster children 18 and older who asked to stay in the program, but her time is limited. She has 50 young adults who she tries to find support for depending on what they need any given day of the week.

With Hinojos, she was called by a school official after the 19-year-old senior got a scholarship to play football at Coffeyville Community College. While he was there, Rose stayed in contact with Hinojos by phone, email, Facebook and text messages to help him stay on track and buy such things as groceries and clothing. At one point, his GPA dipped, and Rose helped him bring it back up.

Hinojos, whose mother had to put him up for adoption when he was a child because she couldn’t afford to care for him, graduated in May and then received a full scholarship from North Carolina Central to play football and major in communications.

His next hurdle, though, was finding a place to stay in Wichita while waiting for football practice to begin. Rose got him a temporary motel room.

“Every time I was in deep in trouble and my back was to the wall, Raeann was there to get my back off the wall,” Hinojos said.

Hinojos wants to play in the NFL and says he has to succeed to help pay back all those who helped him. To stay motivated, he recites 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

“I would love to see my mom in a good, great house,” he said. “I would love my family to hold their heads up high. I would love to rise up. Rise up to the top.”


By KAREN DILLON
The Kansas City Star

The costs of doing nothing, versus the benefits of doing it right

posted Feb 28, 2014, 3:10 PM by Steve Waggoner   [ updated Feb 28, 2014, 3:11 PM by Steve Waggoner ]

Aged-out foster youth finds a place to call home

posted Feb 28, 2014, 2:50 PM by Steve Waggoner   [ updated Feb 28, 2014, 3:04 PM by Steve Waggoner ]

When teachers saw bruises on the 7-year-old’s neck they were quick to report it. The young boy spent the next 12 years in and out of foster care and occasionally at his uncle and grandmother’s homes.

Now 19, Andrew Sterling has found a place to call his own.

Having never lived on his own, he jumped at the chance to apply for a studio apartment at a new housing center for aged-out foster youth that opened in May in East Oakland. The transitional housing, known as Rising Oaks, is run through the Fred Finch Youth Center, which helps abused, neglected and abandoned children.

Sterling, who was born and raised in Oakland, said once he submitted his application, he waited anxiously to hear if he had secured a spot. Now he is settled in with a desk he purchased that will come in handy when he starts school at Merritt College in the fall.

"It’s calming because you don’t have to worry if somebody is going to open the door for you, or whether you’ll have a place to stay," said Sterling, who dealt with abuse and neglect as a result of his parents' substance abuse issues as young child. "It provides relief in a lot of ways."

Sterling plans to study administration of justice and dreams of becoming a police officer because of his experiences growing up. He is currently participating in a 12-month internship in the mayor’s office.

The idea for Rising Oaks began 10 years ago but finally came to fruition this summer. The Fred Finch center staff saw a huge need for kids that were aging out of the foster care system with little or no support system and decided to find a solution. With Rising Oaks, foster youths ages 18 to 24 will have a place to prepare for independent living.

"Most 18-year-olds are not prepared to be out on their own and it really requires some additional service and support that really starts with housing," said Tom Alexander, president and CEO of the Fred Finch Youth Center. "If you don’t have the housing all those other services are really difficult to deliver and really difficult to sustain."

The transitional housing project cost about $8 million, and it took just over a year to build. There is a wait list of 140 people for the 30 slots available for housing. The studio apartments come furnished, with a twin bed, refrigerator, kitchen table, dishes and other items.

Rent for a studio apartment at Rising Oaks is $311.50 per month. The center sets aside a portion of the rent and puts the money in a savings account for the resident to have once his or her lease is up. The maximum lease is 24 months. The goal is to provide transitional housing that will lead to permanent housing, Alexander said.

Foster youths who settle in one of the studio apartments are required to either work or attend school. Case managers will help look for opportunities to get residents enrolled in school or to find employment.

"The real benefit is that they can have that first experience of starting to transition into adulthood," said Van Hedwall, clinical manager of Rising Oaks. "This gives them a trial run of being out there in the real world."

Sterling said he has settled into the community and that he appreciates that his neighbors have been through similar circumstances. However, despite his new home, he said he worries about other foster youths who might not be so lucky. "I think stable living is a necessity for foster youth, whether over 18 or under 18," Sterling said. "There should be more Rising Oaks in other places. There should be like 30 units of apartments for foster youth on every block, because there's so many of us in need."

