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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Columbus Foster Care Forum, during which 11 foster care alumni were able to share testimony

Click to enlarge picture, and visit this link for more photos

Foster care alumna and Children Services Transformation Advisory Council member Juliana Barton was able to work with amazing allies at CSCC and the Council in order to hold a dinner/pre-meet before the Columbus Foster Care Forum. This provided a personalized opportunity for participants of Columbus State’s Scholar Network for former foster youth to share their insights with the Council.

Office of Children Services Transformation Director Kristi Burre and Policy Manager Kari Akins made it possible for participating foster care alumni to fill out testimony slips ahead of time. As a result, 10 foster care alumni were able to share testimony during the Columbus Foster Care Forum. (Eleven, if you count Cloe reading mine, because I was able to take photos, but my voice was gone. I remain deeply grateful to CloĆ© Cooper for reading my testimony aloud during the forum and being my voice).

Kristi Burre started off the forum by stating that, “This evaluation of our system is a long time coming and we know there’s a lot of work to do.” She explained how an Executive Order by Governor Mike DeWine (who is a long-time champion of Ohio foster care youth/alumni) led to the creation of the Council.

 Just as in his former role as Attorney General, 
DeWine held a series of Child Safety Summits, in his current role as Governor, he directed the council to host a series of forums: “All are invited to attend, and those with lived-experience with the foster care system are encouraged to submit testimony.”

This was one of ten Foster Care Forums facilitated by the council.

It was great to hear from foster care allies as well.

Cloe's Testimony for Foster Forum

My name is Cloe Cooper. I am a foster alumni, a member of ACTION Ohio and a Student Coordinator for the Columbus State Scholar Network.

I would like to start by thanking Governor DeWine for caring about children in state care and the outcomes of those who transition out of care into adulthood. I think it is extremely impressive that Governor DeWine choose to have foster alumni on his committee for improvement and I think that youth voice should always have a seat at the table when making decisions in regard to their care and resources.

I am not the type of person who likes to talk about the poor experiences of my childhood and teen years. However, given that this particular platform encourages those like myself to do so, I would like to share not the details of my experiences but rather that the horrific things I experienced in residential facilities as a teen in the custody of Franklin County Children services continues to give me night terrors as an adult. 

While I will not go into detail about the things I witnessed and endured, I will say that what haunts me the most is the feeling of helplessness I embodied as I tried to help myself and my sisters in care make it through our daily lives. Fearing repercussion, there are countless incidents that went unreported. Those that were, were swept under the rug, or myself and my sisters were severely punished as a result of speaking our truth. 3 of the 4 residential facilities I was placed in are no longer operational. 2 of the 3 were shut down due to the mistreatment of its residents.

With that being said, I stand here today and say with every ounce of confidence in my body that it is imperative to the wellness of children in care that the State of Ohio have a Foster Care Ombudsman. The mental, emotional and physical health of children in care will remain at risk if there is no neutral outlet for reports to be made in the event of neglect or abuse. Providing a safeguard and emotional wellbeing to those whose lives are entrusted to the foster care system will help prevent mental and physical illness and the number of AWOL children, those of which are at all time high risk for Human Trafficking. In addition, 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.

In addition to the need for a Foster Care Ombudsman, I would like to bring attention to the need of preparation for young adulthood, especially in Residential Facilities. Programming for independent living skills should be the same across the board in all county agencies to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to gain skills regardless of their placement location. It should be mandated that these programs are provided consistently in every county and private agency. In my personal experience, the opportunity to gain independent living skills was scarce.  I was placed out of county and programming for me was hours away in Franklin County. Due to lack of programming in the facility I was placed, and unwillingness from staff members and county caseworkers to transport me where it was provided, I aged out of a residential facility in 2012 and had no idea how to take care of myself.

One of the biggest barriers I faced was finding and paying for safe and stable housing. I did not have the knowledge I needed, and no freedom beforehand to earn the means required to take care of myself. Although I had immediately begun pursuing higher education when I aged out of care, having little support ultimately resulted in homelessness and dropping out of school.

Had it not been for finally securing stable housing for myself, The Columbus State Scholar Network, the support they provided me and the resources I was put in touch with because of my involvement in the program, I don’t know if I would be giving my testimony here today. I do know that I would not be on track to graduate at the end of this semester, and I surely wouldn’t be in the position I am to advocate for better outcomes for my brothers and sisters in care and transitioning into adulthood. I have said this before, and I will say it again and again and again to anyone who is willing to listen.

