Beyond the Foster Care System

The Future for Teens
By Betsy Krebs Paul Pitcoff

Rutgers University Press

Copyright © 2006 Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8135-3828-0


Selina rushed from her last college class of the day to arrive on time. Hurrying down the block, she noticed Gloria, a young woman standing on the sidewalk outside the imposing law school building. Gloria looked uncertainly at the main entrance doorway, unsure if she belonged there.

"You here for the graduation?" Selina asked.

Gloria didn't look surprised, but her answer seemed a bit cautious. "Think so."

"Come on, I'll go in with you," Selina said with a smile. She knew how imposing the building looked to this girl, how it represented another world, although it was not that far from where either of them had grown up. As incongruous as the situation might have appeared, a supposedly troubled teenager from foster care honored and celebrated at a famous law school, it was happening in just thirty minutes.

In the polished marble lobby, Selina asked a uniformed security guard where they should go. Together they found the correct room, which had wood paneling, glass covered bookshelves, and dark oil paintings on the walls. Gloria momentarily hesitated to enter the room, and then she broke into a cautious yet uncontrollable smile of pride. This was her graduation.

Soon two dozen teens surrounded Selina and Gloria. Most lived in temporary foster homes and group homes. They had survived the traumas of separation from their families, movement from one placement to another, and countless other painful experiences. One might expect they would be thankful to realize that they were getting too old to be in foster care, but they all knew that the day was soon approaching when they would have to leave their foster homes or group homes; they were scared. The plans for where they would live and who would help them were, at best, shaky.

Gloria and her fellow graduates had gathered to celebrate their completion of a self-advocacy seminar we offered them. The purpose of Youth Advocacy Center's Getting Beyond the System[R] Self-Advocacy Seminar is to empower teens by teaching them to advocate for themselves and prepare for independent futures. The seminar helps youth between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one understand how to critically analyze information for crucial life skills: making decisions, setting goals, developing achievable plans, negotiating with adults, presenting personal strengths, understanding the other party's needs, and giving compelling written and oral presentations. During the seminar, these teens learned from a facilitator trained in the Socratic method. They read, studied, and argued about the meaning of case studies, or stories of young adults just like them who were struggling to make it in the world. Each participant identified a career goal for himself or herself, and, as the final project, each conducted all informational interview with a successful professional in their career field of interest. Despite their tough demeanors and challenging pasts, all these teens had successfully completed this seminar with the hope of improving their chances of succeeding at independence and reaching their dreams of success.

Naturally, the teens were excited. They usually got attention for all the things that were wrong in their lives, not for their accomplishments. Completing this seminar was an important achievement. Each week of the semester, they had complained about the workload of homework assignments, reading, and the requirement that they attend all twelve classes. Some of this whining attempted to cover their fears that they would not survive the semester; some was ordinary teenage grousing. Their caseworkers and social workers also fretted that undertaking the seminar work might lead to students facing another devastating failure in their lives. Yet, the teens had assembled here for their graduation.

The teens in the audience stopped fidgeting and paid attention when Selina stood up to address them. She was their hero. Selina spent thirteen years of her life in foster care. Now, three years after leaving foster care, she was studying in a prestigious design college and pursuing her dream of becoming a graphic artist. The students had never met her in person, but they felt they knew her. They had learned about her struggle to make a future for herself through watching a video about her in one of their classes.

When Selina took part in our seminar she was quiet and thoughtful, yet insecure and unconvinced that she would succeed. Now she represented success, and her success was a compelling reinforcement for the graduates. Her experiences gave them hope that they too possessed the ability to make it beyond the foster care system.

As we sat back, we knew that our speeches could never have the effect of the authentic story told by Selina. We felt confident Selina would give a great presentation, even though we did not know what she would say. We remembered how the previous year Selina had been honored at an elegant fundraiser. The sponsoring organization had selected her for this honor because, despite the considerable challenges she faced while in foster care, she had kept her focus on her future and had successfully enrolled herself in college. At this benefit, Selina was supposed to give a speech about how our program had helped her. We eagerly waited for her to speak to the hundreds of wealthy and influential New Yorkers gathered at this dinner. When Selina stood at the podium, she began in a soft, almost tentative manner that contrasted with an underlying assertiveness that nothing would stop her from delivering the truth. The audience listened attentively. With great pride and anticipation, we were fairly sure she would refer in glowing terms to our program and all the help we had personally given her.

