While children in foster care across the nation face unquestionable and innumerable challenges, Alameda County’s providers are actively pursuing better solutions to the problems they encounter.
Through recent state legislative successes and a collective effort of providers, advocates, volunteers and residents, foster youth are receiving the best care they have ever had available to them in the area. However, displacement and mental health problems stemming from a lack of permanency still put foster youth at extreme disadvantages, and is reflected across the country.
“These are children that have faced trauma in their lives, and it takes a huge energy out of them and it affects them,” says Shahnaz Mazandarani, founder of A Better Way, an organization that supports children of all ages in finding homes and families through adoption, and assists with mental and emotional stressors through strength based approaches.
“Permanency is something that gives peace of mind to everyone from childhood to adulthood,” said Mazandarani.
The feeling of a lack of permanency in foster youth is typically associated with the movement and displacement that can befall many children in the system.
Forty-three percent of foster children are moved three or more times, and 11 percent are moved five or more times, according to the Los Angeles Foster Care Awareness campaign.
According to the Youth Law Center, “Lack of stability and a permanent home are evident in the extraordinarily high incidence of substance abuse, homelessness and psychological problems among former foster children.”
Jennifer Alma, a 24-year-old senior at CSU East Bay who plans to graduate at the end of this year is a former foster child, and she says she had moved through six families throughout her life, and that has resulted in her attending six different schools.
“Really, it’s like we’re homeless, bouncing from one trashcan to another,” says Alma.
Reed Connell, the executive director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance says kids who stay in foster care much longer, typically turning 18, have a higher percentage of either being in more institutional type settings like group homes, or bounce around to many different settings, and they tend to have a harder time in the foster system.
“Each time they are changing schools, so they don’t develop that long-term stable attachment, that allows them to invest their own best internal resources to educational attainment,” says Connell.
Along with a slew of logistical problems that can go accompany transferring credits to a new school accurately, “there some real daunting emotional challenges that can come from having all those frustrations accumulating,” said Connell.
These commonalities in the system lead to troubling statistics. Within two to four years after emancipation, 51 percent of foster youth are unemployed, and one of every five will be incarcerated, and approximately 25 percent experience homelessness.
AB 12, a bill passed in September 2010, is one of the major bright spots in California’s recent legislative history that enables positive change in the foster system.
It allows for youth in the system, that meet certain requirements, to voluntarily stay in the system until they are 21, instead of the previous age-out limit of 18.
Connell says Alameda County is doing a good job communicating to the youth in the region, as over 150 young people who are eligible for AB 12 placement are taking advantage of it currently.
“When they turn 18, they’re legal adults, they can walk if they want to, but they’re choosing to stay in agency because they recognize that they can still derive benefits from that very rich set of services,” he said.
“Life as a foster youth was pretty difficult,” says Alma. “I never felt like I belonged, but the people who worked with me on behalf of the state were really helpful.”
Kevin Bristow is the program coordinator for the Renaissance Scholars at CSU East Bay, and is a former foster youth.
He went into foster care when he was 14 due to his mother’s incarceration. After being placed in group homes, he got involved with the Independent Living Skills program, which helps youth figure out education options and prepare them with life skills.
After transferring to Chico State University and graduating with a degree in psychology, Bristow became an education specialist for the ILSP, which eventually led him to his position at CSUEB.
Now, he is able to work with youth who have experienced similar things as he did, and help them find the best resources for their educational advancement.
People like Bristow serve an imperative need to the foster youth community as 70 percent of foster youth hope to attend college, but fewer than 10 percent enroll, and even less graduate.
“There are so many who are not as fortunate as I was, but can still understand how much pain I endured my whole life never feeling complete,” said Alma. “I feel better now. I’m married and planning to start a family with my husband Mark Alma who I met at Laney College in Oakland in 2008. I’m proof there’s hope, but it seems to easy to forget there are other people like there like me.”
“I hope people will hear my story and remember there are children out there who need them,” she said.
Connell, after working in the county for over 15 years, says he is optimistic about the future of foster youth in the area.
“It’s a very organized and active community and that makes a tremendous difference,” he said, referencing volunteers, program directors, and donors who supply capital for research and advocacy. He says his time has allowed him to witness plenty of success stories, and those are proof of the effectiveness that has been steadily increasing with the foster care system in the county and state.
“The examples are there, we need to lift them up, we need to champion their successes, and we need to never let ourselves have an excuse for not continuing to try and not continuing to work hard on behalf of all the young people that are struggling to make choices.”
This entry was published in The Pioneer Online on Thursday, October 25th, 2012 at 2:32 pm.