If former foster youth are given the chance and platform to be successful, the benefits to the nation’s economy, communities and policy improvements are immeasurable. All they need is the opportunity. There is a chance here to give current foster youth their voice and an opportunity to live their lives happily and healthy. I have faith in our shared commitment to improvement. I look forward to seeing what achievements the future holds for our young people in and transitioning out of care.

Thank you for your time and dedication.

LaShondra's Testimony for Foster Forum

Coming soon...

Nikki's Testimony for Foster Care Forum

My name is Nikki Chinn, and I am former foster youth that aged out of Franklin County in 2008.  I am one of the founding board members of ACTION Ohio, a member of the Columbus State Scholar Network, and the Youth Constituent Liaison on the Board of Directors for My Very Own Blanket.

I want to first thank the Children Services Transformation Advisory Council for hosting these forums and asking former foster youth to take part. I also want to thank Governor Mike DeWine who has been an incredible ally to those of in and from foster care.

One of most pertinent issues that I would like address tonight is the need for a non-biased foster care ombudsman for our youth in the state of Ohio.  Youth are taken out of their biological homes through no fault of their own, are put in placements that are supposed to be safe and free from abuse and neglect, but unfortunately not all placements are free from abuse and neglect.  Abuse in foster homes has only increased with privatization of the foster care system.

At the age of fourteen, I was placed in a residential center where I witnessed staff members assaulting youth in more ways than one.  This particular placement also used food as a punishment.  If a youth were to act out, many times they would not be permitted to eat the next meal, and if they were it was not the same food that everyone else got to eat.

At the age of sixteen, I spent time in a foster home that had five of us foster youth living in one bedroom.  We had a bunk bed and a single twin mattress on the floor.  The five of us would take turns each night on who got to sleep on a bed/mattress and who slept on the bare floor.  We were not allowed to leave to the bedroom without permission, which included going to the bathroom.  We had no dresser, or closet in our room.  We were not allowed to be with the members of the biological family and were not allowed to talk to our foster mother’s biological daughter.  The foster mother kept pad locks on all the cabinets and on the fridge so we could not get food when we were hungry.  When we did eat, we were cooked ramen noodles while the foster family had actual meals.

In both of these situations, myself and the other youth reported the issues to our case workers, however the problems persisted.  In the residential center it was a very rare occasion when a youth would be permitted their legal right to contact the residential coordinator or make a grievance, and when were allowed to, the coordinator worked for the same company, so our concerns either got swept under the rug or we were told that we making the accusations up.  In the foster home, the foster mother would create elaborate lies about what horrid children we were and how bad our behavior was, so we would get reprimanded from the case workers rather than the foster mother.  Had a Foster Care Ombudsman been available to me at the time, myself and the other youth could have gotten into safer placements much sooner than we did.

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 also 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.

I appreciate you taking the time to listen myself and my brothers and sisters of the foster care system.

Jaye's testimony for Foster Care Forum

Good evening everyone I would like to first offer my sincere thanks and Sunflowers to Governor Dewine for such great compassion for our foster care community and foster care outcomes and also thank you to the Children Services Transformation advisory council for hosting this series of forums it is such an honor to be here before you all 

My name is Jaye Turner and I am a former foster youth with several roles. I am a child of God and my favorite role of all: I am a mother, my son is my best friend. Next to those amazing roles I sit on the Board of ACTION Ohio who have been doing outstanding work to improve foster care outcomes and that's not just here in Ohio, but in our nation.

I am also a Service Reception Coordinator at a private foster care agency where I spend my nights working on finding placement for youth going into care or I am transporting them to their placement home as well has walking our foster parents through crisis. I am also the proud founder of an organization named El’lesun which is created to advocate for and serve our foster care community as a whole so we are creating programs for our youth to thrive even in their circumstances and having support groups for our foster parents because we know that without ongoing support our youth will not prosper.

I want to share with you all one issue with the system. Within the many roles I am learning yes, but I am also able to connect and listen to the frustration of not only our youth but caseworkers and foster parents and what's mind-blowing and heartbreaking is to get calls from our foster parents requesting to put their 30-day notice in on a child or give up their license because they don't feel equipped to handle the child's trauma when they're ”misbehaving” they call our agencies in hopes of support and while we have training on how to handle that type of situation so that a child's placement isn't disrupted not all the time does that help and our foster parents still feel as if they aren't getting the support and training they need from us to better do their part.