"The single most important moment of my life occurred with a remarkable person...." We knew the next moment would be ours, and Selina would publicly acknowledge us for the role we had played in her success. "... Al Ferugi." We looked at each other thinking, who is Al Ferugi? "He was my informational interviewer, and he took the time to explain that I had what it takes to be a graphic designer and told me how I should begin my career. If it wasn't for Al Ferugi, I wouldn't be here today, and I wouldn't be going to college."

We looked at each other again and started laughing. Part of the strength of our program is that it is not about us, but about the students-what they want to do with their futures and their connection to the world beyond foster care and welfare. With great satisfaction, we recognized that Selina had learned to use her own resources to pursue her goals.

For the final project of the seminar, each student at the graduation had gone on their own informational interviews with architects, designers, nurse practitioners, musicians, sports agents, anthropologists, teachers, law enforcement officers, pilots, or any other person practicing a career in which they were interested. And each had returned with stories about how that person offered them education and career advice, books, people to call, the genesis of a network to help them. Each student in the seminar gained more confidence and satisfaction by exercising their intellectual abilities in these interviews. Through such meetings, the teens' perspectives of themselves and their places in the world changed forever.

Why do teens in foster care need this kind of outside advice? Foster care teens interact with dozens of caseworkers, mental health professionals, foster parents, childcare staff, lawyers, judges, and miscellaneous supervisors and administrators involved with their cases while they are in the system. However, they still need outside advice because even when they do establish close and important relationships in the foster care system, they always wonder: "Am I only getting help because it's their job, not because of my talents or who I am?" Further, teens recognize that relationships with these helping professionals are temporary-despite their dedication and benevolence, more likely than not, either they or the teens will soon move on. This uncertainty makes teens unable to fully believe in or utilize the help from foster care professionals. These fears explain why Selina felt the meeting with Al Ferugi was the one that transformed her life; not only had he provided sound advice, but he was also a volunteer from outside the system.

At the graduation, Selina ended with an impassioned challenge to the graduates. "I know what you have gone through. I had some really bad times when I was in foster care. I didn't know if I would make it, and I know others thought I wouldn't. I know. It's important that you decide that nothing is going to stop you." The graduates' pride was evident, as they sat a little straighter and smiled. The graduates then stepped up to get their certificates, and their teacher told an anecdote about each student's successes in the seminar. The students held their inexpensive certificates carefully, as if they were antique scrolls on the verge of crumpling into oblivion. Some talked about how surprised they were to complete the seminar and do so well.

We glanced at the faces of the assembled friends and some family members of the graduates. A few interested professionals from the graduates' foster care agencies, some informational interviewers, and a number of Youth Advocacy Center supporters also sat behind the graduates. We saw many in the audience wiping away tears. They had expected stories of challenges and hardship, and instead they got stories of hope, and witnessed dramatic transformations in the young people and in their own conceptions. At the beginning of the ceremony, some viewed the graduates as deprived kids destined for failure. By the end, these images evaporated, and ones of ambition, courage, endurance, and charm replaced them.

Watching the students intensified our own appreciation for their resilience and broad range of talents. Selina's spirit gave us energy and called us to continue our work. She had endured forced separation from family and a number of temporary foster care placements, but she still continued to work toward contributing successfully to our society. We enormously respected her and all the students assembled that day. We were proud we had helped hundreds of teens in foster care during the previous decade, and we felt driven to help many more.

We were also frustrated that we had not yet been able to change the odds for more teens leaving foster care. The graduation event reminded us how many years we had dedicated to trying to help teens from foster care escape what seemed like a prevailing sentence of failure. We had taken on what many told us was an insurmountable challenge: we were trying to both change the foster care system and help individual teens reach their potential. Despite our efforts and those of government officials, policy makers, advocates, and caring professionals working to help kids, too many young adults were still leaving foster care unprepared for work or college and without the means to build a life above the poverty line.

