“Well, it’s emanicpation season…”

A current member of our Foster Youth Internship program forwarded the article, “For Foster Care Teens, Graduation is No Celebration,” and thought that it highlighted the barriers that face foster youth aging out of the system.  Intrigued, I opened the article and was struck by the following:

It seemed like wherever I turned last week, emancipation was on someone’s lips.

I called Maya Durrett, program director at the San Francisco CASA Program, just to find out what her shop is up to lately. CASAs (court-appointed special advocates) mentor foster children and advocate for them in court.

“Well, it’s emancipation season,” she said.

The article goes on to discuss the many issues that transitioning foster youth face, such as “accessing employment opportunities, mental health services, school, substance abuse treatment and medical care.” Access to services that are already available. How many times do we as practitioners have to hear this before action is taken?  According to the “Midwest Evaluation on the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth,” when asked about receipt of services across six domains (Education, vocational training or employment, budgeting and financial management, health education, housing, and youth development) about one third or less of the youth reported having received the services.  A major reason for this is that youth are either unaware such services exist or misinterpret their eligibility to receive them. 

A particularly creative approach to fixing this very issue was presented in the report “Putting the ‘Foster’ Back Into Foster Care: Recommendations for Improving Foster Care and Adoption.”  In this recommendation, the 2008 Class of Foster Youth Interns thought “creating a federally supported, centralized website that contains all materials and information relevant to the needs of foster youth who are aging out of the system” would alleviate the information gap that currently exists between the youth in care and the services available to them.  The interns modeled this website after the www.AdoptUSkids.org website, which is administered by the Administration of Children and Families Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services, and provides information to perspective adoptive parents about the children waiting to be adopted from foster care around the county.  FosterUSKids.org could provide detailed information regarding relevant Federal and State programs, child welfare advocacy agencies, as well as a host of non-profit and community organizations dedicated to serving foster youth.

Maybe once FosterUSKids.org is created, we will stop viewing “emancipation season” as a time of disconnection and despair, rather as a time of continued connection to a lifelong support network.

-Chelsea Cathcart, CCAI’s Director of Programs

2010 FYI Recognized by the St. Petersburg Times

The St. Petersburg Times recognized Nicole Marchman, one of CCAI’s 2010 Foster Youth Interns, for her involvement with their local nonprofit agency, Ready for Life. Nicole holds a youth council position for this non-profit, community organization that prepares foster youth for adulthood. CCAI is extremely thankful for Nicole and her continued commitment to using her experience in foster care to become a voice for children across the nation.

The black and white suitcase on Nicole Marchman’s bed was crammed with Beltway-worthy clothes she’d scooped up at discount prices. Marchman, 28, a recent University of South Florida honors graduate, was heading to the nation’s capital for a two-month internship. This was her life almost a dozen foster homes and 17 years since a social worker took her from her parents’ house clutching a black garbage bag stuffed with her belongings. She was 11.

Click here to read the full story at tampabay.com

CCAI’s Commitment to Rebuilding Haiti

On May 9th, 2010, almost five months after the earthquake, the AP published an article entitled “Desperate Parents Abandon Children in Haiti.”  In it, they described how poor parents, who had been struggling to provide for their children before the disaster, have been all but pushed over the edge by its effects.  It also describes how many of these parents have come to look to orphanages and IDP camps as places where they might receive the help they are most desperately in need of.  I was struck by one part in particular which read,

The United Nation’s Children’s Fund set up a toll-free hotline in February for abandoned or lost children who had been separated from their families during the quake. The call center has registered 960 children so far. ”We don’t call them orphans because they could have family,” explained Edward Carwardine, UNICEF’s spokesman in Haiti.

UNICEF gave the hot line number only to agencies and aid workers — not the public — for fear of an avalanche of calls from desperate families trying to unload their children.

To me, these four sentences say a lot about what is wrong with our current approach to serving  not only Haiti’s, but also the world’s orphans.  First, as always, we seem to spend more time talking about whether the children of desperately poor parents are orphans than we do in trying to prevent these parents from being in circumstances that at some point down the road will make them orphans.  Secondly, we incorrectly view the work that is going on in Haiti today as “disaster relief and response” when in truth the problems facing children in Haiti existed long before the earthquake and unless something is changed, will exist long after disaster relief has moved elsewhere.  Finally, we have yet to realize that instead of establishing a hotline number for the relatively small number of families who have been unwittingly separated from their children because of the quake, the U.S. government, the Haitian government, and its Donor and Non-Governmental partners, should be working to set up safety nets to support “the avalanche of calls from desperate families trying to unload their children.”

At CCAI, we believe that the international paradigm around serving orphan and vulnerable children must change.  Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on caring for children because have been orphaned we need to invest millions of dollars in practice proven strategies to prevent them from being orphans.  How to do this is simple.  We must invest more in a keeping families intact and when that proves impossible, we must invest in systems to place children into other permanent family settings through kinship care, guardianship, domestic and international adoption.

