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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Monday, April 16, 2018

Lisa Dickson's federal testimony on the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

United States House of Representatives
House Committee on Financial Services
Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance

Proponent testimony on:
The Amended Version of H.R. 2069, the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act

Chairman Duffy, Vice Chairman Ross, Ranking Member Cleaver, and members of the committee,

Thank you for this opportunity to offer testimony on the amended version of H.R. 2069, the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act.

My name is Lisa Dickson. As a former foster youth, I wish that I could be there in person to share how much this matters, and the potential this bill has to improve outcomes after foster care. More importantly, I wish you could hear directly from the young people themselves, in and from foster care, who have worked for six years to make this bill a reality.

I am contacting you on behalf of two volunteer organizations. The OHIO Youth Advisory Board serves as the statewide voice of foster care youth, ages 14 and older. ACTION Ohio is an alumni group of adults who experienced foster care personally, and who dedicate our time to improve outcomes for the next generation. Our two groups have been working together since 2006 to make a difference, side-by-side.

Young people enter foster care due to factors outside of their control, such as experiencing neglect, abuse or disconnection from a parent to due to death, incarceration or substance abuse challenges. As foster youth, we do not choose the family that we are born into - we can only make our own choices. In the midst of family upheaval, all we can do is seek to survive the moment at hand, and figure out how to build our future. We often feel alone in this struggle - especially when throughout the nation, over 20,000 youth “age out” of the system every year, and strive to build successful lives.

Leaving home and moving out on your own as a young adult is a milestone that many young people look forward to. But for young people in foster care, this experience often catapults them into an immediate struggle for survival. We want to attain self-sufficiency, and the most important and pressing question is: “Where am I going to live?”  Having a stable residence is critical when it comes to pursuing employment and higher education. 
Imagine being a teen in foster care who is getting ready to enter into young adulthood. You have no savings account, and no parental co-signer to move into an apartment. You worked really hard to get into college, but the dorms are closed on holiday breaks - so, the irony is that while everyone else is celebrating with their family, you don’t know where you are going to sleep that night.

I don’t have to imagine that, because I was one of those young people. When I aged out of foster care in 1989, there was no plan for my future. I had to figure out that path on my own. Thanks to support from an Admissions Counselor at the University of Kentucky named Randy Mills, I entered college at 16 years old. But I ended up homeless within a year. I continued to pursue college, even as I struggled to find an affordable place to live. I found a home in a Methodist dorm called the Wesley Foundation. With stable housing, I was able to complete college and graduate school, working up to five part-time jobs at a time.  Since then, I’ve been working as a full-time librarian for 19 years. It’s my honor to work hard, pay taxes, and seek to “pay it forward” for the next generation.

But that was back in 1989 – so why is the Foster Care to Homeless Pipeline still so prevalent today?  Our nation has moved forward in so many other areas since the time when I was in foster care. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act set a time limit for how long children should languish in foster care limbo before seeking to terminate parental rights. The 1999 Foster Care Independence Act established Chafee funding and independent living classes. The 2008 Fostering Connections Act provided states with the option to extend foster care supports until age 21.

And yet, housing remains the biggest missing piece after foster care. Research demonstrates the pervasiveness of this struggle. Chapin Hall’s longitudinal Midwest research study reveals that 36% of former foster youth experience homelessness before turning 26 years old. In a recent national survey conducted by Child Trends, states were asked to report the primary area in which they could do better to support young people transitioning from foster care. Not surprisingly, housing was the area most commonly marked as in need of improvement.

We have the numbers, and we have the data - what our nation needs is a sense of urgency about this problem. While children are in foster care, the Children’s Bureau measures each states’ success in caring for them by three categories: Safety, Permanence and Well-Being. But if we care about the safety of our children, it should matter to us that when they “age out” into homelessness, they are at risk of trafficking and many other negative outcomes. If we care about permanence, we need to recognize that there is nothing more impermanent than not having a stable address. If we care about well being, then we need to acknowledge the dreams, talents and aspirations of our youth – and that helping them successfully launch into adulthood benefits not only them personally, but also our nation. Given the chance to contribute to society, please know that we can and will give back.

The Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act is thoughtful and intentional. It is based on the premise that we already know where teens in foster care are placed, and that we can connect them with existing housing supports by putting them on the list early. This bill is youth-driven in every sense — because the very reason it exists is that a volunteer group of Ohio foster youth and alumni have been fundraising locally and then traveling to D.C. to advocate for the past six years about the national gap that exists between foster care and housing.

We are not lobbyists or paid staff members. We are current and former foster youth ourselves - and this is an issue that deeply matters to us. We demonstrate how much we care by volunteering our time to help others. Even as we travel to D.C. annually to advocate for this need, on a volunteer basis, we each continue to pursue work, college and opportunities to give back to the community - because that’s what matters most to each of us. Our goal is to work hard, move forward and care for the next generation.

I urge you to pass this bill. The price tag is literally nothing. This is no-cost opportunity to improve outcomes for my brothers and sisters in and from foster care.

Thank you for your time. Please know that I am and will remain available for any questions.

Lisa Dickson
Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now
www.fosteractionohio.org

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Jessica Camargo's Testimony for Amended HB 137


Chairman Coley, Vice Chair Uecker, Ranking Member, and members of the committee, thank you so much for the opportunity to offer testimony on Amended House Bill 137.

My name is Jessica Camargo and I am here on behalf of ACTION Ohio. ACTION Ohio is an alumni group of adults who experienced foster care personally, and who are dedicated to improving outcomes for the next generation. Before I get into the meat and potatoes of my testimony, I would like to remind everyone that April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. The state-wide awareness campaign in Ohio is today, which is why I am wearing blue. Coincidentally, this same color happens to represent the very important lives of police officers.

Every child wants to feel secure. Every child wants to feel safe. In our society, we generally teach children from a young age that the police are our friends. They are here to help us and keep us safe. If we are ever in need of help or fear for our safety, we can go to a police officer, because they will protect us. Our children believe us and often see police as someone they can trust, look up to and count on. I am so grateful to the police out there that are reporting child abuse or suspected abuse despite not being mandated. They have my upmost respect. Unfortunately, not all police officers are, because they are not mandated reporters.

Every state in our nation has statutes identifying professionals that have frequent contact with children and teenagers and requiring them to be mandated reporters - but Ohio is the only state that doesn’t include police officers on the list. This is shocking considering the unique position police officers are in.  Police officers are usually the first responders to a scene. Many of the calls they respond to are domestic situations. Upon arrival, a police officer is trained to immediately scan the surroundings and pay attention to detail. In doing so, they are in the best position to spot warning signs of abuse. Taking a few minutes to report any suspicions to Children’s Services, could preserve the life and outcome of a child or teen.

Further, over the years police have become more present in the halls of Ohio schools. It is crazy to think that the teachers in the schools are mandatory reporters, but the police there are not. It just doesn’t make sense. Police in our schools, have more flexibility to move about the school compared to teachers. They are often more present in the halls, can hear more, and see more compared to teachers who may be limited to the classroom. By not making officers mandatory reporters, we are missing out on valuable opportunities to prevent further physical abuse. Considering, the PCSAO Factbook states that the #1 reason that children and teens enter foster care in the state of Ohio is physical abuse, we cannot let this oversight continue to go on. The time to act is now.

On a more personal level, I would like to say that I am very blessed to have a relationship as an adult with both of my parents. My parents are very supportive of everything I do, they love me, and I know they want the best for me. It took an incredible amount of counseling, understanding, and God’s grace to have what we have now. Despite the story I am about to tell you, my parents fought vigorously for me, and did everything they could to improve upon the few shortcomings they had based on the limited tools their parents gave them. I am grateful for the parents I have despite the unfortunate circumstances we endured as a family years ago.

