Thursday, March 29, 2012

We can do more - so much more - to prepare foster care youth for adulthood

Senate committee approves bill requiring information for foster children.
Honeycutt Spears, Valarie. March 14, 2012.

Chelsea Hoover told state lawmakers on Wednesday that when her years of being a Kentucky foster child ended, social workers did not give her enough information about programs that could ease her transition into adulthood.

The social workers "were significantly less than helpful. They would not tell me what I needed to do," Hoover said in an interview.

After hearing from Hoover, the Senate Health and Welfare committee unanimously passed a bill that requires state social workers to give foster children specific information and support when they are 17 ½ . The bill also gives them extra time to decide whether they want to extend their commitment to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Senate Bill 213, sponsored by state Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

In 2011, 556 foster children between the ages of 18 and 21 extended their stay in foster care to get help with housing, living expenses, health care and other vital services until they turn 21.

Advocates are increasingly hearing concerns about barriers for foster children such as those expressed by Hoover, 19.

Under Bill 213, when a foster child turns 17½ social workers would have to inform the teens of their right to extend their commitment. The cabinet also would have to provide specific options on housing, health insurance, education, mentors, and employment, Winters said in an interview after the meeting.

Currently, foster children have six months after their 18th birthday to decide whether they want to extend their commitment to the Cabinet. Bill 213 would give the teens an additional six months — or until the age of 19 — to make the decision. Additionally, under the proposed legislation, foster youth can initiate going to court to extend their commitment instead of being dependent on state social workers to go to court as is currently the case.

"What we are really interested in is that there is a transitional living support structure," said Winters.

Former foster children such as Hoover who are members of a movement called True Up had the idea for the legislation, said the movement's executive director Gene Foster. True Up members are trying to eliminate barriers in the state's current system.

Hoover said she is now taking advantage of programs available to foster children who do not extend their commitment to the Cabinet. She is attending community college in Louisville.

From July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, 7,000 Kentucky children of all ages were in foster care on any given day. In that same period, 531 foster children turned 18 and left state custody.

"What we know is that 75 percent of the children who age out of foster care are not successful. Only one out of four children aging out of foster care enter adulthood on a successful note," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, the state's leading child advocacy group. "The provisions of this bill have the capacity to reverse those proportions."

"It could make three out of four successful. The reason for that is it extends the decision making time. It empowers the young person to be an active agent in decision making," Brooks said.

"It makes sense," said State Sen. Julie Denton, R- Louisville, chair of the legislative committee, "It's such an investment in our children who have been in state care."

In explaining his affirmative vote for the bill, State Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville said that "every now and then we have to do the right thing up here. This is certainly one of the right things I've seen we've done this session."

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kudos to Chelsea Hoover for sharing her voice to support the next generation of foster care youth

Senate panel backs foster care transition bill
Yetter, Deborah. Courier-Journal. March 15, 2012.

FRANKFORT, KY. — In and out of foster care since she was an infant, Chelsea Hoover was ready to leave the system at 18.

But after some tough experiences on her own, and having no support, Hoover said she wished she had taken advantage of what the state calls “extended commitment,” in which youths who turn 18 can continue to receive assistance from state social services with housing, school and other needs.

“All I really wanted was to be safe,” Hoover, who is now 19, said Wednesday in testimony before a legislative panel in support of a bill to give teens more time to make that decision.

After hearing from Hoover, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee gave unanimous approval to Senate Bill 213, sponsored by Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, which is designed to make it easier for youths to return to state care until age 21 if they so choose.

Under current law, youths have six months to decide whether they wish to return to state care. SB 213 would extend that to one year.

It also would require state social service officials to begin counseling youths six months before they turn 18 about their choices and whether they wish to remain in care past 18. And it would change the term “extended commitment” to “transitional living support.”

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Interesting new development in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky

Fostering better ideas for children
Bellamy, Lana. Trailblazer, Dec. 8, 2011.

More than 6,800 children are currently in foster care through the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, according to Last year, more than 700 of those children were adopted. Foster families are responsible for more than 80 percent of the adoptions.

Chris Groeber, chief executive officer for the foster care agency Key Assets Kentucky (KAK), has made it his mission to keep improving the fostering statistics. The main office in Mt. Sterling, Ky., is the first Key Assets program in the United States.

It all started when Groeber was doing social work in Florida. His co-workers asked him to come listen to a group from England presenting a new kind of therapeutic foster care.

Key Assets in England worked with Aboriginal families in Western Australia, as well as families as far north as the Arctic Circle. Their goal was to keep the children they were caring for close to the communities they were born into.

