Monday, August 3, 2020

State and National Advocacy for a Foster Care Ombudsman Office

Here in Ohio, we are advocating for the creation of a statewide Foster Care Ombudsman's Office on both a state and national level.

When it comes to the most effective, efficient and speedy way to move forward to create this Office, the road to passing statewide legislation here in Ohio might be shorter, simpler and less complicated. This also be a first step in figuring out a national solution. But, we are going to go ahead and pursue both opportunities at the same time.

We have learned the hard way in our state that, even with the best of intentions, after being urged to create, operate and publicize a Foster Youth Ombudsman's Office, their first response might be to try to put it "under" child welfare and/or to replicate models (such as the one for aging adults) that they already know.

And, in a way that makes sense, because the way that each of us makes sense of the world is to try to put new information into existing categories. However, these two things matter most when it comes to moving forward, and we definitely aren't willing to compromise on them.


 1.) The need to house this office outside of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services:

Our young people have requested that this future office be:
  • Housed under an independent and autonomous agency with oversight specific to child welfare, and not part of the state's division of child and family services.
  • It is vitally important that the Ombudsman's Office have regulatory power, in order for youth concerns to be independently investigated. 
  • Here in Ohio, our young people have suggested that this office be housed under the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. This would allow this office to be staffed by paid lawyers, as they investigate the safety of young people as potential "victims of crime."

Why independent investigation of youth concerns matters:
  • The very reason this "Ask" came up in the first place is because Ohio foster care youth shared concerns about:
    • Being placed in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and their basic needs were not met in certain placements. Regarding residential facilities and group homes, this was often accompanied by the repeated phrase: "Need more cameras," and this direct quote from a young person that: "The danger of some group homes and residential placements is that things happen behind walls, and other people don’t know what’s really going on."
    • Trying unsuccessfully to reach out for help, including being unable to reach their caseworker and/or GAL and/or trying to call their local agency hotline and experiencing long wait times, lack of follow-through on reports made directly by youth, and staff answering the phone who are not youth-friendly.
  • In California, one of the learning curves and hard-earned lessons that they have learned in the process of creating and maintaining a Foster Care Ombudsman's Office is the need for this office to have more authority and more independence.
  • To quote from one of our young people: "I have great concerns about the Foster Care Ombudsman being under the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. If the Ombudsman were being paid by the same organization that funds, the Foster Care System it would be impossible for the Ombudsman to be impartial. Therefore, as former foster youth we had hoped that the Ombudsman would under the Ohio Attorney General’s office.

2.) The need for this office to specifically serve youth and young adults:
  • The population served would be youth experiencing abuse in foster, adoptive, kinship, respite, residential and group home placements.
  • Ohio foster care youth and alumni repeatedly requested that this office needs to be separate from whatever mechanism is established to support foster caregivers, in order to avoid a conflict of interest. For example: A youth reports abuse; their foster parent wants to protect themselves from the allegation.
  • Likewise, the model for service delivery should be based on a Youth-Centered Framework, rather than mirroring the existing ombudsman for aging adults, which was one suggestion that had come up on our state that the youth vetoed.
  • With services to include toll-free statewide hotline that young people can contact directly with concerns about their current placement and their rights and well-being, to be resolved within a speedy timeframe.

Why focusing on young people and a youth-centered approach matters:

  • The very reason this "Ask" came up in the first place is because Ohio foster care youth shared concerns about:
    • Not feeling seen or heard, or even listened to when they tried to express concerns: “If a caseworker would open a case against my biological parents for this allegation, then if it happens in a guardian, kinship, respite, foster, adoptive, group home, residential placement, it should also be thoroughly investigated.”
  • Additional quotes from current/former foster youth during statewide Foster Care Forums:
    • It has come to our attention that Ohio foster parents are requesting that the needed Ombudsman be available to them too. While I care what foster care and kinship care parents go through, this would be counter-productive and a conflict of interest.
    • I think that it is important that youth have their own Ombudsman office separate from one that cares for foster parents because the two needs will likely come into conflict and potentially make youth reports futile.
    • The struggles that foster adoptive, respite and primary families face are important, and we care about and recognize the need for better accountability and communication between foster parents and their agencies. However, this needs to be addressed by a different mechanism, such as a separate office or a statewide grievance procedure.
    • Because it doesn’t make sense for a future Ombudsman’s Office to both defend allegations against foster parents and safeguard young people from further abuse. The office can’t do both of those things at the same time. Those two tasks will inevitably come into conflict with each other.