My story for you today, therefore, begins long before today and long before I was ever even born.  My parents were from a much older generation and the country where a good old fashioned “whipping” was often well beyond what we would consider appropriate today. My mother grew up in a home where her father would come home drunk, line them all up with a gun, and threaten to shoot them all. My father was brought up with a switch and a belt. He experienced watching his mother on several occasions put a gun to his step-father’s head.

My parents set out with the best of intentions when they became parents. They wanted what most parents want. They wanted better for their children. They wanted to be better parents than their parents … and they were. My mom joined the PTA, she helped to teach dare which is why I never turned to drugs, and my dad was there for all my games and a presence in my life. They taught me integrity, a good work ethic, and the importance of education. I would not be where I am today, if it wasn’t for the values they instilled in me.

However, I was the youngest of six children. My 14-year-old sister got pregnant, she joined a gang, and an abundance of crazy things began to spiral.  Stress began to flood the home. My parents began to struggle with the surmounting stress and total utter chaos it created. The more stressed they became, the more it impacted their discipline. The more physical discipline I got, the more I acted out against it. It became a power struggle, and an ever-escalating cycle. Without going into any further details, I eventually ended up in the foster-care system at age 11. 

Nevertheless, when I was still at home, the police practically lived there.  They came when my sister tried to kill herself on multiple occasions in front of me, the police were at our house when my sister threw a baby walker through our front window which I witnessed, the police were there when I refused to go to school because I couldn’t find a pair of socks that felt comfortable enough to wear. The police were always at our house. They were there so much, they knew the house, they knew the number, they knew who we were. However, I am pretty sure there was a lack of reporting by the police, because children services were not exactly knocking at our door and asking questions.

Today, I stand in a unique position because in addition to be a former foster youth, I have a master’s degree in Criminal Justice. I will be graduating from the University of Akron School of Law in May and taking the July Bar. Throughout law school, I have been a CASA through Voices for Children in Lorain County, Volunteered for Child and Family Advocates of Cuyahoga County, Clerked for Juvenile Judge Linda Teodosio in Summit County, worked as a teacher to children facing adversity through the Law and Leadership Program, worked in the Juvenile Division of the Public Defender’s office in Cuyahoga County, currently sit on the Public Policy Committee of the Adoption Network, and I am the former activism chair of the University of Akron’s Social Justice Club. In the capacity of the positions I have held, I have unfortunately seen and learned of occasions where a police officer should have reported and did not. As a result, of police not being mandated to report, it is foreseeable that some children have been and will continued to be abused longer.

As a former foster youth, and advocate for children, I find it completely unacceptable that police officers are still not mandatory reporters almost 26 years later from the time I entered the foster care system till now. We must do better. This can’t continue. As we speak now, children are being physically abused, and somewhere there may be a police officer who knows something, who could pick up the phone, and just make that call, or choose to do nothing and let it continue. Passing this bill is a no brainer. There shouldn’t be an option, because the risk of not reporting could result in serious consequences including death.

I strongly urge you to pass this bill.  Thank you for your time. I would be happy to answer any questions.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Lisa’s written testimony for HB 137

Ohio Senate
Government Oversight and Reform Committee
Testimony on Amended HB 137
Chairman Coley, Vice Chair Uecker, Ranking Member Schiavoni and members of the committee, thank you so much for the opportunity to offer testimony on Amended House Bill 137.
My name is Lisa Dickson. I am here on behalf of two organizations. The OHIO Youth Advisory Board represents foster care youth, ages 14 and older. The board exists to ensure that youth voice is included in policies and practices that impact foster care youth, including group homes and residential facilities. ACTION Ohio is an alumni group of adults who experienced foster care personally, and who are dedicated to improving outcomes for the next generation. Our two groups have been working together since 2006 to make a difference, side-by-side.

Every state has in our nation has statutes identifying professionals that have frequent contact with children and teenagers and requiring them to be mandated reporters - but Ohio is the only state that doesn’t include police officers on the list. This is an unfortunate oversight, because police officers are in a unique position to intervene and help in the life of a teen or child. For example, if a police officer is called to intervene in a domestic situation, they might see something that leads them to suspect that abuse is taking place – if they take the time to report their suspicions to Children’s Services, this might ultimately end up saving that child or teen’s life.