“I thought if we could do that in the Arctic Circle and we could do that in the outback in Australia, surely we can do that with the kids in Eastern Kentucky,” Groeber said. “It seemed like a no-brainer to me.”

A Morehead State University alumnus, Grober said he felt keeping kids in their original communities was something foster programs in Eastern Kentucky generally overlook.

Groeber said KAK is currently targeting Martin County because 94 percent of that county’s foster kids, who were placed in out-of-home care, were placed out of county.

“That severs the ties!” Groeber said. “I think we [Eastern Kentucky] are one of the few places in the nation to still appreciate community for what it is.”

Groeber said the Key Assets program in England inspired him and he invited its representatives to do a presentation in Kentucky and help start a new branch in the eastern part of the state.

By January of 2012, the staff will consist of five full-time and five part-time workers. There are now three offices in Eastern Kentucky located in Mt. Sterling, Salyersville and Ashland.

Groeber said he emphasizes staff involvement with the foster families.

Shannon Stull, executive assistant of KAK, said the greatest benefit their agency has to offer a child is a chance at a “normal” kind of life.

“At the end of the day isn’t that what anyone wants?” Stull said. “To be safe, loved and cared for.”

Groeber said, “One of the things we want our caregivers to know, is all of our staff. Even Shannon goes out and visits because she’s the voice they hear on the other end of the phone.”

“I want the kids to be able to bond to the agency,” Groeber said, looking around the comfortable office. “I want them to bond to this place and this space because they need a place and space to belong to.”

According to, in Kentucky there are 56 listings for foster care agencies, 61 listings for social and human services and five different options for child and adult foster care and services. But Key Assets Kentucky sets itself apart from other fostering agencies by creating a unique vision for how to care for the children it serves.

Groeber said, “We say we’re an agency that works with adults who work with kids.”

KAK,s pre-service process, called Journey to Foster, goes into the homes of prospective foster families before they adopt foster children and prepares them mentally and emotionally before they open their home.

Forty-two hours of training is required to become a licensed foster caregiver. Twenty-one hours of the training takes place in a classroom and the other 21 hours are in the home.

During the training, Groeber and his staff spend a lot of time with the foster families practicing crisis management and what to do when certain dramatic scenarios arise. They want to prepare the families before the child is adopted in order to create emotionally stable atmospheres.

Groeber said the extensive amount of time spent in the pre-service process is important because it sets the pace for how the family will help the foster child develop as a person.

Groeber said, “We believe that those foster carers who are with those kids 24-seven are the primary change agents in those kids’ lives, so we try to equip them to be the case-manager and the clinician because they’re going be there when the sparks fly.”

Besides having a less an atypical pre-service program, Key Assets also sets itself apart from other agencies by referring to those adopting the foster kids as foster carers instead of foster parents.

“Kids already have parents,” Groeber said.

Groeber added that even though the children have real parents, they were in foster care because things didn’t work out at home.

“We made a conscious decision to say, ‘You are caring for that kid. At best, you're re-parenting, but you didn’t give birth to this kid. You’re a carer, it’s for a limited time. For this season in this child’s life, you’re their carer,’” Groeber said.

Groeber said the main goal of KAK is to be the last agency to take care of the child.

“We don’t want those kids to bounce from us,” Groeber said, “because some of those kids we’re talking about have had two, 15, 45 placements by the time they get to us. By the time they get to us, we don’t want to be just another placement—we want to be the last.”

Although Groeber has been in social work for 25 years, he still encounters struggles.

“There’s always resistance from the kids at some level,” Groeber said. There’s the honeymoon phase and then we drop the hammer.”

Groeber said sometimes the resistance from the children comes when they are initially placed with KAK. In some cases, they blame the agency for taking them from their previous placement.

“I think a lot of times, these kids will want to place blame, and that’s fine. We’ll take the blame as an agency,” Groeber said. “If you want to blame me, that’s perfectly fine, but at the end of the day, I love you unconditionally — I care about you unconditionally, so that doesn’t matter.”

The main office for KAK is on East Main Street in Mt. Sterling. Just a few feet up from it is a quaint coffee shop Groeber and his crew built especially for the foster children. There is a main room followed by a study area and a computer lab.

The walls are lined with empty bookshelves that Groeber assures will be filled with books and movies and anything else the kids need for entertainment. A Christmas tree is lit near the window next to a wall with a row of photographs of children’s smiling faces.

On one of the bookshelves is a small pile of books filled with poems and artwork called Hundreds and Thousands, Secrets and Dreams completed by the foster children from the Key Assets agency in England

The poem on the last page of one book is by a girl named Azita with artwork by Sophie. Azita writes that the poem is dedicated to her foster family that took her in at her weakest and gave her strength.

