This month’s principle, “OFC seeks and supports strategies to strengthen the voices of youth and families for its work,” is not one that always comes naturally. In addition to stepping outside traditional methods of outreach, we must make an effort to present and capture information in a way that makes sense to those who don’t readily understand the complexities of child welfare policy and programming. The OFC Placement Team (located in the Substitute Care/Permanency Section) is striving to incorporate this principle into its daily work.
This month, we’re featuring Section Chief Amy Eaton, who has taken a leadership role in developing programming that promotes positive youth development. Amy supervises the human developer staff who are responsible for writing all policy that is relevant to children in foster care from birth to age 21.
“Amy’s presentation during a statewide youth advisory board won the hearts of youth in the audience,” said Lisa Dickson of Ohio’s chapter of Foster Care of America. “She was brief and to the point as she expressed her dedication and commitment to listen to the voices of youth, and welcomed their firsthand insights regarding child welfare policies.” We spoke with Amy to ask her about this experience.
Q. What is the picture for youth aging out of foster care?
A. Every year in Ohio, 1,000 to 1,300 youth age out of foster care. Nationwide, a third of youth who age out of foster care have dropped out of school, and a third are or have been incarcerated. Almost a quarter have experienced homelessness, and almost half of the girls have been pregnant. Half are unemployed or underemployed and living three times lower than the national poverty level. Over one-half report at least one mental health problem, and a third are in dire need of health care coverage. These youth are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans.
Q. What have you learned by attending OYAB meetings?
A. So many things. First, there is a stark distance between the youth I hear and the statistics I read. I am so impressed every single time by the maturity, thoughtfulness and sheer likability of the youth I meet through OYAB.
I also am struck by how much I assume I know, and how this often turns around when I listen to youth describe their successes and challenges. For example, the topic of drivers’ licenses is a huge issue for youth. I think we often assume this is related to youths’ universal desire to drive, but when I listen to these articulate young people reflect on the importance of a driver’s license, I am reminded that — in addition to all the teenage motivations — they also are looking ahead to issues of housing, education, employment and maintaining a connection to familiar adults.
Q. Not everyone has the good fortune to attend OYAB. What would you suggest instead?
A. I would love to see every PCSA consider starting a local YAB. The benefit to the youth is so important. These boards create a sense of community and give youth-in-care an opportunity to engage with bright and successful young adults who have navigated the child welfare system and are living meaningful lives. I think these foster care alumni beget other success. They give courage.
Q. You sound like a YAB convert.
A. I am. And, from a selfish standpoint, I think that the YAB really benefits programming that I support. It is one more way to identify those youth who might especially benefit from the services we can provide to support educational and professional development.
I also want to encourage caseworkers and supervisors to take advantage of the new Ohio Child Welfare Training Program course that we have developed, called the Youth Development Curriculum. This includes representatives from OYAB to help teach others how to work with older youth. There is an exercise called “Mind Field” that I think is profound. It reminded me that it is not the loudest voice that gets heard; youth gravitate toward the quiet voice that nurtures. I think we tend to shout.
Q. What one thing do you think caseworkers can do to help youth transition to independence?
A. Start earlier. Our rules require that preparation for independent living begins at 16, but two years is a really short time to accomplish all that needs to occur. There is nothing that prohibits our work from beginning at 14, for example. These are skills that all young adults need, regardless of where they reside.
Q. Anything else?
A. I am very much involved in community service, especially a group called Jack and Jill. So much of what that group is founded on resonates in my job, but I try to incorporate the tenets they project: To create a medium of contact for children, which will simulate their growth and development, and seek for ALL children the same advantages we desire for our own.
Q. You’ll be happy to know that Doris Edelman from Montgomery County Children Services Board says you have “intentional listening skills that allow youth to feel comfortable to speak honestly.”
A. That feels good. I hope people know that even though OFC staff don’t often have direct contact with youth and families, we care.