Monday, July 27, 2020

FYI: An example of legwork leading to success


On Friday, July 24, 2020, former foster youth and allies came together for a Virtual Celebration of the One-Year Anniversary of the Foster Youth to Independence Initiative.

Former foster youth from Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia each shared their goals for the future and how this resource has helped them personally to move forward to build their futures.

With help from FYI, a 22-year old young man named Love from Alabama is working to attain a business degree and hopes to one day start a business of his own. Love lives out the very meaning of his name by caring for others. His main goal and priority is to help the youth in his community and he is also working to become a professional speaker. His FYI voucher is helping him to focus on those goals for the next 36 months while being housing secure.

Amanda Metivier Hernandez of Facing Foster Care in Alaska is an alumna of foster care herself. She shared how meaningful it was for her to witness the advocacy for this through social media, and then to receive a call saying that 25 former foster youth in her area could get housing support. In her words, “This has been the greatest thing to happen to us in Alaska. We definitely feel the impact... I just want to say thank you to everyone, but especially the alumni who have gone to DC, shared their experiences and made this happen.”

What gave Amanda the most joy was to be on the ground to witness young people actually moving directly from foster care to vouchers, and also from homelessness to housing stability. One of these young people was Rae Lynn, who shared that FYI vouchers have helped her to build stability. Life before, during and after foster care can be chaotic, and Rae Lynn’s voucher has made it possible for her to live on her own and maintain housing without disruption.

In Colorado, young people came together with their adult supporters to have a viewing party for this virtual celebration. Participants shared that FYI have been an amazing resource that has made so many things possible in their lives. This included being able to focus on their college journey, attend college full-time and dedicate time to grades in order to work towards their future careers.

In Florida, Pam Bress, the founder of Ready for Life Brevard, shared her gratitude for the Fostering Youth to Independence initiative, “It is the absolute game-changer for us in Florida and Brevard County. Props to everybody for doing what needs to be done for the youth aging out of foster care. After ten years of being an attorney, representing youth in transition and seeing the need, this was the reason why I left Legal Aid and started Ready for Life Brevard.”

So far, Florida has been able to house twelve young people, and three of them shared their gratitude and experiences on Friday. Lajoya said that FYI has been a blessing in her life, and has helped her in so many ways. She had previously spent a year paying rent to sleep on someone’s couch, “not having a place to just settle down and grow and be a woman and bloom.” 

Destiny shared what it was like to transition from foster care at age 18, and to feel pressured to financially support her biological mother. FYI gave Destiny a chance to focus on building a future for herself -- it allowed her to focus on her own destiny. She is now living in her first apartment. Waking up in her own place makes her grateful every day, and she is eager to help others and to be a spokeswoman for FYI in the future.

Desiree participated in the call from work, while wearing a mask that said “No Legwork, No Success.”  Desiree exemplified that message by working during the call, with her manager’s permission. In the midst of her efforts, Desiree always took time to cheer on the goals and accomplishments of other youth.

Desiree shared what she desires for her future, “My goals are to eventually own my own house, and to create multiple sources of income for myself. To make sure to prepare; to put myself in a situation where I never need to worry about where I’m going to sleep. I’ve kind of dealt with that my whole life.

Desiree wrote a personal thank you to HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his staff (including Chris Patterson, Danielle Bastarache and so many others) and to everyone who made this possible for her and others to have this opportunity:

“Thanks for making this opportunity possible for people who don’t have much opportunity. People who don’t feel seen in the world. I can only speak for myself so thank you for making me feel seen and heard in a world that makes me feel less than. 

“Thank you for empathizing and for reaching for more - to give other people a chance to reach for more. A lot of people grow up like us, in situations that makes them cold, but instead their hearts grew fonder for the idea of everyone getting a chance to excel.  So for that, I thank you. (FYI) teaches me not to give up on myself... Resilience has been my biggest strength, and now I live in gratitude.” 

Isabella from Ohio also wrote up her goals ahead of time. She wants to become a therapist, a future homeowner and to become a wife and a mother. She plans to pursue a PhD, while also exploring her creative talents as a singer, songwriter and future author.

FYI is making it possible for Isabella to build a savings account. She deeply appreciates the economic stability that FYI makes possible. Isabella also wanted to share how FYI has the potential to help former foster youth throughout the country avoid unnecessary debt. She expressed heartfelt appreciation for the independent living preparation that she had received.

Likewise, Shadjah from Virginia expressed her gratitude that FYI has helped her with stability and saving money. Her caseworker Vickie shared that this incredible resource is helping young people focus on work, education and building positive relationships and community networks.

