Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bridging the Gaps in the System:

Federal dollars helped AzCA address needs of older children in foster care

In 2012, Arizona’s Children Association won the bid to receive a federal grant intended to help find homes for older, hard-to-place children in foster care. The five-year Fostering Readiness and Permanency (FRP) grant intended to get kids out of foster care and into permanent placements more quickly, particularly those who have spent years in care and are at risk of “aging out” of the system.

More than 30,000 U.S. teens each year reach adulthood and leave state custody without a permanent home, including about 700 in Arizona (AZ Republic). Children who are eventually emancipated from the child welfare system lack a vital safety net for helping to ensure a successful life. It is likely that the longer a child is in care, the more homes they are placed in and the fewer personal attachments they have, which can often lead to relationship insecurities and trust issues. Research shows that children who “age out” of foster care when they turn 18 are more likely than their peers to be unemployed, homeless, convicted of a crime, drug dependent, become a teen parent, and are less likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

There are many barriers to permanent placements. Per DES, national data shows that the older a foster child is, the less likely they will be placed with a permanent family. Why? There are many misconceptions related to older youths when it comes to adoption. These misconceptions include: older youths do not want to be adopted, placements of older youths are unsuccessful, older youths have more behavioral problems, and placements are no longer attempted due to their age. Other obstacles include a shortage of families for placements, lack of readiness for permanency, and limited resources due to state budget reductions.

The FRP Project targeted two populations: The legacy population of youth from ages 13-17 ½ who have been in out-of-home care for two or more years. The prevention population from ages 5-17 ½ who are in care for more than one year, but less than two years, and are at risk of remaining in care for over two years.

The FRP Project creates a Child Advocate Recruitment Expert (CARE) team that consists of a Care Coordinator, Youth Advocate, and the child’s assigned Child Protective Services (CPS) Specialist. The grant funded two programs to be used by the CARE team: the 3-5-7 Model and Family Finding. The 3-5-7 Model prepares children for life with a new family, and is aimed at reducing the chance that they’ll be returned to CPS by providing frequent therapy sessions to help them work through the grief and loss surrounding their biological family. The Family Finding program uses search tools to locate extended family members. Both programs have been successful in other states.

AzCA has worked with 59 kids since it began in August of last year.

Among the successes, 6-year-old Kevin* was reunited with his father and his father’s family. Esther, 55, who is Kevin’s maternal great aunt, has been caring for Kevin off and on for much of his life and plans on adopting him.

Kevin never really knew his dad. He’d see him when he would go to visit his mom or would catch a glimpse of him at a local gas station with a “Hey buddy!” remark. Kevin didn’t really remember his dad and the family members on his paternal side.

“I knew the dad, but I didn’t really know him. I knew of him, but heard [negative things about him] that made me not want to get to know him. I felt like his grandparents weren’t making an effort but that’s because they didn’t know how to get ahold of us. It was really just miscommunication and I am just so happy that Kevin has met his family.”

“They have already severed Dad’s parental rights and he is okay with that,” said Esther. “He just wants to be able to have a relationship with Kevin but he knew that he could not care for him the way that we can.”

According to Esther, it is hard for Kevin to get attached to others and to get close to them. The program has helped Kevin to establish meaningful bonds with his family and he has also grown close to the staff on his team. “It has all been a positive thing for us,” commented Esther. “Dad has been really trying to give him attention and show him that he loves him.”

Esther mentioned that it has been challenging to raise a school-aged child with a lot of emotional problems; however, she is glad his father and the rest of the family are now involved in Kevin’s life. She credits the FRP team for making this possible for Kevin and reuniting the rest of the family.

“This is just a great program,” added Esther. “Kevin has really opened up.”

Tracy Fish, a Care Coordinator for AzCA shared a story of another youth she encountered. “The thing that stands out most to me was when I noticed one of the children looking through the photos of his father as a young man and he grabbed his head and said, ‘my hair grows the same way as my dad’s does!’” said Tracy. “It was so neat to witness his excitement in discovering where he got a lot of his traits from.”

The project aimed to improve permanency outcomes for youth who are most likely to remain in out-of-home care by increasing their readiness for permanency, growing their number of support networks and connections, improving placement stability by enhancing the number of potential homes, and to advance their decision making.

“The individualized attention with the youth to process their experiences of grief and loss was important to address in order to strengthen these children to move forward in their lives,” said Candy Espino, Director of Operations for AzCA’s child welfare programs. “Our staff had what is often an unusual opportunity in this field to really begin to understand these youth and their families. We were able to connect many youth to family members that our kids did not previously know and may otherwise have never met.”

Widely publicized earlier this year, the Department of Economic Security has unfortunately cancelled the grant program. According to The Arizona Republic, the Department of Economic Security has stated that it could not comply with rigorous federal requirements to receive the grant money and adequately serve the growing number of Arizona children in foster care. This cancellation was especially unfortunate given all the positive feedback about the program. “It is a wonderful project, a wonderful model, and it was working,” said Jackie Smollar, who was part of the Quality Assurance staff at LeCroy & Milligan.

“The cancellation of the grant was entirely based on the state’s response to federal requirements for the dollars and was in no way a reflection on the work and dedication of our staff,” stated Espino. “Our staff continue to be incredibly passionate about this project and the opportunities it provides for improving lives of youth in care.”

“We owe it to these kids in care to help them build strong foundations for themselves when their birth parents are unable,” added Espino, “Although the funding through this particular grant is no longer available, we have found other ways to continue to provide these services because we believe in this work due to the outcomes that we have seen. We look forward to continuing to work with youth and families with these two models.”

*As a child currently in the foster care system, Kevin’s name has been changed to protect his confidentiality.

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