Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #9: Suicide Prevention for Current, Former Foster Youth

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who completed Congressional internships. The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund.

Each of the FYI participants crafted a carefully researched policy recommendation during their time in Washington. Today we highlight the recommendation of Brianne Lyn Nagamine, 20, a Junior at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

The Proposal

Nagamine proposes two amendments to the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence program, a section of the Social Security Act that sends funds to states for the purpose of assisting older youth who may age out of foster care.

She suggests that the “preventive health activities” listed for program funding include a curriculum on trauma, risk factors for self-harm and suicidal ideation, and protective factors that can reduce the risk of either. Right now, the preventive activities list includes “smoking avoidance, nutrition education, and pregnancy prevention.”

Nagamine also proposes that peer networks be included as a means to provide personal and emotional support to youth aging out. Currently, the program language includes only “mentors” and “interactions with dedicated adults.”

The Argument

Suicide claims the lives of about 4,600 people between the ages of 10 and 24 each year, and about 157,000 youths are treated in the emergency room for harm done to themselves.

The number of foster youths who commit suicide each year is not known, Nagamine says, but in all likelihood they do so at a far higher rate than the general youth population. She cites a study from last year that suggests kids who have spent time in foster care “are two to six times more likely to attempt or follow through with committing suicide.”

Another study Nagamine found from last year is even more chilling.  In a survey of 719 aging-out foster youth in California 40 percent reported thinking about committing suicide and 25 percent admitted to attempting suicide in the past.

In Her Own Words

Brianne Lyn Nagamine

“I was 13 years old when my four siblings and I entered foster care. My mother had abandoned me, and I did not have a father figure to turn to because he committed suicide when I was three years old. I began to grieve for all the loss I experienced in my life, and I turned to drinking alcohol and self-harm to cope with my pain.

For a long time I felt hopeless and lonely, until I was introduced to the Hawaii Foster Youth Coalition (“HFYC”). They became my Ohana (the Hawaiian word for family). I was offered trauma-informed trainings that taught me about the daily triggers associated with experiencing trauma and how to use healthy coping mechanisms to start the healing process. The skills I learned helped me successfully transition into adulthood.”

The Chronicle’s Take

Before we address Nagamine’s recommendations, let’s go back one step and ask: Why the hell is nobody tracking suicides committed by foster youth?

Honestly, that ought to be required in federal reporting. We are talking about fewer than 5,000 kids in the entire country, total, who take their own lives. When records reflect that one of them spent time in foster care, how hard is that to note, track or report?

Nagamine’s two recommendations are perhaps the most actionable of this year’s proposals because, frankly, it would not cost the federal government a dime. She is simply asking for certain activities to become allowable expenses for states under a pot of money that they already get.

Both of her requests are pretty much no-brainers. If states want to use Chafee funds to help foster youth understand and deal with trauma instead of a no-smoking program, they should have that ability. If states want to invest Chafee funds into a peer network program instead of adult mentoring, that should be okay too.

Click here to read Nagamine’s entire proposal and those of her fellow FYI participants.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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