It isn’t easy to be the parent you never had. Lindsey from Iowa aged out when she turned 18. She is a proud mother who plans to enter police academy in January 2021. FYI is making it possible for her to provide for her children, and focus on buying diapers, wipes and other necessities.

Holly of Oklahoma aged out of foster care at 18 years old, and experienced homelessness. “Now that I have a place to sleep at night, it’s very very helpful.” FYI is providing a platform for Holly to create a stable home for her children, maintain employment and seek to attain her GED and pursue college. Trying to juggle all of those goals without having a place to sleep at night was incredibly difficult. 

There is no blueprint for building a family after foster care, and FYI is helping many young people successfully navigate this unfamiliar territory. More than one participant shared that having this housing resource makes it possible for them to provide for and maintain custody of their children.

Dakota from Oregon had experienced three years of homelessness after aging out of of foster care. This is lost time that could have been avoided if he had been able to receive a housing voucher when he first left care. He is incredibly grateful that this resource exists now -- it is making it possible for him maintain full-time employment. In his words, “What does this resource mean to me?  It means stability and a brighter future.”  

Joelle, also from Oregon, shared how much it meant to no longer have to live out of a short-stay hotel. The sense of permanency that she is experiencing by not having to live in such impermanent status is helping her to create the foundation of stability that she has always craved.

Every young person on the call was clearly dedicated to maximizing this opportunity by making the very most out of it, and then paying it forward to help others. 

Other amazing speakers during the call included  Chris Patterson and Ryan Jones from HUD, HHS Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson, Jamole Callahan from ACTION Ohio, Ruth Anne White from the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, and foster care alumna Christina Meredith who is heading up efforts to move FYI forward in Texas.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson celebrates the one-year anniversary of FYI

If Ohio foster care youth, alumni and allies had never traveled to DC from 2013-2019, these vouchers wouldn’t exist - and that is truly humbling.


Saturday, July 25, 2020

2020 FYI Virtual Celebration

Click to enlarge


#FosterYouthtoIndependenceMonth
#FYIworks

Young people throughout the nation who are participating in the Foster Youth to Independence initiative expressed their thanks to HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his staff on Friday, July 24, 2020.

Former foster youth from Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia shared their goals for the future and how this resource has helped them personally to move forward to build their futures.

Additional speakers included HUD FYI Lead Chris Patterson, HHS Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson and foster care alumna Christina Meredith who is heading up efforts to move FYI forward in Texas.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Ohio foster care youth and alumni featured as Humans of HUD

Ohio foster care youth and alumni are honored to be featured as Humans of HUD:
Each of the individuals listed below is one of 60 former foster youth representing ACTION Ohio and the OHIO YAB, who traveled to DC between 2013 and 2019 to partner with the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (NCHCW) in pursuing national solutions for young people aging out of the foster care system and at risk of homelessness. In March 2019, ACTION Ohio and NCHCW met directly with Secretary Carson to present a proposal to house former foster youth. Within four months of their meeting, Secretary Carson launched the Foster to Youth Independence initiative, providing housing vouchers to public housing authorities to prevent and end homelessness among young adults who recently left the foster care system without a home. Since July 2019, HUD has awarded $5.4 million and 654 vouchers nationwide to assist young adults.

[Natasha from Ohio]
Natasha
Ohio
"When I traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary Carson, I wanted to help lay a foundation to improve housing outcomes for my brothers and sisters. I wanted to help map out housing solutions for young people aging out of foster care. My biggest fear growing up was becoming homeless. Knowing I would have an opportunity to advocate for individuals that were just like me, made this my lifelong mission. My advice to youth leaving the foster care system - be your own best advocate. Only you can make the choice to know your value, share your voice, be a voice for yourself and then become a voice for others."

