Andrew Bridge, former foster youth, Harvard Law graduate, and the author of the wildly popular novel “Hope’s Boy” has just quieted the crowd of roughly 150 child welfare advocates, researchers and youth services providers convened on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania for a two-day conference exploring issues facing youth aging out of foster care.
The only person left to speak is the out-going Dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, Richard Gelles. Gelles, a long-time warrior of child rights with a 26-page CV chronicling his prolific writings on child welfare and his critical role in the passage of landmark bills including the Multiethnic Placement Act and the Adoption and Safe Families Act, is never one to shirk away from the gravity of the moment.
Over the course of the two previous days, Gelles was among the conference’s participants, hearing from heavyweights in research on transition-aged youth including Amy Dworsky and Mark Courtney of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago; and housing and higher education experts including Sam Cobbs of First Place for Youth and Chris Harris of Michigan’s Seita Scholars Program.
Out of this well organized and wide-ranging examination of the current state of affairs for those foster youth who leave the system without a permanent connection to loving adults, Gelles found two “threads” of importance. These were that: one) it is society’s responsibility to do better by these young men and women; and two) this charge “seems imminently doable.”
To strike home his first point, Gelles shared an anecdote about a recent meeting he had with Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter. After the wrenching details of a case where a child suffered because of a clear failure of the local child welfare system, Gelles recalled Nutter saying that if that “happened to my child I’d kick someone’s ass.”
When Gelles met the Mayor a few days later, Gelles said that he told him that “the bad news was that was your child.”
He went on further to explain the responsibility the Mayor, all elected officials and the public at large should feel when it comes to the 23,000 or so foster youth who “age out” of foster care every year.
“You should have the same responsibility when they turn 18 and age out, as when your babies turn 18 and don’t age out.”
Gelles, having squared the question of responsibility, went on to discuss the relatively small number of young people the conference attendees had been focusing and the collective power those in the room have to make a difference.
“My hope that this is not just a conference that will end with a lunch,” he said. “But where you leave thinking where can I move the center of gravity, and the needle and make a difference.”
With that a loud clap of applause brought the conference to and end.
A few minutes later, I caught up to Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor at Penn, and the primary organizer of the event. While a slight bit physically drained from all the effort she had put into the proceedings, she felt a reinvigoration of spirit in the sometimes lengthy arc of social change she has committed herself to.
“It reminds me of the importance of the work I am already doing,” Greeson said. “And the need to persevere and not get disgruntled about how long it takes to do good work.”
Her primary focus is on how to best cultivate a support system for adolescent foster youth. The hypothesis that she is pursuing is that “natural mentors” who are informally connected to youth are a key part to the puzzle.
Her work is critical. Earlier in May, the social science journal “Research in Social Work Practice” released a study she had conducted alongside Mark Courtney of Chapin Hall and UPenn colleagues Antonio Garcia and Minseop Kim. In it, Greeson and her co-authors evaluated the success of a Massachusetts-based program meant to increase social supports for adolescent foster youth. The results were that the formal program had no clear benefits in terms of social supports.
The conference ended on Friday afternoon. You can be sure Greeson will be at her desk come Monday.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.