An excerpt from the poem titled "Thank You" reads, “I’m really grateful they took me in at my weakest point, provided me a home and a loving family to live with. So there's proof that humanity still exists.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Young people aging out of foster care in Kentucky deserve greater support

Advocates pushing for more help for foster children in Kentucky after they turn 18
Lexington Herald Leader,  November 12, 2011.

Lexington, Ky. — Evicted and struggling to save money to buy a car, 19-year-old Clairessa Johnson often feels hopeless.

Johnson and her infant daughter have been staying with a friend and she's saving what she can from a minimum-wage fast-food job in Lexington.

The former foster care child had sought help from a state provision that allows some teenagers to say in foster care until they turn 21. But she said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services has denied her request.

"It leaves me lost," Johnson told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

She would like to become one of about 556 foster children between the ages of 18 and 21 who have extended their stay in foster care. It would allow her to get help with housing, living expenses, health care and other vital services.

Over a year period ending in June, 531 foster children turned 18 and left state custody. Advocates say many of them will have struggles similar to Johnson, who is taking classes with the hopes of becoming a nurse.

"They are forced to deal with society when they don't have the social skills or the independent living skills to be successful," said Earl Washington, a Lexington social worker who has been helping Johnson. "To think that these kids who were in the system for years — some since they were babies — are going to magically be successful when they are 18 is foolish."

Washington said he's helped Johnson apply for housing, but it might be months before she is in her own apartment.

Some of the teens leaving foster care have mental illnesses, learning disabilities, or alcohol and drug problems. Some, like Johnson, have children before they are 18. And those who go to college or a training program with the state's help don't always get the everyday support they need, advocates said.

"These youth aging out of foster care are some of the most vulnerable young people that we have," said Jerry Cantrell, CEO of Bellewood Homes for Children, which contracts with the state to operate foster care and independent living programs in Louisville and Lexington. "Without any support, 75 percent of them fail."

Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokeswoman Jill Midkiff said state caseworkers begin working with teens around their 16th birthday to develop their independent living skills, such as money management, job preparation and basic home economics.

By the time the individuals are 171/2, caseworkers are required to outline a plan for their transition to independence, including whether they want to recommit to foster care.

In the 2012 General Assembly, some former foster children and leaders of private child caring agencies are going to push for improved laws and regulations for young adults in the program who are between 18 and 21.

One movement, called True Up, is trying to improve the situation for children aging out of foster care. True Up is getting help from former foster child Frank Harshaw, now the CEO of an energy services company.

"There are some issues" with the system in place to help Kentucky's foster children once they turn 18, said Harshaw. "But there are also some good programs. We have to help these kids use those programs to their benefit and society's benefit."

State Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, chairman of the House Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare, said he will hold a hearing this month on issues involving foster children who are turning 18.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Wheels of the Commonwealth turn slowly for youth in need of services and support

Ex-foster child awaits ruling on state help
Yetter, Deborah. Oct. 8, 2011

LEXINGTON, KY. — In and out of foster homes since age 6, Clairessa Johnson said she was ready to leave state care last year after she turned 18.

But homeless and pregnant, Johnson quickly realized she needed help and asked to be admitted to the state’s independent-living program, which provides assistance with housing, school, living expenses and other services for former foster youths.

Now more than a year later — and recently evicted from her Lexington apartment — Johnson, 19, said she is again homeless while she waits for a final decision after a state hearing officer recommended in June she be returned to state care to pursue independent living.

“This is not right,” said Johnson, who is raising a 10-month-old daughter, attending college and working despite her difficulties. “I’ve been going through this all my life, getting shut down.”

The final decision is up to state social services Commissioner Patricia Wilson, with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Johnson said she still has no word of any decision.

Cabinet officials said Friday that the hearing officer's order was not officially entered until Aug. 15, after both sides had a chance to submit additional material.

After that, the commissioner has 45 days to make a final decision, according to an email from spokeswoman Jill Midkiff.

“Decisions are reviewed in the order received,” Midkiff said. A decision in Johnson’s case “is in the review process,” she said.

Earl Washington, a Lexington social worker and advocate who has been assisting Johnson, said cabinet officials had provided them with no explanation for the delay, despite repeated inquiries.

“It’s not fair to hold her up,” said Washington, who helps run a nonprofit advocacy organization for foster youths called Fostering Goodwill and oversees independent living for Kentucky United Methodist Homes.

Johnson said a social services official recently told her that it was “pointless” to keep calling and that she would be notified once the commissioner decides.