We know that there are not enough foster parents here in Ohio and it's not because people don't care or that they don't want to help but it's because they lack support and don't want to feel as if they're doing it alone.
There is light in all of this; there is a great solution, and that's surrounding our Foster Parents with a Live Support Group where monthly meetings are held for a time of fellowship where their voices are heard and support is given within each other and the community so they aren't just relying on their agency who lack the time to support them.

With El’lesun we have created and will launch our Support Groups that will provide community resources in ongoing training around crisis prevention trauma as well as helping our youth towards independent living because we know that if our foster parents aren't supported and well then our youth will still experience instability in and out of the system... 

Ashley's testimony for Foster Care Forum

Good Evening to you all, I would like to take this time to thank you all for taking the time out of your busy schedules to hear our stories. It is my hope that in sharing my experience, I can help contribute to the betterment of our foster care system; for the youth, foster care alumni and its workers on all levels.

My name is Ashley Williams and I am a former foster youth. I am a graduate of both Columbus State Community College and Kent State University. I have a job that I love and safe space to call home. However, years ago, I did not believe this was remotely possible. I was navigating life without help or guidance when I was placed in Kinship Care with my siblings.

There were five of us, me and my siblings living with relatives in a small home in Toledo, Ohio. We had not been told why we were there and why we were not able to see our parents. I surmised it was due to their unstable lifestyles but that was something I could not tell to my siblings. I was 14, how could I explain that to them? I would like to see these matters address to the youth; tell them why they are in foster care, explain to them what is going on.

We were good kids, but sometimes that had not been enough for my relatives. We were the ‘annoying children’ of their sister. We were made fun of, pitted against one another, asked to do things we should not have been allowed to. We had an overworked case worker who just could not keep up with our issues along with the many families in the same predicament. We had a new case worker after her. It was like starting over again. I would like to see resources for self-care for case workers and social workers. They cannot help us if they cannot help themselves.

I asked if we could find out what was going on with our parents to get answers and was angrily told to forget about them. I was too scared to speak up anymore, because it would risk me and siblings to be split up. Not many people could house five children together. In the years that followed, we got older and wondered what would become of us when eighteen years old meant you were out. I was told to save money to get a place at sixteen to prepare. I was perplexed on how that was going to get done when I was a part-time cashier at a grocery store. We all grow up and become adults. I would like to see foster care dive deep to provide all resources necessary for teens in care to become healthy, functioning adults.

Independent Living was established when I was eighteen and I scrambled to learn all I could to be a functioning adult. I had two stellar case workers who stuck by me and made sure I got the resources I needed to apply to college, books when I got accepted and how to manage bills. Independent Living was extremely crucial as I had to explore the world as a adult. I am one of the lucky ones. Other teens I knew did not have such resources and were left behind while others soared. I would like to see Independent Living available for all 88 counties in Ohio so no one is left behind.

I appreciate you all for listening. This is just but a snippet of my life journey. I hope it will encourage unbridled action to provide a sense of normalcy for our foster youth in Ohio and the nation. I believe if we all work together, it is indeed possible. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Gabriella's testimony for the Central Ohio Foster Care Forum

Here's a link to all the photos from this event.

Good evening Governor DeWine, children services representatives, and fellow foster care alumni. Let me begin by expressing my sincere gratitude for your displayed interest in providing foster care services that result in positive outcomes. I would also like to thank Children Services Transformation Advisory Council for hosting this series of invaluable forums.

My name is Gabriella Craft and I am a foster youth alumnus of Franklin County and an Ohio-Licensed, Masters level Social Worker. I have spent the past decade providing care to individuals in the community suffering with mental health and addiction disorders. Both my personal and professional experiences have afforded insights in challenges faced by many foster youths. I would like to briefly share these challenges and provide suggestions to effectively address these challenges for the future.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that has, and continues to face foster youth is a general lack of life skills training and independent living preparation. As one of many foster youths that “aged out” of the foster system, I regret never being provided basic preparation in areas crucial to functioning as a productive adult in society. Through my professional experiences, I’ve come to find that this is a common thread among foster youths. There is a general lack of provided education in managing personal finances, self-care/reproductive health, employment preparation, and even basic skills such as cooking and driving a vehicle. This gap in services serve to exacerbate an ever-present list of challenges already faced by this population.

While I have been fortunate in my adult life to have had the tenacity and resourcefulness to assist in my coping skills,  quite frankly, I still struggle with the ability to compensate for my lack of basic cooking, budgeting, and common life skills that I did not receive while I was still a part of the foster system. When I reflect on these challenges accompanied by the daily challenges, we all face as adults, the overwhelming realization is that this issue expounds well beyond me.