To that end, CCAI recently hosted over 50 U.S. and international experts in providing permanency to children.  We asked them to collectively consider what could be done to change the system of child welfare in Haiti from one that relied heavily on institutions and international adoption to one in which depends of the fuller continuum of child welfare services described above.  I personally took away three things from this meeting.  First, the majority of the children who are abandoned to institutions in Haiti are abandoned because of poverty.  Parents (which in many cases are single mothers) place children in orphanages or worse allow them to be used as restaveks in the hope that these new homes will give them what they cannot: food, shelter, health care and an education.   It is not enough to put in place employment, housing, health care and education programs and hope that the presence of these things will assist these families.  As we do here in the United States (  i.e. TANF, SCHIP, public education, section 8   ) we must take special effort to ensure that dedicated programs exist to provide these four things specifically to children and families.

I also learned that in our desire to help, we can be part of the problem.  Haiti already had the highest rate of NGOs per capita before the storm and some reports say that the number has doubled since the disaster.  Oftentimes, well meaning organizations are providing services without the knowledge or consent of the Haitian government or which are duplicative, counterproductive or non-coordinated with other similar N.G.Os.    This situation not only makes the Haitian government appear powerless, but most likely results in a great deal of time and money being wasted.  At least in the area of child welfare, we need to shift this paradigm away from the status quo toward one in which the Haitian government is the lead and NGOs are called upon to fill needs the government wants, but cannot provide.

Finally,  this meeting emboldened me in the belief that one of the most precious forms of assistance we can provide the Haitian people moving forward is the value of our experience.  I know that several of our Nation’s top experts in education reform have already been called upon to help in establishing Haiti’s first ever publicly funded education system.  Lessons from the transformation of urban school systems, such a New Orleans, are being used as prototypes to base this type of reform in Haiti.  For the past 50 years, some of the best minds have been dedicated to ensuring the children in America have access to safe and stable families who can provide them with all they require to grow into healthy, productive future citizens.  We should use this to help the Haitian officials learn from our success and avoid our failures.

The convening was just a first step.  And CCAI remains committed to helping the Government of Haiti in establishing a child welfare system that serves children in and through families.  Looking forward realizing that day with all of you.

The Beginning of Summer – 2010 FYI Program

On May 29th, 11 former foster youth boarded planes at different airports around the country.  Their hearts were beating fast and their minds raced as they dreamt about the 9 weeks ahead.   Many of them must have hesitated to even board the plane.  It must have taken an incredible amount of faith to spend the summer away from home, living with a person they had never met, and working in an office they could barely find on a map.  Even with all of this uncertainty, all 11 Congressional Foster Youth Interns arrived on CCAI’s doorstep and we were thrilled to welcome them to Washington.

Almost as soon as the interns arrived, we had them pack a weekend bag and head to Danville, PA for the annual retreat.  Once arriving in Danville, I think the interns understood why after all of these years, we still return to such a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania.  Danville is idyllic and although I have been there several times, I am still surprised at the town’s overabundance of smiles and waves.

FYI 2010 Interns in front of the Danville mural

This year was much like retreats in the past.  We spent time getting to know one another, discussing what mark each intern wants to make while in DC, and what fears the interns are facing as they reflect on the upcoming two months.  They arrived 100 W. Market Street in Danville as 11 different people and left as a one, united around the mission of making a difference for the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care.

After the retreat, we returned to Washington and began orientation.  CCAI does all it can to make sure that the interns are prepared for their Congressional internships.  In that vein, we planned several informative sessions like “Dress to Impress,” “Rules of the Road,” and “Safety First.”  We had guest speakers including the Congressional Research Service who conducted a two-hour training tailored specifically for our interns and their interest in foster care policy.  Additionally, we invited key Congressional staff, Administration staff, and foster care advocacy leaders for a welcome lunch to share tips on making the most of a Washington internship.

As the interns embarked on their first day of work yesterday, I cannot help but be a little envious of their time in Congress.  I know that each of them will have a unique experience in Congress and it will inevitably shape their future for the better.  I am still struck by the amount of courage it took for each of these young leaders to believe the voice on the other end of the phone guaranteeing a summer internship full of opportunity and excitement.  Lucky for us, these interns did believe us and in my short time with them, I know their determination to succeed will make this a fantastic summer.

My first week in Washington, DC

Prior to my arrival in Washington, DC last week I was nervous about leaving my support group back home, acclimating to an unfamiliar area, and as ridiculous as it may sound, making a friend. So far I can say with certainty that I’ve made ten–my fellow CCAI Foster Youth Interns. Over the past seven days, I have bonded with each fellow intern in ways that I never knew possible. While we have traveled from all over the US to work in Washington, DC for the summer, we share one thing in common: we survived the foster care system, and have come here to lend a voice to past, present, and future foster youth.

2010 FYI Class on the retreat in Danville, PA (Sarah, front row, 2nd from left)

Upon meeting the fellow interns, I realized that they were just as nervous as I was. However, it didn’t take long before we were sharing stories and planning activities together. The day after our arrival we headed to a retreat in Danville, Pennsylvania, a small town with a population of 4,000. The town was warm and welcoming, and we were more than excited to be staying in a historical home that was once part of the Underground Railroad. There we engaged in group activities that encouraged us to bond, all while learning about what to expect from our summer in DC. The retreat also gave us the opportunity to learn more about CCAI, its staff members, and supporters whose generosity and dedication made this all possible.

After a long and exciting first week as a Foster Youth Intern, we are anxious to begin interning in our various congressional offices. While we are all nervous and don’t know what to expect, we do know that we have each other to lean on.

-Sarah Pauter, 2010 Foster Youth Intern