Some child advocates say the case points to a broader problem. They say the cabinet has cut resources for foster-care children who turn 18, and youths who leave the system are ill-prepared to find housing, get jobs, go to school and manage life on their own.

“I think money’s behind it,” said Jerry Cantrell, executive director of Bellewood Presbyterian Home for Children, one of several private children’s agencies in Kentucky that offer independent living programs under contract to the state.

Whatever the reason, Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said former foster youths such as Johnson are entitled to know what the rules are and when to expect a decision. “This young person is in child-welfare purgatory,” Brooks said.

Under state law, youths have six months after turning 18 to request a return to the cabinet’s care to get help with services such as independent living. They may remain in the program until age 21.

After cabinet officials refused her request to return to state care, Johnson, with Washington’s help, filed an appeal, which entitled her to an administrative hearing held June 9 .

The hearing officer found that Johnson requested independent living May 4, 2010, about three months after she turned 18 on Jan. 20. At that point, she was still in the cabinet’s custody. On May 13, 2010 a judge — at the cabinet’s recommendation — released Johnson from the cabinet’s custody, the hearing officer said

Washington said Johnson’s former social worker in Jefferson County, Michelle Cox, opposed Johnson’s request for independent living, telling him Johnson “was not a good candidate.” --WHAT KIND OF SOCIAL WORKER IS THIS?

This year, Johnson said, she showed up for her June hearing with little more than her life story to tell. Cox, she said, opposed her request to return to state care and was armed with a thick file of Johnson’s history in the cabinet’s care. Among problems Cox cited, Johnson said, were that Johnson had been “defiant” and had become pregnant as a teen. -- ALL THE MORE REASON SHE NEEDS SUPPORT TO MAKE IT AS A YOUNG ADULT

Still, hearing officer Deborah Stanley ruled in Johnson’s favor, noting she testified she had shown stability, had graduated from high school after leaving state care, has a job and is caring for her child while trying to continue her education.

“Based on the evidence and regulatory guidelines, Ms. Johnson’s commitment must be reinstated,” Stanley’s recommendation said. Johnson provided a copy to The Courier-Journal.

Johnson, a Louisville native, said she moved to Lexington to stay with a friend last year. She said she enrolled at Lexington’s Henry Clay High School.

“I was determined to graduate,” she said.

She also found a job at a fast-food restaurant, enrolled at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and moved into an apartment with the hope she would get enough money to keep up rent payments through the independent-living program.

But with her case still pending, Johnson said, she fell behind on the rent and was evicted in September. She is again staying with a friend.

“Sometimes it feels like a cycle that will never end,” Johnson said.

Washington said the delay is especially galling because Johnson has worked hard to pursue the appeal, a lengthy process that would discourage many young people.

“She could be in independent living and getting everything she needs,” Washington said. “The fact of the matter is we won an appeal and she’s homeless now.”

Johnson said it’s frustrating because she is trying to take charge of her life after years of foster care where social workers were in control.

“I feel like they lived my life for me,” she said. “I didn’t get to make decisions about nothing.”

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Only 13% of children in Kentucky's foster care system were adopted in 2007

"According to 2007 data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, only 13 percent of children in Kentucky's foster care system were adopted. And older children are less likely to be adopted than younger ones. Many parents have chosen to adopt from overseas. Last year saw 262 international adoption cases in the state."

Source: Krzton-Presson, Rose. Cultural, Psychological Development an Issue in Older-Child Adoptions, WKMS, Nov. 26, 2010.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Young people deserve a voice regarding their placement

Judge takes teen from state's care; foster parents granted custody
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, May 11, 2009.

In an unusual rebuke to state child welfare workers, a Jefferson County family court judge has removed a teenage girl from their care and granted temporary custody to her foster parents.

Circuit Judge Stephen George last month took that step, over the objections of state workers, after the workers reneged on an agreement to let the 17-year-old remain in the Bullitt County foster home where she had been thriving, said the girl's lawyer, Christopher Harrell.

"I think it's atrocious," said Harrell, who said the state previously had agreed not to move the girl from the foster home. "

The girl is not being identified because she is a minor and has experienced abuse.

George's actions remove the state's authority over the teen.

Jim Grace, head of Kentucky's child protection services, said in an interview that he can't comment on the specifics of the case because of confidentiality laws. But he said that, in general, state social service officials try to return children to their family homes when it's in their best interest.

Yet while family court proceedings involving abused and neglected children by law are confidential, Grace acknowledged the judge's decision to transfer custody from the state to the foster parents "may be unusual." And he said state officials will investigate the matter and see if further action is warranted.

