Can an Innovative Pittsburgh Program Help Repair the Broken Lives of Foster Kids?
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The “NewsHour”‘s April Brown has the first of two stories, part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the latest installment in our weekly series Making the Grade.
APRIL BROWN: At only 19 years old, Lafayette Goode has already faced a lifetime of challenges growing up in a rough section of Pittsburgh.
LAFAYETTE GOODE, Former Foster Youth: I got kicked out of my house at 13. That was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with, because I couldn’t believe my mom was really trying to kick me out at this age. Like, I’m so young. Like, where am I going to go?
APRIL BROWN: Where Lafayette went was into Allegheny County’s child welfare system before he turned 14. As a foster youth, he was hardly alone.
DAVID SANDERS, Vice President, Casey Family Programs: There are about 400,000 children in foster care nationally.
APRIL BROWN: David Sanders is a vice president at Casey Family Programs, an organization that works to improve foster care across the nation.
DAVID SANDERS: If you walk in as a social worker to a child’s home, it might be the very last time that that child ever sees their bedroom.
And I think, oftentimes, we forget that to get into foster care, they were abused or neglected probably to a level that is quite significant to actually be moved from their families.
APRIL BROWN: The educational statistics for youth in foster care have been consistently grim. Multistate studies have found that just 50 percent finish high school. Of that group, only 20 percent go on to college, and fewer than one in 10 of those students actually earn a bachelor’s degree.
For all his early challenges, Lafayette Goode is now on a positive path. He graduated high school on time, and is planning to start a trade school program soon. How he beat the odds is a testament to a network of support systems put in place by Marc Cherna, who was hired 20 years ago to take over the county’s child welfare system.
MARC CHERNA, Director, Allegheny County Dept. of Human Services: It was a system that was out of control. It had quite a few child deaths. It had caseloads that were expanding every month. Very few, if any, systems were in place at all. And we were vilified by the community.
APRIL BROWN: Cherna began his reform effort by asking the community questions.
MARC CHERNA: The worst thing you can do is come into a place and say, I have got all the answers.
APRIL BROWN: The tradition of community consultation continues today, both in large groups and in smaller ones. We joined Cherna recently at Ritter’s, a local
diner that’s like his second office, because he has so many breakfast meetings here.
Since coming to Pittsburgh, Cherna has helped dramatically reduce caseloads, and pushed for more supports that allow children in the system to stay with family members.
MARC CHERNA: Kids do better in their own homes whenever possible. And the highest correlation for really low grades and attendance and everything else is, the more they move, the worse things are. Just something as simple as that, identifying that and then doing intervention, it really can make a difference for kids.
APRIL BROWN: Cherna’s office also started collecting data, loads of it, including data from the Pittsburgh Public Schools. It revealed that fewer than one-third of kids in foster care have a 2.5 GPA or higher. And only about 42 percent of them were proficient in reading.
Another hallmark of Cherna’s tenure has been hiring adults who went through the system themselves to mentor and advocate for current foster youth. They’re known as youth support partners.
And Justin Quast is the man Lafayette relies on. He sometimes gives rides and is trained to provide anything from emotional support to helping youth get social services and building job skills..
JUSTIN QUAST, Youth Support Partner: He’s like so close to my age that we understand each other. As soon as we met, we just clicked.
BROWN: Youth support partner Lanika Dorsey once needed a mentor herself.
LANIKA DORSEY, Youth Support Partner: I think I first entered the system when I was around 3 or 4.
APRIL BROWN: Lanika says abuse, neglect and constantly being forced to move eventually made her feel broken. She says, for years, she couldn’t trust anyone. But that changed when she was paired with youth support partner Jovanna Robinson .
LANIKA DORSEY: She kept her word. She made me trust people and believe people when they said things to me. That’s something I never had growing up throughout the system.
APRIL BROWN: It was Jovanna who suggested Lanika could use her experiences and become a youth support partner herself.
LANIKA DORSEY: Me being able to help kids helps me in a way, you know, because I see myself in them a lot. But I’m a work in progress. Every day, I still work on me. I’m still lost, just not as lost.
APRIL BROWN: In addition to youth support partners, Allegheny County has also hired educational liaisons like William Battles. Battles makes sure foster youth like 19-year-old Jazmin Holmes are in class, have the credits to graduate high school, and he makes them aware of benefits like scholarships that, as foster youth, they’re eligible for.
Battles recently helped Jazmin through the enrollment process at the Community College of Allegheny County.
WILLIAM BATTLES, Educational Liaison: It’s very rewarding, because when you are able to help them navigate the whole admissions process and financial aid, it kind of eases their mind of schools and everything else that’s going on in their life too, on top of a fresh start at a community college or university.
APRIL BROWN: While many foster youth like Jazmin focus on the future, it has been important to the county’s reform process to have some of them reflect on the past.
Twenty-year-old Naadiya Cellars was placed in foster care five years ago after her mother died. She’s now encouraging Pittsburgh residents to consider becoming foster parents. Naadiya says it’s often difficult to get people to simply remember that they are kids.
NAADIYA CELLARS, Former Foster Youth: The hardest part about being in foster care is that you are not allowed to do everything else that everybody else is allowed to do. Like, all the rules, like, you are not allowed to spend the night at your friend’s house unless they have clearances. Those are always the hardest parts.
DAVID SANDERS: They want to be seen as young people who are facing life’s challenges, have the same dreams that any other young person has, but so often the fact that they have been in foster care, they feel like they are then stigmatized as being failures or unlikely to succeed.
And I think one of the most important things is to really dispel that notion.
APRIL BROWN: Casey Family Programs’ David Sanders credits Marc Cherna for creating innovative programs that have helped reduce the number of youth in foster care by 60 percent over the last two decades.
But replicating that kind of success elsewhere is no easy task, Sanders says.
One major reason for that?
DAVID SANDERS: The turnover among child welfare leaders makes it very difficult to sustain progress. So, even if somebody puts something in place, what often happens is that it’s dismantled as soon as somebody new comes in, and that rotation of leaders happens every year-and-a-half or two years.
APRIL BROWN: As new data comes in, it’s being used to find out how well their reforms are working. And Marc Cherna knows his work is far from finished.
MARC CHERNA: I have been doing this work for over 40 years and if there was a magic bullet, we wouldn’t be talking about it today. This is very complex work. There is no easy solution. There have been billions and billions of dollars spent on this.
There’s a lot of people way smarter than me who thought about this, and I still struggle with it.
APRIL BROWN: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m April Brown in Pittsburgh.