We place so much faith and funding in our institutions, and expect they serve their clients by helping them stay safe and meet their needs. I think better preparing our foster youth for adulthood by providing them skills and training to safely and effectively manage their everyday lives is how we accomplish this task and eliminate these gaps in services.  There needs to be caring adults and former foster youth who are utilized to train others in these areas as a part of a “pay it forward” initiative.

It is vitally important that Ohio provide a statewide, consistent, and evidence-based approach when it comes to independent living preparation. It is unacceptable that the current level of preparation that a young person receives, is dependent upon which county they live in and/or which private agency is entrusted with their care. For our state not to adequately and consistently prepare foster youth, ages 14 and over, with life skills to help them succeed in the future is a violation of Federal Law.

I would like to recommend that the state seek funding and collaboration with agencies to deliver basic life skills to foster youth. I also propose that every foster youth be evaluated with a standardized assessment for deficits in these or other domains of basic life skills so they can appropriately be linked with agencies to fill these gaps. I am convinced there must be a better way to help protect and prepare foster youth for life before they leave the foster System, and I am fully willing to work with representatives of the foster System to help initiate that needed change. I am inspired by the words of human rights lawyer and activist, Megan Davis, who once said, “It takes a village to raise a child, and I choose to be an actively-participating member of my village.”

Lisa's testimony for the Central Ohio Foster Care Forum

(Thank you, Cloe, for reading my testimony aloud because I had laryngitis)

Good evening. My name is Lisa Dickson, and I am a former foster youth. I serve as co-facilitator of the OHIO Youth Advisory Board and Communications Chair of ACTION Ohio. Our two groups have been working together since 2006 in order to improve foster care outcomes in our state and in our nation.

I wanted to begin by thanking Children Services Transformation Advisory Council for hosting this series of forums. We share your goal to positively transform foster care in the state of Ohio.

I also wanted to offer heartfelt gratitude to Governor Mike DeWine because he is a long-time champion when it comes to improving outcomes for young people in and from foster care. In his former role as Attorney General, he included Ohio foster care youth in each of his eight Child Safety Summits and empowered foster youth as Subject Matter Experts during the Two Days in May Conference in 2012.

Young people enter foster care due to factors outside of our control, such as neglect, abuse or separation from a parent to due to their death, incarceration or substance abuse. As foster care youth, we did not choose the family into which we were born - we can only make our own choices. In the midst of family upheaval, we seek first to survive the moment at hand, and then try to figure out how to build a positive future.

One thing that threatens our immediate survival is when we are entrusted to unsafe living conditions. The OHIO Youth Advisory Board has received concerns from Ohio foster care youth that their basic needs are not being met in certain, specific group homes, foster homes and residential and adoptive placements.

They have reported being placed in unsafe and/or unsanitary conditions, and having difficulties in contacting their caseworker about the situation. They shared their local agency child abuse hotlines often have long wait times, lack of follow-through on reports made directly by youth, and staff answering the phone who are not youth-friendly.

It is for this reason that Ohio foster care youth and alumni have been advocating for years for an independent office that would investigate their concerns – and requesting that it be housed at a separate entity such as the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

It is our understanding that, in recent foster care forums, foster parents have expressed that they want this office to serve them as well. I care about the needs of all, and so I want to make this message very clear: 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.

To try to combine both needs into one office risks undermining the very purpose that youth asked for an Ombudsman’s office in the first place: To protect youth from abuse in whatever placement they have been entrusted by the system; whether it be foster, adoptive, kinship, residential, or whether the system has chosen to reunify them with bio family.

My second request is that Independent Living Departments should be mandated in every county, and that foster parents and caseworkers who serve teens should be mandated to attend specific training on resources to assist in the transition to young adulthood. As foster youth, whether we are adopted, reunified, or whether we age out of foster care, one thing is certain – we will all grow into adults someday.

The better informed our foster parents and caseworkers are about available resources to help us successfully navigate that journey, the better. Therefore, it is perplexing that foster parents and caseworkers who are entrusted with teenagers are not required to take specific training on resources available to support foster youth transitioning into young adulthood.

This important topic is not mandated in any way for foster parents or caseworkers who serve teens. It is only an option on the training calendar, if it is even scheduled in their area. Often the decision about which training courses to attend depends on whether or not the caseworker/foster parent needs training hours.

This leads to inconsistency in practice, and young people not being informed about resources that exist for the very purpose of helping them. This lack of knowledge is literally costing young people in terms of their short- and long-term outcomes, which can often lead to homelessness.