Speaking as a former foster youth myself, who experienced physical abuse as a child, for many years without intervention, I strongly support this bill. I, and many of our members, can testify from personal experience that physical abuse comes with a feeling of powerless. It doesn’t just make you feel incredibly unsafe – it makes you feel invisible. To experience abuse without intervention from the adults in their lives gives children and teens a scary message about their worth and what to expect from other people.

The PCSAO Factbook states that the #1 reason that children and teens enter foster care in the state of Ohio is physical abuse. Now, let's think about the children and teens who aren't being counted or included in that number, because their abuse has not been reported by caring adults. What about them? How long will they continue to experience abuse without intervention?

Sadly, throughout the state of Ohio, in every legislative district, there are children and teenagers who - right now at this very moment - are being physically abused. We care about and deeply appreciate Ohio police officers - that's why we need them on our team to develop a stronger safety net for vulnerable youth in Ohio.

Again, we value our police, and recognize that some officers are taking the time to report abuse already. This next step forward is about “level setting” – getting everyone on the same page, in order to provide consistency. Every child or teen who is being abused matters.

I urge you to pass this bill. Thank you for your time. I would be happy to answer any questions.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Sibling Rights #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs



Ohio foster care youth and alumni recently shared their insights during an Interested Parties Meeting facilitated by Representatives LaTourette and Boyd regarding HB 448: Sibling Rights to Connection.

Participating experts, via lived experience, were:
1.) Jewel Harris
2.) Julius Kissinger
3.) Jerri Braswell
4.) Amanda Davis

Panel Moderator: Rep. LaTourette asked the following questions:
1.) Name, age, and whether or not you were placed with your siblings during your time in foster care/adoption
2.) One of the things this bill would do is to expand the definition of siblings. For those who experience foster care, the definition of sibling is often more broad. Do you have any personal examples of this?
3.) This bill strengthens the wording requiring child welfare agencies to place siblings together when possible and maintain frequent contact when siblings are not placed together. When you were in foster care did you ever go long stretches of time without seeing your siblings? How long? Were you told why?
4.) How would things have been different for you if you were not separated from your sibling(s)? What do you feel could have been done differently? Did your agency/county support or help you when asked about sibling visitation/contact?
5.) Explain in your own words how it feels to be separated from, and out of contact with, a sibling. How does this impact your/their Safety, Permanence and Well Being? (the three areas that the federal government measures child welfare on)


Insights shared included the following:

  • Siblings are a core part of who we are. It's not "normal" (aka: Normalcy) to be separated from siblings. This loss can make a young person feel isolated - lost and alone in a great big and uncaring world where all they can do is sink or swim.
  • Being disconnected from siblings is a traumatic loss that should be taken seriously, and it should be included when it comes to the mandates of a young person's individual service plan.
  • Outcomes matter - and being disconnected from siblings can and does impact interpersonal relationships as an adult.
  • If a young person experiences abuse in an out-of-home (or bio) placement, and has siblings to support them in that moment, this can be a major protective factor in empowering that young person to share what happened, and for them to stand together in demanding to be removed from that placement. But without sibling support, a child or teen can feel incredibly alone.
  • For those who wish they could have been there to protect their siblings, but were separated from them, trying to build a relationship later in life is painfully difficult. It is tough to prove that you are a safe person to a younger sibling who hasn't seen you in years, and who has had painful experiences during which you weren't there to help. Especially when you wish you were there, but had no choice when it came to not being able to be there to protect them.
  • Truly caring about the immediate needs and long-term success of Ohio foster care youth and young adults means moving beyond clinical descriptions of carefully chosen case files gone well. It means listening to the youth themselves about what they long for, and what they need. In most cases, they don't ask much - literally, the greatest ask I've heard lately was a young person whose Children Services agency is within a couple blocks of her high school -- and all she wanted was for her caseworker to consider meeting her at her high school, giving her a ride home, and just listening to her during the drive.