Monday, March 13, 2017 | 2 a.m.
“My father could no longer handle me. It was like his parenting skills were ‘I’m going to beat his head in’ or ‘I’m just going to leave him at home by himself,’ ” said Richard Demarko Brown, painting a picture of his 17-year-old case file.
Brown was about 12 when he entered Clark County’s foster care system, his misbehavior escalating in step with his father’s absence and abuse. He’d brought a note home from school detailing a fight, and his father beat him and disappeared. Brown told a teacher, and Child Protective Services intervened.
“When the official report came in, it said my dad hadn’t been home in days and when he did, he gave me a whooping and left again,” Brown said. “When I look back now, I think I should’ve kept that to myself.”
His sentiment reflects that, nationwide, the safety net for children from volatile homes has significant holes. In Clark County, the child welfare system has long grappled with deficiencies in funding and resources. The community’s transient nature leaves many displaced kids without the typical support of extended family, and it limits the pool of foster parents.
While caseworkers in the Department of Family Services (DFS), advocacy groups, academics and others are dedicated to addressing such gaps, a silo mentality persists, limiting collaboration that could unsnarl the Gordian knot of how to keep kids from falling through the cracks. That includes a lesser-known but vital aspect of foster care — helping youths transition to adulthood if they “age out.”
While DFS’ primary goal is to reunite and strengthen families, that’s not always an option. Nationally, about 26,000 teens age out each year, meaning they turn 18 without having been adopted or reunited with their families. Their preparation starts at 14, when they’re enrolled in Independent Living programs designed to instill basic life skills most kids learn from their parents.
The system is their only bridge.
Over the past three years, 373 foster youths have aged out in Clark County, most opting into extended services until they’re 21, according to DFS Acting Director Paula Hammack. The programs are Step Up, a voucher model, and AB350, a bill passed in 2011 that directly transfers money to participants on debit cards. Both allot up to $773 for monthly expenses, with individuals qualifying for one or the other. And the Affordable Care Act (which Congress is considering replacing) extended Medicaid coverage of basic health care for foster alumni through age 26.
Regardless of aid aimed at improving outcomes, foster youths remain at greater risk of becoming drug addicts, homeless, incarcerated or victims of sex trafficking, and the rate of teen pregnancy is high.
“There is a difference in the support system for kids aging out of foster than the kid who is in a typical family,” said DFS Assistant Director Jill Marano, explaining that a legal advocate or government agency can’t nurture a child like a parent or network of tightly knit caregivers.
“There isn’t any depth or real relationships taught to anyone in foster care,” Brown said of fallout from the common scenario of children bouncing from caseworker to caseworker and home to home.
THE DECK IS STACKED
Judy Tudor recalls studying for her finals in the crowded corridors of Child Haven in the early ’90s. Then 15 years old and a Valley High School student, she had endured her stepfather’s abuse and her mother’s struggles with addiction and poverty for years before being placed in the emergency shelter during her sophomore year.
In defiance of that trauma, Tudor graduated high school and earned a degree from UNLV. She became a social worker and served Clark County for more than two decades, priming her to train caseworkers in her alma mater’s School of Social Work. Crediting her success to education, Tudor partnered with CCSD to identify and assist foster youths with college aspirations. Between semesters, these students could continue living in the dorms instead of sleeping in their cars, on friends’ couches or the streets, or dropping out.
“When we looked at it, not only did they not meet admissions (standards), some hadn’t taken the appropriate classes in high school to qualify for college,” Tudor said. “Some maybe weren’t going to graduate high school.”
A 2016 report from Nevada’s Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities tied poor educational outcomes to students in foster care moving schools once or twice a year because of placements in new homes. For every move, they lost four to six months of academic progress, undermining their ability to perform at grade level and on standardized tests. School transfers also decrease the likelihood of graduation and developing teacher-student mentorships and friendships, while increasing emotional instability that may exacerbate behavioral issues.
In the nine months Tristan Torres was in foster care, he went through two placements and three local high schools.
Torres’ home life had been unstable, and his parents kicked him out in October 2014 after he revealed he was transgender. Then 16, he landed in a situation that quickly had him calling his caseworker saying that if he didn’t get moved, he would run away.
“I packed all of my belongings in garbage bags, and I had someone transport me to a new house the same night because me and the foster mother had gotten into a fight,” Torres said.
André Wade was director of communications and community outreach for DFS at the time. He had never met Torres, and it wasn’t his job to find the teen a better placement, but he heard about the case and made some calls. Torres was transferred to his second foster home before the week was up.
But that placement soured, too. Torres described an environment in which his foster parents withheld food from him as punishment for correcting a family member on his preferred pronouns. He said this led him to sneak food and hide a cup of expired M&M’s in his room.
