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Teens in Oregon foster care struggle to gain footing as adults

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on Wed, 07/18/2012 - 12:54
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Juanitha Elliott, 19, with her foster mom Sonya DeAngelo. Studies show that teens in foster care need the support of a stable adult. Without that support, they are more likely to drop out of school and have difficulty in their lives.Sitting there that graduation day, in the white folding chair and wearing the golden yellow gown, Juanitha Elliott couldn't help but repeat to herself: "I really did it!"

Others in the Jefferson High School gymnasium on June 3 were also thrilled that the beautiful, strong-willed young woman had overcome the odds. The principal hugged Elliott so hard that she knocked the teen's cap off. Her lawyer sat in the bleachers and cried.

Following a disastrous freshman year in high school, Elliott had entered Oregon's foster care system for the second time. She'd had a tumultuous childhood, going to live with her dad at age 2, then in foster homes from age 7 to 12  1/2. She lived with her mother for a while, but after problems there, went back into foster care at age 15. That meant security in some ways, but also an uncertain future.

National studies find teens who spend time in foster care are more likely to drop out of school. Left to launch into life without the support of a caring adult, many foster youths also struggle to find housing or a decent job.

Here in Oregon, there has been lots of talk about making sure teens in foster care get what they need to go onto successful lives. And there's some evidence that the right support can make the difference between getting through college or dropping off the radar screen.

But there's also a constant need for more foster families willing to take teens. School policies can still stand between a student and her diploma. And the state agency responsible for watching after youth in foster care is only beginning to count how many kids earn that diploma. In fact, ongoing problems with a computer upgrade at the Department of Human Services has made it impossible for the state to say exactly how many teens are in state foster care, or even offer an accurate count of how many have run away.


For kids, foster care means getting used to change. Elliott lived in five homes during high school, not counting nights spent in temporary shelters.

Sometimes she asked to be moved because the home wasn't a good fit. One time she ran away to a relative.

"I kept in touch with my caseworker," she says. "I told her I'm staying here until you figure this out."

She finally landed with foster mom, Sonya DeAngelo, whom she already knew and adored.

But that placement wasn't secure at first; the state had to certify DeAngelo as a foster parent and arrange payments.

Meanwhile, Elliott remembers: "I was having anxiety attacks. I was so stressed. Where am I going to be? I felt like nobody was listening."

In the end, and with much prodding from Elliott's lawyer, Lynn Haxton, she was allowed to remain.

Kevin George, state foster care manager, didn't know the details of Elliott's case. But he acknowledges that finding the right home for a teen is difficult.

"The mere fact that they're teenagers is in and of itself a challenge," he says. "We're asking foster families to attach to a child at a time when the youngster developmentally is trying to detach from parents. It's always been easier to find people who want to raise little kids."

A 2008 change in federal law made it possible for youths to stay in foster care until age 21. That's been both a blessing and a curse in Oregon.

George estimates there are more than 400 kids older than 18 in the state foster care system. In 2010, 3,866 youths who were 13 or older spent at least one day in Oregon foster care, about 30 percent of the total number of kids in care.

Meanwhile, Oregon has roughly the same number of foster homes today that it had in 2009.

In practice, older kids are being forced out to live on their own before they are ready, says Pamela Butler, child welfare policy manager for Children First for Oregon.

"I work with those kids who are trying to stay in care until they're 21 and I often hear, 'Nobody wants me,'" says Butler, who spent 11 years in Oregon foster care.

"I've also talked to youths who want to stay past 19 and are told 'no.' The caseworkers are being pressured to get that case closed up."

Elliott, now 19, beat the odds here, too. She chose to remain in the foster care system and still lives in DeAngelo's home.


Even though she finally had a secure living arrangement, there were times when Elliott felt like giving up on school.Juanitha Elliott, an Oregon foster youth, couldn't believe she'd finally made it to graduation day.

The first day of her junior year, she arrived at Jefferson High School full of expectation. She'd already attended three other schools. But she really wanted to be at Jefferson and she really wanted to succeed.

"I planned my outfit out for that day," she says. "I had my hair done."

Yet that first morning she was told: "You're not enrolled here. Go home."