Growing outrage
The girl, Harrell and others involved in her case agreed to talk to a reporter about the case because, they said, they are outraged by how state workers handled it, starting with the decision earlier this year to try to send the teen back to the troubled home they removed her from last year.

The girl said she told her social worker she was afraid to return home and wanted to stay in her foster home, where she was happy, treated well and improving in school.

"She said that wasn't an option," the girl said in a recent interview at her lawyer's office. "It was kind of like her way or no way."

The girl contacted a reporter after reading a Courier-Journal story in January about a youth in Oldham County who said he was being forced out of foster care just a few months before his high school graduation.

She told the newspaper she was experiencing similar treatment and noted that the move would have disrupted her education. Once failing in school, she said she's now makes As and Bs, has made up a year's worth of missed school credits, has joined the ROTC, is on track to graduate on time and is considering college or the military.

And none of the problems at her family home, including fighting and physical violence, have been resolved, she said.

She said her goal was to stay in foster care through age 18, then seek independent living from the state, which would provide continued support and help pay for college. Her first social worker encouraged her to work toward that goal by making good grades and following the rules in her foster home.

But she said a different social worker assigned to her case last fall told her the state's goal was for her to return to her family home, from which she was removed in April 2008.

"I don't think that makes sense," the girl said in the interview.

Foster parents step in
Harrell, appointed as a guardian ad litem to represent the girl's interests, said the foster parents also are unhappy with the state's proposed actions. They consider the girl part of their family and have agreed to take temporary custody even though they lose foster care payments from the state.

That family has declined to comment, saying foster care officials have warned them not to speak publicly about the case because of confidentiality rules.

The girl said she believes her case is similar to that of Julian Tweedy, 18, of Oldham County, whose situation was profiled Jan. 23 in The Courier-Journal. In that case, too, the foster parents agreed to keep him at their own expense while the matter was pending.

After the newspaper report, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services reversed its decision and allowed Tweedy to remain in foster care.

Case spurs criticism
Children's advocates harshly criticized the state for its actions in that case, and advocates for the girl say some of the state's actions in her case defy explanation.

"They're supposed to be there to help and protect kids," said Lisa Butler, a child advocate with the Jefferson County juvenile public defender's office who is assisting in the girl's case. "The whole thing is so broken."

The girl said she was frustrated by her state social worker, who she said refused to listen to her and threatened her and her foster parents with contempt of court if they didn't follow her directions. (Only judges can hold people in contempt of court, Grace said.)

The girl said when she objected to returning home, the worker said, "Life's not fair," the same thing Tweedy said his worker told him. Records provided by their lawyers, show both teens had the same social worker, Jacki Schultz, and the same social service supervisor, Billy Jenkins, managing their cases.

Neither Jenkins nor Schultz could be reached for comment and Grace, their supervisor, said they would not be available for an interview because of state confidentiality rules.

Tweedy and the girl, in separate interviews, each said they tried to tell Schultz they encountered fighting and violence on their occasional visits to their family homes.

Tweedy said Schultz told him that because he had turned 18, he was an adult and should handle it. The girl said Schultz told her she needed to try harder to get along with her family.

The most recent meeting over the girl's fate devolved into a shouting match between Harrell and Jenkins, said Harrell, who attended the April 8 session along with his client, Schultz, Jenkins, Butler, the foster parents and the girl's parents.

At one point case, Jenkins became so upset the girl offered him her "squeeze bunny," a spongy toy a therapist gave her to squeeze when she found herself getting tense, she said, a detail confirmed by Harrell and Butler.

"I said, here, I think you need this," she said.

Told of that allegation, Grace said that while he couldn't speak about this case, "we would never want that to happen."

Girl's future
Despite the rancor, the parties eventually agreed the girl could remain in the Bullitt County foster home and finish school, Harrell said.

But when the parties got to court April 15, he said, Jenkins and Schultz announced they had changed their minds and the girl was to be transferred to a new foster home in Jefferson County, which would have forced her to change schools near the end of her junior year.

It was then that the judge ordered the girl removed from the state's custody, finding the state hadn't made reasonable efforts to ensure an appropriate outcome.

Harrell said it's a good temporary solution but doesn't resolve all the issues. For example, if the girl isn't in foster care through her 18th birthday, she can't get free tuition at a state university and she can't qualify for independent living assistance beyond age 18.

Although the judge ordered the girls' parents to pay child support to the foster parents, it's only about half the financial support the state pays for foster care. And the state immediately cut off the girl's Medicaid coverage, leaving the foster parents scrambling to find health insurance for her.