He reunited with his parents before he turned 18, but he says they didn’t fulfill the cultural competency classes on LGBT issues required by their case plan. When they relapsed on heroin, Torres felt unsafe. Again, Wade was there to help. He had left DFS and was working as director of operations for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, where Torres was interning. Wade mentored and even offered his home to Torres.
“I’m living with people who love me and support me through everything. It’s a family that I never had but I have now. It’s something I really appreciate every single day I wake up in their home, and I just think to myself how lucky I am,” said Torres, who will tell members of the Nevada Senate his story on March 17. He hopes that by advocating for AB99, a bill that would require foster parents to take cultural competency classes, other youths won’t experience his pain.
Torres works at the Center’s Bronze Café and is studying journalism at the College of Southern Nevada. Because extended assistance is exclusive to foster kids who turn 18 while in care, he doesn’t have that financial boost, but he is grateful for his success. “My biological mom is in a trailer park right now, and she’s on heroin. That’s success for me — not following in my mom’s footsteps. ... I’m moving on with my life, I’m responsible for myself; I’m independent.”
If an adoption or reunification is rushed, kids can be left like Torres (Tudor said some caseworkers even encourage youths to stay in the system for the extra money). Madison Sandoval-Lunn, a foster alumna and former Independent Living caseworker for Clark County DFS, was adopted six months before her 18th birthday, disqualifying her from receiving transitional funds. She was left on her own after her adoptive parents refused to support her.
“I served my time, but I got nothing,” Sandoval-Lunn said of her more than seven years in foster care in California. Today, she works as child welfare program and development director for Foster Kinship (a local nonprofit that helps relatives care for children who can’t stay with their parents), as a reviewer of the National Youth in Transition Database (a federal research body anchored in the Administration for Children and Families), and as a UNLV contractor for DFS providing LGBT training.
‘THEY’RE NOT BAD KIDS’
How to help
1. Foster parenting: Fostering a child is one of the most powerful ways to help, but it requires serious commitment and licensing. DFS Director Paula Hammack favors the motto: Become a branch in someone else’s family tree. “When you make the choice to become a foster parent, you’re really making the choice to become an extended family to another family who’s in need.” Free orientations about foster parenting are held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on first and third Tuesdays, and 9 to 10:30 a.m. on second and fourth Saturdays, at 701 N. Pecos Road, Building K.
2. Quality Parenting Initiative: This DFS program works with the community to provide resources for out-of-home placements. Businesses and organizations can donate needed supplies or offer discounts on services or living expenses (contact Denise Parker at 702-455-0568). Individuals can donate clothing, toys, hygiene items and other staples at Peggy’s Attic (701 N. Pecos Road) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 702-455-5424 for more information. To volunteer for DFS, call 702-455-6536.
3. Adopt an older youth: Permanency is often considered the best chance for older teens to thrive.
4. Volunteer at CASA or the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada: Lawyers keen to help can lend expertise to a child or family in need. Fill out the CASA application here: casalasvegas.org/become-a-casa/casa-application. Contact the Legal Aid Center here: lacsnprobono.org.
5. Join the conversation: Attend DFS’ Citizen Advisory Committee from 8:30 to 10 a.m. March 16 at its Central Clark Room, 121 S. Martin Luther King Blvd.
Stereotypes about foster youths, especially teenagers, frame them as bad kids with heavy behavioral issues. The latter may be true in some cases, but UNLV’s Ramona W. Denby-Brinson, a Lincy Institute scholar and professor in the School of Social Work, stresses their histories. “They’re not bad kids; they’re kids who are reacting in a very normal way, the way any of us would if everything we knew today were different tomorrow — your mom is gone, your dad is gone … everything you once knew is gone. We would be suffering grief and loss, too.”
Six years ago, the federal government allotted Clark County a $2.5 million grant to study foster youth ages 12 to 21, focusing on higher teen pregnancy rates that defied the national decrease. The DREAMR (Determined Responsible Empowered Adolescents Mentoring Relationship) Project collaborated with DFS, Tudor and Denby-Brinson, collecting data from 53 families over five years. Early findings indicated that many of the pregnancies were planned.
“They’re longing for that family they don’t have anymore,” Denby-Brinson said. “For many of them, parenthood or a baby is a way for them to seek out that bond, that love, that connection.”
The desolation some foster children feel can lead to issues that extend beyond the system, including the struggle to cultivate the interpersonal skills needed to maintain relationships on social and professional levels, which Denby-Brinson said is critical for success.
