Celebrating National Foster Care Month
May is National Foster Care Month, a month set aside to acknowledge foster parents, family members, volunteers, policymakers, child welfare professionals and other members of the community who help children and youth in foster care.
Staff of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Foster Youth Strategic Initiative have been busy reflecting on the progress of the last five years of the initiative and opportunities for the future. Senior Program Officer Jeannine Balfour and I found it an opportune time to meet face-to-face with those directly impacted by the foster care system, as well as those working to ensure youth are not only safe, but have the opportunities needed to thrive after leaving foster care.
We first visited the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Child Protection Hotline (CPH). DCFS is the largest County-administered child protection agency in the nation, with over 4,000 social workers working in 19 offices across the region. CPH is a 24-hour hotline where social workers respond to over 200,000 calls a year reporting suspected child abuse, neglect and exploitation. Depending on the potential danger to the child(ren), reports may require no action, or immediate investigation by a social worker or a referral to community services. In 2016, of the 219,000 calls answered, 17,000 resulted in an immediate response from DCFS, and an additional 49,000 resulted in a response within five days.
Carlos Torres, assistant regional administrator, and Edward Fithyan, division chief of the Emergency Response Command Post led us on a tour of CPH where we were able to listen to a call that came in earlier in the morning. In the space of a 20-minute conversation, the social worker who fielded the call was simultaneously an investigator, a counselor and a case manager. As the caller shared her concerns regarding a child, the social worker conducted her initial investigation in an empathetic and methodical way, putting the caller at ease as she gathered the necessary information. At the end of the call, the case required further investigation, which ultimately resulted in an immediate referral to one of the 19 regional offices in the county, where another social worker would further investigate that same day. This was a small glimpse of the collective effort on both sides of the phone, all going into protecting one child’s life.
Later in the afternoon, we had the opportunity to ride along with a social worker working with AB-12 youth—or youth who have chosen to remain in foster care until the age of 21. AB-12 was signed into law in the state of California in 2012 with the goal of extending foster care past age 18 to improve the outcomes of foster youth transitioning out of care. The results of a Foundation-supported ongoing longitudinal study show that remaining in care significantly decreases the likelihood that a youth will experience economic hardship, homelessness, contact with the criminal justice system and reliance on public aid.
I rode along with AB-12 social worker Sandra Hernandez as she met with three youth between the ages of 17 and 20—all of whom were at different stages in their development and transition toward emancipation. While one youth shared his experience living in four different homes before finding stability in his current foster home—a stability that allowed him to utilize and benefit from substance use treatment, as well as support in completing his high school education—another youth had already obtained his high school diploma, but was having difficulties determining his next steps.
Although many adolescents struggle with identifying what to do after high school, foster youth are particularly vulnerable because of their lack of a support system. When asked, “What would have helped?” the youth responded, “More guidance… and moving around got in the way.” This same youth’s younger sibling, who also lives in the same foster home, is enrolled in college and preparing to transition from a foster home to a transitional housing program where he will live independently. As with all children, the importance of stability in a safe and secure environment cannot be emphasized enough. Older transition age youth (age 16 – 24) are not immune to this need. Hernandez shared some of the challenges in supporting older youth in foster care, including striking a balance between parental figure and case manager—providing nurturing support at a critical time in youth development, while also preparing them to successfully transition out of foster care.
We further understood the importance of providing foster youth with stable and secure homes when we recently attended a celebration of foster caregivers. The caregivers were graduating from the Foundation-supported PrepNOW! program, which trains foster parents in understanding the importance of, and developing the skills to build a college-going culture in their foster homes. We joined PrepNow! and its partners—including DCFS, the Los Angeles County Department of Education, child welfare agencies and school districts—in celebrating the caregiver’s commitment to ensuring that a college education is the “next step, and not an exception,” as one foster parent put it.
As we celebrate the resiliency of our youth, and those working to foster that resiliency to ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive, we are reminded of Conrad N. Hilton’s words in his last will and testament, “As [children] bear the burdens of our mistakes, so are they in their innocence, the repositories of our hopes for the upward progress of humanity.” Many misconceptions persist about foster youth, as well as the foster care system, which is why we are proud to partner with PBS SoCal’s To Foster Change initiative. The program aims to demystify and expand the narrative of the foster care community.
To Foster Change
Learn more about foster youth and how you can get involved.