I just returned home after four days of hard work, sleep deprivation, profuse sweating in the oppressive Chico heat…and having the time of my life.
Chico was the site of this year’s California Youth Connection (CYC) Summer Leadership and Policy Conference. Nearly 200 current and former foster youth from around the state came to hone their leadership skills and identify policy reforms to improve the foster care system.
This year’s conference focused on sibling visitation rights, group home reform, high school support services for foster youth, and transitional housing. The youth themselves determined these four policy topics and in my opinion they could not have been more prescient, as each presents major opportunities for reform.
Sibling visitation rights, for instance, is an emerging issue. =Despite federal and state law to the contrary, siblings continue to be separated unnecessarily when placed in foster care. In fact 75 percent of siblings who enter foster care will be separated from at least one of their siblings.
After being separated, siblings in foster care all too often have infrequent contact with one another. This causes disconnection and isolation and subjects youth to additional trauma. Much more work needs to be done to ensure that siblings are kept together whenever possible, and if separated have the opportunity to see each other and maintain those critical family connections.
Meanwhile, California continues to misuse group homes as placements and keep youth in these restrictive settings for too long. Some group homes also provide substandard care and fail to provide for the needs of residents without being held accountable. However, a handful of providers are leading the field in a new direction, including one of the organizations I work with, Hillsides.
Hillsides is participating in the Residentially-Based Services (RBS) pilot project in Los Angeles County, which aims to provide short-term intensive treatment to the most traumatized foster youth in a residential setting, while working to transition them back into a home as quickly as possible. RBS shows real promise in reducing the average length of stay for children in a group home.
More accountability and oversight needs to be implemented to make sure that other group homes around the state are following Hillsides’ lead in trying to transition youth quickly to less restrictive settings while meeting their needs in the interim.
Last year, only 45 percent of foster youth graduated from high school in California, and just 4 percent of former foster youth hold a college degree. Those statistics reveal a fundamental flaw in educating foster youth in the state’s secondary education system.
Passage of the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and preservation of the Foster Youth Services program provide California schools with a major opportunity to change these depressing outcomes. School districts around the state will have new resources to provide expanded academic supports, counseling, and extracurricular opportunities for foster youth in school.
Ensuring this new dedicated funding is actually spent on foster youth will be a major undertaking in the coming years, but if done right the support system for foster students can be dramatically bolstered.
Finally, the lack of quality transitional housing remains a major impediment to the development of independent living skills in foster youth. With passage of Assembly Bill 12, California gave the right for foster youth to remain in care until age 21. However, in order for AB 12 to be fully realized, the child welfare system must use those three additional years provided by AB 12 to truly transition youth to independence.
Transitional housing provides placement stability and support services that can help youth develop the professional, financial, and personal skills to succeed on their own. Building a stronger partnership between providers and youth will be key to making these programs work better.
Beyond their firm grasp of the policy opportunities in California, I came away from the conference incredibly impressed with and inspired by the resiliency, determination, and selflessness I witnessed from conference participants. Many of these youth are currently dealing with major life crises, including homelessness, separation from siblings, and teen parenting. Yet they still found time to dedicate themselves for four days to finding solutions to improve the foster care experience.
The entire conference was a vivid reminder to me personally about why I (along with many others) spend my professional life working on foster care issues. I’m looking forward to working with CYC in the coming year to advocate for change in these four key policy areas while continuing to learn from and be amazed by this state’s current and former foster youth.
Sean Hughes is a member of The Chronicle of Social Change’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant working with child welfare organizations in California and Washington, D.C, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer.
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