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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Senate Caucus on Foster Youth recognizes and supports ACTION Ohio's efforts

A decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee

Ten years ago this month, Sen. Mary Landrieu and I founded the bipartisan Senate Caucus on Foster Youth. We launched this caucus a decade ago to give voice to the thousands of young people in America who deserved a platform to break the silence on the challenges and success stories of foster care. This issue impacts every community in America.

Our caucus not only provides the platform, we encourage foster youth to participate and lead discussions on issues that matter most to them. It’s become a vital network for young people to connect with other youth in foster care and empowers them to share their ideas with researchers, advocates and lawmakers.

When I first got involved in foster care and adoption policy more than 20 years ago, I learned kids in foster care are the last ones to have a say in determining their future. If they are even asked at all. I learned older youth in foster care are brimming with innovative ideas to improve the system. And yet, they rarely had an opportunity to share those ideas with policymakers. When we launched the foster youth caucus in 2009, we made this a specific priority. Our mission was to ensure foster youth had a seat at the table.

Over the years, we’ve hosted discussions to consider barriers facing foster youth, including access to education, pervasive rates of homelessness and juvenile justice involvement, and substance abuse. We heard astounding stories of seemingly impossible success, as well as heartbreaking examples about things that are broken in the foster care system. The caucus invited stakeholders in the foster care system to learn about innovative programs working in communities across the country. We’ve followed up with researchers to understand why. But most importantly, we listened to the real experts on foster care: youth who have firsthand experience.

Listening directly to them has made a big impact on policy development and implementation. Time and again, foster kids tell us they want stability, a safe place to live, and a loving family. Many times, we heard testimonials from foster kids that if someone had just helped their parents, they might have avoided foster care in the first place. These conversations led to enactment of the Family First Prevention Services Act. This federal law reforms the foster care system to focus on what keeps kids safely at home, rather than bringing them into foster care.

One of the challenges facing older teens who age-out of the system without reunification with their biological family or adoption is homelessness. Once again, we heard from foster youth to solve the problem.

In 2013, ACTION Ohio, a group of foster youth and foster care alumni began advocating for changes in housing policy to access federal housing assistance. Although HUD’s Family Unification Vouchers were previously available to youth who “aged out” of care, this group flagged flaws in the program. We collaborated and crafted solutions. These efforts led to the development of HUD’s Foster Youth to Independence Initiative and my introduction in 2017 with Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) of the bicameral Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act. This legislation to make additional improvements to accessible housing for foster youth was reintroduced and is making its way through the 116th Congress.

In its first decade, the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth flexed its influence and made a difference. In the 116th Congress, nearly one-third of the Senate is on board with 32 senators from both sides of the aisle. Even in divisive political times, there’s a chord of bipartisanship to help kids in foster care.

All children deserve a safe, permanent, loving home and consistent, caring adults to parent them. Society owes a debt of gratitude for all those who work to achieve this goal. Foster parents, caseworkers, court officials and youth advocates are a lifeline to vulnerable youth. I commend foster kids and teens for speaking up, demanding action, and fervently working to improve a system that in some cases failed them.

As a co-founder and current co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth with Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, I will continue listening and leading the way so foster youth are empowered to pursue their dreams like every child in America.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Columbus Dispatch Editorial Board endorses FSHO

Many thanks to the Columbus Dispatch Editorial Board for endorsing the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act:

  • "Brown and Grassley’s bill would offer a lifeline to former foster children who find themselves suddenly on their own and without the family support most young adults can count on."

  • "Currently they have to join long waiting lists for housing vouchers through a federal program, and many become homeless. The Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act would make the vouchers available to aged-out foster youth on demand and in more communities."

The Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. House of Representatives, and is currently being championed in the U.S. Senate.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Following up on meeting with ODJFS Director Kim Hall

Link to more photos

The three topics we discussed with with Director Kim Hall of ODJFS on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019 were:
1.) The need for every Ohio county to provide adequate independent living preparation for teens in foster care, as per state and federal law, and to utilize Chafee funding with a focus on improving outcomes for youth. We shared the negative impact that the “one worker” model has had on independent living preparation, and the desire to maintain IL departments/experts in every Ohio county. We also shared concerns that caseworkers and foster parents aren’t required to take specific training on resources to support foster youth transitioning into young adulthood.

