When Ta’nika first met Victoria Sweet, she had her doubts.
“I hated her because I didn’t know her,” said the 19-year-old Bronx native. She was in foster care, and most foster care professionals don’t stay involved in those young lives for long. Sweet, then a staffer at the New York City foster agency caring for Ta’Nika, Good Shepherd Services, won over the younger woman with long, candid talks. Then, Sweet made a more durable commitment with the help of a unique tool, one many foster care agencies nationwide are starting to use, called Permanency Pacts.
“[Victoria] made it possible to have a relationship with her by showing she is genuinely interested in me, and my family, too,” says Ta’nika, who declined to provide her last name. “You need to feel like someone cares about you, especially when you don’t feel like anybody cares about you.”
“Permanency,” the goal of finding life-long stability and relationships for youth in foster care, is an obsessive focus of most foster care agencies nationwide. But while most foster youth either return to their parents, live with relatives or get adopted, some of them still transition into adulthood without finding a permanent home.
Permanency Pacts aim to help foster youth create and confirm expectations for their relationships with adults, regardless of the paths their lives take.
“I feel like even though it is just a piece of paper and there is no guarantee that a person will keep their promise, it helps to have it,” says Ta’Nika.
The Permanency Pact was first developed by the Oregon-based foster youth advocacy group FosterClub, and has been customized by different foster care agencies across the country. But it’s typically an informal, non-legal contract with a list of supports adults can promise to offer foster youth like Ta’Nika. These supports vary from a lower-intensity promise for an occasional lunch date to a higher-level promise to house a youth if they fall on hard times as young adults.
“We’ve done a scan and know it’s widely used,” said Celeste Bodner, founder of FosterClub. One judge requires a pact for any youth that the agency expects will “age out” of foster care into adulthood, she said.
In New York, the Redlich Horwitz Foundation has already provided $150,000 in grants to Good Shepherd Services to implement the Permanency Pacts, and recently committed to another $150,000. The foster care agency, one of the largest and oldest in New York City, has used the pacts in conjunction with the Youth Connections Scale, which is a survey given to foster youth when they enter care, to evaluate the quantity and quality of their relationships. The pacts are then supposed to help them improve that score.
“Other agencies would go out and bring in new people who had no relationship with the youth, and get them to sign the Permanency Pact with these youth, because they thought these young people didn’t already have a network,” said Denise Hinds, associate executive director for Good Shepherd Services. “We decided to use our mentors, our foster parents, people who already know our youth that they might identify. Everybody did it their own way, and that’s what made it appealing to us, it wasn’t a rigid process.”
Good Shepherd says it’s seen improvements in youth relationship scores in post-care surveys. In comparing a group of 38 youth who signed pacts between 2015 and 2017 to 35 youth who did not, the organization found stronger reports of connectedness with adults among the pact group.
“We initially started seeking a way to increase the permanence of relationships for young people being discharged from foster care,” says Aurora Anderson, youth development and permanency coordinator with Good Shepherd Services. “The city and state already have these tools that asked us to identify a supportive adult for every young person who leaves care. To make that more concrete, instead of just writing a name on a piece of paper, we’ve used the Permanency Pact with every young person who is being discharged from foster care.”
Sweet’s relationship with Ta’nika has continued even after Sweet left for another job, as the kind of mature, loyal adviser that can be hard to come by for youth in foster care.
“I believe I will always have a relationship with Victoria.”
The Redlich Horwitz Foundation is a financial supporter of The Chronicle of Social Change. The foundation played no role in our decision to publish this article, per our editorial independence policy.