By Brittny Mejia Oakland Tribune

Aging Out of Foster Care

posted Feb 28, 2014, 2:46 PM by Steve Waggoner   [ updated Feb 28, 2014, 3:14 PM by Steve Waggoner ]


Children aging out of foster care and becoming homeless is a growing epidemic that people need to take the time to understand. This video is both informative and it places the viewer in the shoes of the aged out foster child that becomes homeless.Please if this video helps in anyway leave comments!

This is a REAL issue we are advocates for those that do not have a voice!

Done at the University of Louisville 2010

Her Story - Mynecia

posted Feb 28, 2014, 1:23 PM by Steve Waggoner   [ updated Feb 28, 2014, 3:05 PM by Steve Waggoner ]

When she turned 17, Mynecia Taylor had mapped out her life.

First, she would leave foster care early. It would free her to live life her way without the obstacles and rules that she felt were holding her back.

Once out of foster care, she’d return to her unpredictable mother — it would be a challenge, but she’d make it work. She’d keep going to Roosevelt High, the fourth high school she’d attended since she went into foster care four years ago. She would keep working part-time jobs to save money. She would graduate Roosevelt. She would go to college.

A year later, like an estimated 20 percent of kids who leave foster care at 18 or younger, the soon-to-be Roosevelt senior class president was homeless. The night after her 18th birthday, she slept in an apartment building stairwell.

As teens who lack permanent placements in foster care approach 17 and 18, many chafe to leave a system they did not want to be a part of in the first place. Emboldened by years of living apart from family, some think they can do better on their own. But once out, they find they have no safety net when things go wrong.

“Now I feel like, well, gosh, I should have just stayed in the system,” Mynecia said of her early departure from foster care. “I would have had more help versus no help.”

Missouri allows foster youths to remain wards of the state until they are 21, entitling them to housing and other programs. And yet, despite those benefits, 237 youths in their 18th year left Missouri foster care during the most recent fiscal year, 51 of them on their 18th birthday. Once out, there’s little chance of getting back in.

A bill filed in Jefferson City by Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, would change that. The proposal would enable former foster youths to re-enter state custody up to age 21.

“Allowing kids back in until age 21 can make all the difference for a young man or woman who makes the shortsighted decision to leave the system early,” Justus explained in a text message response to questions. “It’s no different than the parents who allow their kids to move back home for a couple of years when the kids realize that the world is a lot tougher than they anticipated. The only difference is, these kids don’t have parents. As Missouri citizens, we are their parents.”

Justus said that besides being a legislator, she is a lawyer who represents children in the foster care system and knows the risks that those who age out are less likely to continue their education and find jobs and more likely to become homeless , unemployed, imprisoned or face an unwanted pregnancy.

Child protection advocates say it would be a step toward improving a system they say fails young adults emerging from foster care.

“The state has stepped in to be the parent for children without family. To the extent we are the parents, we have to take that seriously, and we don’t do that by shutting them out at the first opportunity,” said Clark Peters, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s school of social work.

Mark Courtney, a social scientist at the University of Chicago, noted that in the last U.S. Census, about half of adults between 18 and 24 were living at home with one or both parents. Studies show young people today get about $38,000 in direct support from their parents or relatives between the ages of 18 and 30.

“Almost no one these days is expected to be independent at the age of 18,” he said.

BOUNCING AROUND

When Mynecia turned 17, she persuaded the judge in charge of her foster care placement to let her go back to her mother.

Studies estimate about 75 percent of children who opt out of foster care go back to the family they were removed from because they long to reconnect.

“They try to go back home, but the family is not ready for it,” said Susan Wagener, CEO of Covenant House Missouri. “They end up running away from home or the family kicks them out.”

In Mynecia’s case, the judge had his doubts.

“The judge warned me, ‘There’s no going back,’” Mynecia said.

But Mynecia was drawn to her mother and her younger brother. When she was in foster care, she would skip out on her foster families to see her brother at her mom’s house. Her visits were supposed to be supervised by caseworkers, but Mynecia said the visits were too infrequent.

“I could not be myself I could not see him,” she said.

She had similar feelings about her mother.

“Anyone who is in foster care feels, no matter what the mother does to them, they still find comfort and belonging in their mother’s presence,” she explained. “I’ve always made it a point to respect her.”

But her reunion with family quickly went sour after Mynecia left foster care.

Mynecia said her mother told her to leave after she was expected to contribute more money than the teenager could earn and go to school.

From there, she crashed on couches and floors of other relatives until her welcome ran out. She commuted long distances so she could stay at Roosevelt High. She even split up her belongings among different people so she didn’t run the risk of losing everything — such as her nicer clothes for job and college interviews.