When it comes to training requirements for foster parents and caseworkers, there is big push by foster parents to reduce training hours and move to more accessible training methods such as online. But our discussion was the first mention that Director Hall had heard regarding foster parents and caseworkers who serve teens not currently being required to taking trainings about available resources to help young people transition successfully to young adulthood.
2. The need for normalcy training and safety requirements for group homes and residential placements. Why is normalcy is included in Ohio Revised Code, but not Ohio Administrative Code? Could this be changed in order to translate the law (ORC) into rules that will actually positively impact procedure (OAC)?
3. Appreciation for the statewide Fostering Pathways to Success Conference, and desire to include foster care youth and alumni voice in conference planning. We also talked with her about FSHO and FYI vouchers.

Director Hall's helpful suggestions were that we:
1.) Email Director Kristi Burre's office all of the details we shared with her

2.) Each make the time to testify at one of the Foster Care Forums

3.) Find out how many Ohio counties have switched to the "one worker" model

4.) Reach out to PCSAO for support in sharing the FYI MOU with county directors

5.) Seek to identify one or more Ohio counties that is doing a great job with FYI vouchers, and partner with PCSAO to promote their work as a role model to other counties

(We are working on items 1, 3 and 4 this morning).
PS - We didn’t talk with Director Hall about the need for a Foster Care Ombudsman’s Office, because this project has been delegated to Director Kristi Burre’s office. But it would be a great topic to mention at the Foster Care Forums -- this was one of Governor DeWine’s campaign promises, but they still don’t have a timeline yet for when or how they will be rolling it out. Sometimes things need a squeaky wheel (like us) to get them to move forward.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Jonathan Thomas - Testimony Template

My name is Jonathan Thomas, and I am a former foster youth who dedicates my time to train others.
I want to thank Governor DeWine for caring about foster care outcomes, and to thank the Children Services Transformation Advisory Council for hosting this series of forums.

I am here to talk with you today about the need to prepare young people for life after foster care, including providing them with emotional supports. I don't know if there are a lot of young adults who are actually ready to leave home when they turn 18. Even those who come from good, and stable homes often find themselves having to return for a number of reasons, such as finances, relationship trouble, stress, etc.

Now, imagine a young adult who has less than a strong foundation, or grasp of what should be as an adult, and imagine them going through the growing pains of becoming an adult completely alone. Imagine the choices they would make simply due to the fact that there isn't that strong continuity of parental relationship in their lives. This world is hard enough for people who have never been through the system, or even had to deal with the trauma that would have to be taking place in ones life to put them in the system. Imagine someone who has to pioneer through all that pain, rejection, and heartache. Many become strong, but many become broken. Their hearts, dreams, and soul stomped on so hard. It's hard to get such ambition back. That fire back. The will to live, to go on.
It is for this reason that I believe not only should there be adequate life skills preparation for foster youth, but there should be support on an emotional level as well. To give them what they might've never had. To fill in some holes that might keep them from turning to crime, suicide, drugs, alcohol, or other negative outcomes.

What I would like to see is better preparation and more emotional supports for young people in and from foster care. I have been helping out locally with this effort by supporting Better Together Toledo. This program brings together small groups of 6-8 volunteers who want to spend time every week with a young adult who has aged out of foster care. Over weekly dinners, these mentors listen to, encourage, and support that young person in achieving their goals for the future.

I believe there are opportunities to provide emotional support to young people during the time that they are in foster care as well. When I was in foster care, I needed a nurturing foster parent that would get their hands dirty, and really help me work through some of the trauma I experienced during my first 14 years of life. I needed a caseworker who cared about what I was going through, and connected with what I was feeling.

As a trainer myself who wants to train through the Ohio Child Welfare Training Program, I believe that having more opportunities for former foster youth to train caseworkers and foster parents will lead to better outcomes.

I want to end by thanking those caseworkers and foster parents who take the time to demonstrate the emotional and nurturing characteristics that are necessary to help youth heal. Thanks to those who understand the magnitude of responsibility that comes with being overseers of those children's lives. Thank you for taking a personal interest. Thank you for not getting caught up in the technical information - and for remembering to feel for the child. To empathize.

Let's keep working together to make things better.