[Michael from Ohio]
Ohio

"I had traveled with ACTION Ohio several times over the years to propose housing solutions with my fellow brothers and sisters. The meeting with Secretary Ben Carson made me feel like our solutions for the first time were being recognized and that validated our efforts. As someone who has struggled with housing insecurity, it makes me hopeful to see housing authorities across America working with child welfare agencies creating FYI [Foster Youth to Independence] programs to serve other foster youth. I know housing resources are scarce and what makes me most proud about FYI is that it does not disenfranchise other vulnerable populations. No one gets bumped down on the waitlist for housing because of our efforts. I felt inspired to become involved because of the support and encouragement I experience from my chosen family. If not for the support of my chosen family and countless people along the way, I would never have made it. I wanted to continue to pay it forward to others so that they do not have to struggle in the same ways I did. My advice to youth leaving the foster care system - surround yourselves with people who believe in your greatness. No one succeeds alone, it takes a village to become stable. Find folks who encourage you to pursue your goals and can be there to help you when you need it."
[Kimberly from Ohio]
Kimberly
Ohio
"My time in DC meeting with Secretary Carson meant so much to me because we were doing more than just calling for change. We were helping to design a way to make that happen. As a former foster youth who has experienced homelessness at various stages in my life, this issue is incredibly personal for me. I'm deeply proud of the countless number of foster youths, who have demonstrated tremendous courage by using their voices to be the driving force that brought about this program. My advice to youth leaving the foster care system - you aren't defined by your past experiences. You are worthy of love, respect, and taking up space on this earth."
[Marcus from Ohio]
Marcus
Ohio
"When I traveled to Washington, DC to discuss and propose housing solutions with Secretary Carson and legislators, it was one of the most meaningful things that I had ever done. It was an amazing opportunity to speak directly with the decision makers and create thoughtful change that would positively affect foster youth. I was inspired to help after visiting a statewide meeting. It was my first exposure to a platform that truly gave me a step to stand on and a microphone for my voice to be heard. Being a teenager in foster care your life is dictated by policy. These organizations [ACTION Ohio] gave me the opportunity to address flawed policies on a local and statewide level. This is where I was able to begin advocating for housing solutions and many other issues that foster youth experience during foster care and after emancipation. My advice for someone leaving foster care is - to be bold in everything you do. Be the best version of yourself and never accept the unacceptable."
[Lisa from Ohio]
Lisa
Ohio
"When I aged out of foster care in 1989, there was no plan for my future. I started college at age 16 and was homeless within a year. At age 18, I moved into a dorm, and having housing helped me move forward and earn a Master's degree. Upon hearing from foster youth that this struggle was still happening, I wanted to empower them to share their insights to make a change. I am honored to have played a role in mobilizing my brothers and sisters of the system, and deeply proud of each of them. I am grateful with all my heart that HUD listens to those with lived experience, and in awe of how quickly Secretary Ben Carson moved forward to make FYI [Foster Youth to Independence] vouchers a national reality. What inspires me most about our group is the focus on coming up with proactive solutions. Statistics tell a story, and we can improve outcomes by addressing the factors that perpetuate them. Each of my brothers and sisters of the foster care system throughout the country have the ability to generate positive change. My advice to youth leaving the foster care system is to seek out trustworthy people and let them know when you need help. There are amazing allies out there and partnering with them can only improve our effectiveness."

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

2020 HUD Regional Roundtable and Plans for Moving FYI Forward

 

Link to video that shares HUD's plans for moving FYI forward.

ACTION Ohio and the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare were honored to work with Rosa Ailabouni, Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator, HUD Region V to help plan a virtual roundtable on May 28, 2020.

Youth Speaker Bios:
  • Former foster youth Ciara Richey received an FUP voucher at age 21, which made it possible for her to continue to pursue higher education. She is currently working two jobs and attending Ohio University Zanesville. She is close to receiving a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice, after which she plans to enter the Columbus Police Academy in order to become a private detective.
  • Former foster youth Desaray Lavery works full-time at Arby's. She will be using an FYI voucher to move into her new apartment next month. The new apartment is close to her job, and will allow her to have a dog and work as a groomer.

Additional Speakers During the Roundtable:
  • Joseph GalvanRegional Administrator, US Dept of Housing and Urban Development, Region V
  • Elizabeth DarlingCommissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Kara Wente, Assistant Director of Health and Human Services at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services 
  • Chris Patterson, Regional Administrator, US Dept of Housing and Urban Development, Region IX
  • Joaquin Cintron VegaPresident and CEO, Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority
  • Sonja NelsonAssistant Vice President of Resident Initiatives, Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority
  • Cassie Snyder, Associate Director of Youth Transition Services, Franklin County Children Services
  • Brianna MooreSocial Service Worker, Portage County Job and Family Services
  • Travena KaminskiSection 8 Assistant Manager, Portage County Housing Authority

Saturday, May 16, 2020

2020 CDF Ohio Webinar: Cultivating Opportunities for Youth




Cloe Cooper, Joshua Hatch, Talia Holmes, Michael Outrich and Destiny Higgins did a wonderful job during yesterday's webinar.

Here's a link to watch the video.