A year and a half after Los Angeles County shut a pair of emergency shelters for hard-to-place foster youth, Astrid Heppenstall Heger is still working to find ways to reach the county’s “invisble children.”
Last week, Heger’s Violence Intervention Program (VIP) opened the doors of the Leonard Hill Hope Center, a space that she hopes will help Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable foster youth – those who are at the highest risk of leaving county-run care and ending up homeless, being sexually trafficked or without access to healthcare services.
The Leonard Hill Hope Center is near VIP’s offices on the campus of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in East Los Angeles, where it offers health and mental health services to about 19,000 children each year who have suffered abuse and neglect.
Built at a cost of more than $3 million, Hope Center will offer programming to at-risk transition-age foster youth who often have bounced between several foster homes and have frequently run away from placements. According to VIP staff, this includes mental health support, educational tools, peer support groups, specialty services for LGBTQ foster teens and life skills, including learning cooking in a brand-new kitchen.
In 2014, VIP created the Children’s Welcome Center and the Youth Welcome Center, two 24-hour emergency shelters at the LAC-USC campus aimed at helping abused children and youth while they entered the foster-care system.
However, the county often struggled to place the centers’ children in foster homes, leading the state to launch a lawsuit against the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) because of chronic overstays by children. The facilities were only licensed to keep children for up to 24 hours.
The Welcome Centers were shuttered in March 2016, with the children at the shelters moved to four private facilities across the county.
Now, as the state embarks on new reforms to shelters and group homes through the Continuum of Care Reforms (CCR), Heger wants to make sure that the most vulnerable youth are able to get the support they need as they transition to adulthood.
A clinical pediatrician at USC, Heger founded VIP more than 30 years in order to improve the outcomes for youth in the county’s child welfare system. She has also overseen the county’s medical hub that provides health screenings for Los Angeles County foster youth.
She recently talked with The Chronicle of Social Change about what we can do to support high-needs youth succeed, why she was inspired to create the Hope Center and why we need to think differently about transition-age foster youth.
The Chronicle of Social Change: How did the Hope Center come about?
Astrid Heger: When the state stepped in and closed the Youth Welcome Center that was associated with our program and for kids going into foster care, what we saw was a whole group of kids literally began living out in the streets, and who literally had no place to go and no support system. The program that we started which was an intensive needs program for the kids, with Senate Bill 82, the idea being that we would put three people on every one of these high-needs kids and we would facilitate their getting into permanent placements. All of that disintegrated because the state said that DCFS was overstaying the time limits, which was true, but there has to be a better way. So this is our way of saying that we’re not going to abandon these kids.
For me, the image that you could draw on, was that when they closed the center down, you could sit outside and when the sun went down, watch these kids who are coming back out of the shadows. They were kids that basically nobody wanted to address, they were very invisible, very high needs children education without education or GEDs.
So I sat there and asked one of them with their flip-flops and clothes and trash bags, “What can I do for you?” And that was really challenging for me to think about. In talking to them, one of them said to me, “You know Dr. Heger, being poor is lonely.” And I was thinking that I’d never experienced it like they had. I’ve never had a lot of money, but I’ve never experienced poverty and loneliness like that. So the idea that dealt with hope and loss of fear and somebody that who cares about you and is not grounded in loneliness became a driving force. The building was essentially abandoned next to our advocacy center and in a deteriorating state. We decided to take advantage of building the last building probably we ever could be able to get, space wise, and just build programs that could outreach to the needs of these kids.
How do you best way to support foster youth and other transitional-age youth that come through the doors of the VIP clinic?
I think you need to have different solutions for different kids. I think some kids if you provide them with respite care for them and the family and peer counseling, therapy for the kids, and really intensive in-home services, yes, some kids are going to make it in those one-on-one foster homes
There are other kids that we need to build services for. It needs to be a home in which the goal is that child’s success. Not the longevity of the child within in the group home. But the idea of a goal of life success. That’s the ultimate thing that we are looking for … These kids aren’t invisible to us. We are going to address each individual, each one of their needs. And we’re going to let them lead us in terms of what they need in order to be successful. Successful doesn’t mean rich, it doesn’t even mean graduating. Successful means you’re living an independent life with knowledge and an element of joy, and that you’re not incarcerated or on the street.
Why is it so important to meet their needs of LGBTQ youth?
About two out of every five kids that we saw coming in there identified themselves as LGBTQ. They are one of the highest represented in the CSEC [sexually trafficked] group. They are also overrepresented in the homeless groups because no one wants to deal with them and are not comfortable with them. So we started a clinic a year ago for LGBTQ, and we now turned it into a project, called the Alexis Project, and the goal was to normalize care for them so they were not seen as outliers.\
We’ve created a medical clinic which will provide them with everything they need from general health needs, trauma, urgent care, whatever. And then, we are looking at within the center to build the counseling services, outreach services, how do we place them in housing, how do we stabilize you in foster care if that’s what you need, how do we normalize your behavior in any way that we can. The center has all of those outreach services for all those kids.
How many youth do you hope to serve with the new Hope Center?
I never thought that I should be limited by that question, what’s the capacity. The capacity will grow and become what it needs to be to serve and turn no one away.
If they walk in the door, we are going to identify where they’re living and what they need and hook them up and follow them to make sure they’re ok, give them a warm follow-up. And that’s what we plan to do. We will build the services as needed.
We have public-private partnership and we take advantage of that to make sure the services will never go away. When somebody tells me how many kids can you see, I don’t even want to look at it like that. I want to see everybody, and I’ll figure it out. If I could see only three kids a day, I wouldn’t have any impact on the system at all.