Jonathan Thomas and others share their voices at the NW Foster Care Forum

Residents give recommendations to state foster care council in Bowling Green
Brooks Sutherland, Toledo Blade,  December 9, 2019
Jonathan Thomas of Bowling Green was a foster-care child and knows what it’s like to feel helpless after turning 18 and “aging out” of a home that provided stability after early years of turmoil.
“I don’t know if there are a lot of young adults who are actually ready to leave home when they turn 18,” he said Monday at a state-organized foster care forum at the Wood County Department of Job and Family Services. “Even those who come from good, stable homes, often find themselves having to return for a number of reasons, such as finances, relationship trouble, and stress.”
The need to prepare foster kids for “life after foster care,” was a recommendation given by Mr. Thomas Monday and was one of many heard by members of Gov. Mike DeWine’s newly-formed Children Services Transformation Advisory Council, which was created through executive action last month.
The council in November, announced 10 planned foster-care forums, and made its way to northwest Ohio Monday night to hear how it can improve the system that houses around 16,000 kids in the state.
Kristi Burre, the director of the office of Children Services Transformation, was appointed to co-chair the council alongside LeeAnne Cornyn, the director of the Governor’s office of children’s initiatives.
Ms. Burre said the forums are a listening period for the council before they write recommendations about how to improve the foster care system in January.
“The reason that we’re doing these forums is so the advisory council can travel all around the state and hear about local challenges from those who are involved or are impacted by our system,” she said. 
Ms. Burre said the governor has “charged” his cabinet members and executives with a mission to travel around the state and hear from stakeholders. 
“A lot of it just listening,” she said. “Truly listening and then doing something with the information.”
Recommendations Monday night in Bowling Green ranged from treating family caregivers the same as foster-care parents as far as funding goes, to setting up programs for post-foster care, to providing checks and balances for state and local departments of job and family services.
A packed house listened to public testimony, some speakers getting emotional as they described their experiences in the system. 
“My problems didn’t go away,” Tryshana Garraway, a University of Toledo student, said about life after foster care. “I still had mental health issues, I still had financial issues. I didn’t know how to do things.”
Shirley Wagner, a former foster-care child who became a foster-care parent, gave four recommendations to the council, urging them to “focus on stability,” and provide checks and balances on DFS.
“I think I speak for all of us here when I say there’s a problem with our foster-care system,” she said.
Tricia Cox, a foster-care parent of nine years, who estimates she’s had 58 kids come through her home, said the state needs provide additional resources to ensure kids get to have “normalcy,” as they develop.
“I have a 17-year-old boy who wants to drive, he cannot drive because the agency won’t take the responsibility for insuring him,” she said. “That’s not normal. He wants to drive. He wants to work. Things like that need to be looked at.”
Josh Martin, a veteran and former foster-care child, who sits on the board of directors of Community Teaching Homes, a Holland-based placement and behavioral health services organization, said he’s one of the few who “broke the cycle,” and encouraged the council to not waver on funding.
Jennifer King, a former foster-care child from Bryan, said there are problems all across DFS agencies and they should be addressed with some checks and balances, potentially from the sheriff’s offices.
“I am proposing an advisory council to oversee JFS,” she said. “They need some checks and balances. They are not accountable to anybody but themselves.”
The state will host three more regional forums before the end of the year and then three more in January.

Senate version of the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act


Brown bill would help youth aging out of foster care
Tom Jackson, Sandusky Register, 12/7/2019

When Columbus resident CloƩ Cooper aged out of the foster care system when she turned 18, she intended to go to college. Instead, she became homeless.

“After months of couch-surfing from one bad area of town to another, I eventually had to drop out of school and went on to work a minimum wage job full time,” Cooper told reporters on a Wednesday conference call hosted by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Cooper, a student and employee at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, said it took years for her to earn enough money to go back to college.

Brown introduced Cooper to Ohio news reporters to dramatize the need for the “Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act,” a bipartisan bill to help young people who have aged out of the foster care system receive a public housing voucher for up to 24 months, allowing them to get on their feet while trying to start an independent adult life. 

Brown told the reporters that across the U.S., 20,000 people age out of foster care every year. Up to a third of them are homeless at some point, Brown said.

“You don’t have the same family safety net to fall back on others have,” Brown said.

Brown said the measure was approved in the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. It’s co-sponsored by a Republican, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Brown said he hopes that will aid the measure’s chances of passing the Senate, too.

More than 80 organizations have endorsed the bill, including the Ohio Youth Advisory Board, ACTION Ohio and the Ohio Children’s Alliance.

Brown’s bill comes as the number of children in foster care in Ohio has risen, largely in response to the ongoing drug addiction epidemic. Ohio had 16,185 children in foster care in October 2019, including 80 in Erie County, according to statistics on the website of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

That’s up from 12,511 young people in foster care in October 2009. Foster care cases rose in Erie County, too, spiking to more than 100 in 2014, but officials worked to bring the number down with a concerted effort to find permanent homes for children, reducing foster care cases to 74 by December 2018.