But she hit a dead end the day after her 18th birthday.

An agreement to stay with her sister in exchange for daily child care broke down when Mynecia chose to return to Roosevelt for her senior year.

Despite her wits, despite her jobs, despite a 3.4 GPA, despite her work in a college readiness program, despite being elected Roosevelt’s senior class president, Mynecia spent the night in a stairwell.

“It puts a lot of things in perspective when you are homeless,” she said from a conference room in Covenant House, a St. Louis homeless shelter for teenagers on North Kingshighway that took her in.

Mynecia lives in dorm-like housing under far more restrictive rules than if she had stuck it out in foster care and waited for a subsidized transitional living apartment.

“At 17, I didn’t really, truly understand the logistics and difficulty of what I was doing,” she said. “Judging by the past, it really wasn’t a good idea relying on being with my mother and believing that everything was going to be perfect.”

NO SAFETY NET

Opting back in to state foster care could qualify Mynecia for a variety of services. They include a small clothing allowance, transitional housing and continued oversight of a Family Support Team to help her make life decisions and connect her to services such as Medicaid.

In Missouri, older youths who are in state custody on their 18th birthday qualify for Medicaid until they are 21. Mynecia lost out because she left the system at 17. And though she may still be Medicaid-eligible due to her low income, she concedes she hasn’t tried.

“These systems are not easy to navigate, and to navigate them on your own when you’re already under duress because of a lack of housing and a lack of transportation — you may be eligible for Medicaid, but being able to access it is another story,” said Mary Chant, CEO of the Missouri Coalition of Children’s agencies, which supports Justus’ bill.

Mynecia’s early departure from foster care cut her off from another prized government support: college aid.

Under Missouri law, any teen in foster care on the day before they turn 18 is eligible for a full tuition waiver at all state-supported colleges. Mynecia also lost out on federal college grants targeted to foster youths. Had she stayed in six more months, she would have qualified.

While Justus’ bill would offer a range of services to those like Mynecia, state officials estimate the legislation would cost only about $100,000 a year. The Legislature has also shown a willingness in recent years to extend services to older foster youth.

While there are about 850 former Missouri foster youths aged 18 to 20, officials predict only five will re-enter in a year. That’s because most who opt out eventually drop off the radar of the courts and their caseworkers. And they often don’t know their options. Other youths, disgruntled with the rules, want no part of the system even when they fall on hard times.

OTHER MODELS

If lawmakers approve the bill, Missouri would be one of just a handful of states nationwide to allow children a direct line back into foster care at any point until they turn 21. The state allows juveniles under 18 who left foster care early to petition the juvenile court for permission to come back. But that right ends at age 18.

There is also no guarantee a judge will grant re-entry for those under 18 since they previously begged to leave. The state does not track whether teens re-enter the system, yet those who work with foster youth say it’s very rare.

Under Justus’ bill, the juvenile or a caseworker may petition the court for re-entry up to age 21.

At least three cities —New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. — encourage teens to stay in a foster care system that includes residential and foster family options through 21, said Courtney.

In Chicago, judges have been so assertive about keeping children in foster care that about 85 percent stay until they are 19.

The practice pays for itself, Courtney said. His research suggests youths who had the option of staying in an active state custody system to 21 were twice as likely to have a year of college by the time they are 21. Young women were less likely to get pregnant before 21. And earnings by their mid-to-late 20s were significantly higher.

PULLING IT TOGETHER

Mynecia’s accomplishments in school have come despite several hurdles. At one point, she switched schools four times in less than two years, as disagreements with foster parents saw her move between eight homes and residential centers.

On a recent week, the senior class president studied for her ACT in hopes of bringing her scores up. That same week she shook off a bad cold and took two buses and MetroLink one late afternoon for her job at a store in Chesterfield Mall. And she also found time to brainstorm with Allison Mallory, her counselor at Roosevelt, about how to get her fellow seniors to pay their $200 dues so they can have graduation in a special hall, not the high school auditorium.

“You can tell she’s just so serious,” said Mallory. “She said, ‘Mrs. Mallory, here I am trying to sell candy. I’m trying to do this and that so I can earn money to go visit the college I want to see, and yet they can’t come up with $200.’”

Mycencia has already been accepted at a university in Missouri, but she is awaiting news on Xavier University of Louisiana. She hopes to visit soon.

“She knows she can’t depend on anybody but herself,” Mallory said. “So she has to do what she has to do to make it.”

Source:  BY NANCY CAMBRIA NANCY.CAMBRIA@POST-DISPATCH.COM

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