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Learnings from Foster Youth Parents in New York City and Los Angeles

By Eric Robinson, LMFT, September 27, 2016

Every year the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Foster Youth Strategic Initiative gathers partner organizations to discuss the progress of our collective work in helping transition-age foster youth find the path to success. This year was particularly exciting as we met with partners in Los Angeles in May, and in New York City in June. In New York, our staff and board members spent two additional days visiting partner sites to get a firsthand look at their work.

Pictured from left to right: Sara Rogers of Continuum of Care Reform Bureau, California Department of Social Services; Monserrat Zarza, of California Youth Connection; Sade Daniels, Former Foster Youth and Author; Jeannine Balfour; Carroll Schroeder, of California Alliance of Child and Family Services; Karen Richardson of Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

The Los Angeles convening gathered nearly 100 attendees—including grantees, as well as philanthropic and public-sector partners— who were welcomed by an inspirational spoken word performance by former foster youth and author Sade Daniels. The performance set the stage for the first of two panel discussions around AB 403, or Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), which aims to reduce an over reliance on congregate care—such as group homes or residential facilities— in the state of California, in favor of children living in nurturing and permanent family homes.

The panel discussions gave listeners insights on state and county perspectives related to the shift toward finding permanent homes for youth. We also heard advocates perspectives on how to meet the needs of transition-age youth, as they age out of the foster care system. The audience particularly appreciated hearing from Monserrat Zarza, former foster youth and Youth Leader at California Youth Connection as she shared the impact of residential treatment on her own ability to successfully transition out of foster care. Zarza’s story was a reminder to the audience of the resilience of foster youth. However, despite that resiliency, Zaraza emphasized the importance of CCR including interpersonal connections in its definition of self-sufficiency. Facilitating connections with supportive adults while transition-age youth are under the care of the system is an important and vital component to insuring a pathway to success.

Just as CCR put the spotlight on the need for family environments in meeting the needs of transition-age youth, New York City is having similar conversations as they discuss the need to recruit, support and retain caregivers. Our New York City convening included a presentation from Gladys Carrión, Commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services—the agency which is responsible for child welfare, juvenile justice, and early care and education services— as she discussed “Home Away from Home” and “No Time to Wait,” the city’s efforts to focus on finding permanent homes and supporting caregivers in order to improve foster youth outcomes.

The morning also included a panel moderated by Jess Dannhauser of Graham Windham, where foster parents and kinship parents shared their experiences with the young people living in their homes. They spoke of the rewards of caring for transition-age youth, the needs of this population and what they believed worked in supporting them. Attendees saw first-hand the dedication, diligence, unconditional love and faith that foster parents of transition-age youth possess, as well as the importance of a strong partnership between child welfare agencies and caregivers to meet the complex needs of foster youth.

Anthony, a foster parent to two transition-age youth, shares his experiences and insights on what supports have helped his boys, as well as himself.

Over the next two days Foundation staff and board members visited partner sites to get an up-close and personal look at their work. We toured the city with Dannhauser and Jeremy Kohomban of Children’s Village acting as tour guides, providing us with a context for their work with youth. We first visited a boarding home in Queens operated by Children’s Village.

Many foster youth who become pregnant often lack maternal models and support, thus increasing the likelihood of their own children having contact with the foster care system. Children’s Village offers a setting in which traditional institutional boarding home methods are abandoned in favor of a unique and innovative model that offers an intimate setting for pregnant or parenting teens. Young mothers and their children receive support from staff members who also act as maternal models. During the visit, we heard from a young mother, Erika, who shared her experience transitioning through over ten different foster homes before arriving at this home where she found a stable and nurturing environment.

Our tour continued as we visited Children’s Aid Society’s Next Generation Center in the Bronx. The Center supports youth in education, employment and life skills development, providing young people with access to individual and group counseling, a technology lab, as well as more intensive programs such as life coaching, high school equivalency, employment training and pregnancy prevention.

Next Generation operates a café where young people can receive training in culinary arts and job placement opportunities. We heard from a young woman, Bridget, who participated in The Next Generation’s culinary arts program at a particularly difficult and vulnerable time in her life. Bridget participated in the program, which placed her in a job at a Major League Baseball stadium, where she now supervises over 150 employees—many of whom participate in the same culinary arts program offered by Next Generation.

We wrapped up our first day in Harlem at Graham Windham’s Manhattanville Center, a vibrant community hub located within a New York City Housing Development. We were welcomed by children participating in an array of programs, including SLAM (Support, Lead, Achieve, and Model) where one young man shared how his experience participating in the program was critical in preparing him for the transition from high school to college.

Our second day of visits Bill Baccaglini of New York Foundling and Sister Paulette LoMonaco of Good Shepherd Services served as tour guides, as we visited partners supporting transition-age youth in reaching pathways towards success. We began the day at City University of New York to learn about its Start and Accelerate Study in Associates Programs which engage youth transitioning out of foster care into a community college program that not only meets their academic needs, but offers the support, mentoring and encouragement that foster youth often cannot access.

Next, we were shown The Door, an organization that empowers young people to reach their potential by providing comprehensive youth development services in a diverse and caring environment. The Door’s headquarters is housed in an impressive building with six floors of programming for youth ages 12-24. Programs include an adolescent health center, a runaway and homeless youth drop-in center, counseling center, career and education department, meal program and arts programs.

We ended our visit at Good Shepherd Services where youth are supported in transitioning towards adulthood as they live independently, and are supported in developing financial skills as they attend college or work.

During our earlier Los Angeles convening CCR Bureau Chief Sara Rogers captured the essence of all of the above visits and conversations: “What we’re trying to do is imitate love, and what are the services that we’re going to provide to imitate love.” It was a reminder that the system is not some giant living in the hills, it is composed of people. It is children. It is us. Witnessing our partners’ innovation and commitment as they face the complexities of meeting the needs of vulnerable youth in cities the size of Los Angeles and New York was not just affirmation of our Foster Youth Strategic Initiative, but the Foundation’s commitment to the most vulnerable among us.

Eric Robinson, LMFT Twitter

Program Associate, Domestic Programs

Eric Robinson, LMFT Twitter

Program Associate, Domestic Programs

Related Priority

Foster Youth

Achieving healthy and productive lives for transition age youth in foster care. Learn more ›

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