She immediately called her attorney.

Haxton's non-profit firm, Youth Rights and Justice, operates "School Works" -- a program designed to ensure that kids in foster care and in Oregon's juvenile justice system get what they need to stay in school.

Launched in 2002, School Works is only open to kids who are clients of the Portland-based firm. A decade of data shows kids who participate have fewer school moves and better attendance.

Of the 580 students who were academically behind when they started, data collected through December 2011 showed 497 School Works students had made progress.

Elliott's chances of graduating "were low," Haxton acknowledges. "But every step of the way they increased."

Haxton cleared the confusion over Elliott's Jefferson High School enrollment. She rushed to her rescue again in senior year, when a school counselor told Elliott the graduation requirements had changed since she'd first enrolled at the district. She not only was back for a fifth year, but she had to meet new math, English and science standards.

"What do you mean?" Elliott remembers asking that day.

While the Oregon Department of Human Services has no data telling how many kids in foster care earn a high school diploma, or GED, a 2009 study led by the John Hopkins Institute found that only 60 percent of the youths in the child welfare system receive a high school diploma by age 19. Other research shows a fraction go on to get a four-year degree.

A survey by Portland State University education professor Janine Allen found about 5 percent of the students at PSU were former foster youths. But there is no outreach to this "very high risk population," she said.

Last fall PCC launched, a mentoring program, called "Fostering Success," for former foster youths attending classes on the Cascade campus. Early results show participants completed more credits and were more likely to return for the winter and spring terms.

Linda Reisser, dean of student development on the PCC Cascade campus, compares the former foster youth students to veterans.

"There's a lot of low trust," she says. "They need to feel safe in order to support each other."

While the results from the pilot program are encouraging, Reisser says PCC may not have the money to continue the mentorship program next year.

Elliott says her future plans definitely include "more graduations."

She intends to enroll at PCC this fall and says she's interested in a career in the health care field. Or journalism. Or... She smiles and keeps talking. Maybe she'll have an apartment building someday where young women coming out of foster care could live. A pink apartment building.

"I feel like I have to pave the way for someone else," she says. "I am a lucky seed."


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It is now nearly a month that has gone by since news broke about teenagers in foster care group homes in Miami and in Jacksonville being exploited for prostitution.

If you missed the story, the facts are almost too horrible to believe.

In the Miami case, underage girls in a group foster home were being recruited by adult men to become part of a prostitution ring.

In the Jacksonville case, a 16-year-old girl was recruited by a pimp while she was walking on her way back to a foster group home. She was then advertised in publications as a “private massage specialist.”

The 16-year-old then tried to recruit other teenage girls in foster care to join the prostitution ring.

The state and society as a whole have a special responsibility to foster children.

When there are no caring or responsible adults in the lives of these children, the state determines they should be in foster care. The state then becomes the legal guardian of that child.

The state Department of Children and Families has engaged in contracting out most of its services for foster children to private agencies, and some of these agencies have performed remarkably well.

Yet these cases of exploitation show that more work needs to be done.

After these cases became public, a DCF spokesman said, “We (the DCF) contract the care of foster children in the state to community groups who then often subcontract that work out, too, whether it be group homes or case management organizations that work with these children.”

This is not good enough. When a state agency contracts with a private entity, the mere act of contracting does not absolve the state from oversight and due diligence — especially in the case of vulnerable children.

To its credit, DCF is actively trying to recruit more adults to become adoptive parents of foster children, and many children have been adopted, but that solution may not have immediate results.

Moreover, this is a solvable problem. Currently there are about 2,200 children living in group foster homes across the state.

Many times these children receive less monetary support from the state than other children in other foster care situations.

As long as they remain in group homes, the state and those who advocate for foster children need to meet three goals.

1. Review all oversight procedures to ensure that children in the care of the state of Florida are not being victimized.

2. Continue to support innovative programs to assist older foster children who are in transition to adulthood. When foster children become 15 or older, they need more assistance not less.

3. Make sure that foster children in group homes receive the same amount of guidance and monetary support as children in other foster care settings.

Even in a time of budget retrenchment in a state with more than 19 million people, we can figure out how to protect 2,200 children who have been entrusted to our care.