The federal, state, and local governments invest considerably more than twenty billion dollars a year in child welfare programs. Because the federal government gives the most funding for foster care, all systems must adhere to basic federal mandates; the states and municipalities impose additional requirements. Yet, through this system, we are creating a continuing class of citizens that requires government maintenance. The lives damaged and financial implications associated with this ongoing process are consequences that affect all of us.

How can this be? If there were a simple answer, someone would have solved the problem decades ago. Our work in foster care spans fifteen years. During that time we have worked with hundreds of youth in foster care, professionals at all levels of service, administrators, government policy makers, and citizens connected to or interested in foster care. From this experience, we have come to believe that significant factors prevent the system from successfully preparing youth for transition to independence.

For example, the government did not design foster care systems to raise teens to adulthood; rather its intended goal is to provide temporary safety to children at risk of harm. Children in foster care are supposed to be reunited with their families or adopted by new families within a year or two. For teenagers, this scenario has been less than likely, and thus many remain indefinitely in care and move from one temporary foster home, group home, and institution to another, with little stability or preparation for the future. Although the law requires the system to prepare teens for independent living, teens have not found this preparation effective. Although most child welfare professionals acknowledge that the system cannot realistically expect eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds to survive completely alone and independent, few people have done anything to create viable systemwide alternatives.

Scant public attention has focused on the issue of teens leaving foster care without the resources to succeed. Awareness of the problems in the foster care system is usually sparked by either horrible stories of a child harmed or killed, or headlining lawsuits against the various systems of foster care for egregious cases of neglect or abuse of children while in the system. The media and the public are enraged, and the foster care bureaucracy may make some adjustments as a result of these stories or lawsuits. This story, of teens insufficiently prepared for independence, lacks the drama of tragic deaths or violent confrontations. However, the disastrous outcomes will continue to play out well into the future, affect more lives, and with longer lasting significance than the horror stories in the news.

Furthermore, the ideological debates which influence foster care have tended to focus on issues connected with kids coming into the foster care system, not how they leave the system. Children usually enter foster care because the government believes they will be unsafe or neglected if they remain with their biological parents. Tension exists between those advocating for family preservation (putting more money into prevention services to keep children out of foster care) and those advocating for better child protection (removing children promptly from dangerous situations). These goals are not mutually exclusive, but they drive two competing policy interests; scholars, government leaders, and program personnel have tended to lean one way or the other. Although this debate is important, it ignores the needs of teens aging out of foster care.

From our experience, we know that a large reservoir of people supports helping all teens become productive, successful, and independent citizens. We believe that, despite the determined advocacy work of many, the foster care system will not change until the public understands the problems and missed opportunities and requires accountability. With this goal in mind, we decided to write Beyond the Foster Care System. We hope that our insiders' view of the system helps focus more attention on redesigning foster care so as to improve opportunities for the teens who are in the system.

Why and how did we get into foster care? When we met, our backgrounds, positions in life, and interests differed enough that we could not have predicted that we would develop such a lasting collaboration focused on helping foster care teens achieve a better future.

Betsy took a position as an attorney assigned to represent children in New York City's foster care system after graduating Harvard Law School in the late 1980s. She quickly became responsible for hundreds of cases involving children and teenagers whose foster care status was being reviewed by the court. Every case was important for her. She spent long hours preparing and fact finding, until she built the strongest case for her young clients' positions. Betsy was also tireless in visiting the agencies where her clients lived and seeing first-hand their conditions before engaging in advocacy to improve those conditions.

About that same time, Paul was starting law school. For twenty years, he had served as a filmmaker and the chair of the department of communications at Adelphi University Paul had produced award-winning documentaries for nonprofit institutions about a wide array of social problems and solutions for improving the lives of people who were marginalized by the community. After two decades as a tenured professor and chair of an academic department, Paul wanted to try something else and was interested in legal issues related to communications. He decided to give up his tenured professorship and go to law school. While in law school, he took an internship in family court, where they assigned him to work with Betsy. Upon graduating, he accepted a full-time lob as a lawyer representing children.


Excerpted from Beyond the Foster Care Systemby Betsy Krebs Paul Pitcoff Copyright © 2006 by Betsy Krebs and Paul Pitcoff. Excerpted by permission.
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