“Kids who are in foster care, trauma hits them a little harder because they’re children — the brain isn’t developed,” said Victor Caruso, a trauma therapist who works with victims of extreme abuse and neglect. He explained that traumatic incidents are processed on a loop that causes hypervigilance, interfering with basic life functions (such as focusing on school) and stagnating cognitive development of concepts like right and wrong, trust and acceptance. “The moment they start to feel comfortable or loved, that becomes very frightening … They’ve learned once they get attached, they move. Typically, (foster) kids are moved three, four times. They are not getting the chance to develop like a normal kid.”
Arash Ghafoori, head of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, noted that about 30 percent of people seeking its services were foster care alumni, and that more than a quarter of Nevada’s homeless population were unaccompanied youths. When homelessness strikes during that critical formative time, while youths are still developing and learning to be self-sufficient, its effects can be even more debilitating, Ghafoori said.
Nearly one in five adolescents aging out of foster care will experience homelessness by age 21. In Nevada, that number is over one in three, according to the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD).
“How kids fare here in Nevada is not a priority … Foster youth outcomes are going to be much lower than the general population,” Tudor said.
“A lot of them are quickly lured into illicit activities on the streets, like selling their bodies for survival or stealing, doing drugs to cope with the harsh reality. … There are people who are trying to get youth on substance-abuse patterns because they are easy to manipulate,” Ghafoori said of traffickers who target homeless minors. NYTD data from 2015 show that less than half of surveyed 21-year-olds who left the foster system in Nevada were employed. Denby-Brinson said that financial hardship coupled with emotional vulnerability makes for easy prey.
“For some of them, because they haven’t had that relationship with a meaningful adult, they connect in the wrong way. For a lot of the young girls, they connect with men who don’t mean the best for them … a lot of people in this age group are at a high risk to be trafficked.”
Last year, Metro Police’s human trafficking task force identified 140 minors who were victims of sex trafficking: 138 were female. The youngest was 12.
“A large number of the juveniles that were trafficked were not being reported as runaways or missing, and a majority were coming out of foster care. Not necessarily out of Nevada, but from anywhere,” said Elynne Greene, manager of Metro’s Victim Services and Human Trafficking Special Victims Section. There is no data on how many trafficking victims spent time in Clark County’s foster care system, but CAS Research & Education published a report in 2013 noting: “foster care children are targeted by traffickers because of their need for love, affirmation and protection.”
“The biggest problem we have is that nobody’s looking for them,” Greene said, “so they get to disappear.”
SUPPORT IN SOLIDARITY
Just one person in the system needs to view you as more than a statistic, said Lynne Jasames, who aged out in California in 1998 when transition services were nonexistent.
“I had a worker that I feel believed in me. I had three babies when I aged out, and she allowed them to come with me, but she also found a program for me,” Jasames said of the fact that her oldest two kids were wards of the state until she proved financial stability, though she was placed in a setting that let the family stay together.
“The statistics are ugly for foster kids and teen moms. ... We defied all those odds,” said Jasames, who got her master’s in social work and shared that her sons completed some honors classes and graduated from high school on time. Driven by her own experience, she has worked as a family service specialist for DFS for more than 20 years.
A Nevada snapshot
• As of Dec. 31, there were 520 Nevadans 15 and older in foster care.
• 39.3% of those in foster care in Clark County for three years or more age out of the system (compared to 38.7% statewide and 37.5% nationwide).
“All the people in their lives have been paid to be in their lives. ... The major secret for alumni is having that one relationship with an adult that they can trust,” Sandoval-Lunn said, adding that “trust” means knowing that someone will be a consistent presence. Along with Jasames, Tudor and Brown, she volunteers for Nevada’s chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America, an organization dedicated to effecting systemic change.
Beyond the complex mechanics of child welfare, perhaps the biggest problem is that, as Greene suggested, no one is looking for these kids. The public doesn’t demand data on what they experience inside and outside foster care, so the picture is grossly incomplete. What can be pieced together shows considerable costs to taxpayers on the back end, whether they’re paying for public assistance or jails or absorbing lost wages from young people who never met their potential.
“People think of homeless youth; people think of foster care — they just think of it in one ear and out the other ear. It needs to be the forefront issue in this community,” Ghafoori said. “We as a community tend to be very reactive. We wait until youth hit rock bottom …”
On all sides, there is desire to do better, and to dismantle the barriers between DFS and the community.
“If they can’t foster, can they mentor? If they can’t mentor, can they donate? If they can’t donate, can they volunteer?” Hammack said. “We don’t want a child welfare agency; we want a child welfare community that looks at helping out our kids from a community standpoint, not a: ‘Hey DFS, can you take care of this?
This is the first piece in a series on foster care in Clark County. To share your experiences, contact Camalot Todd: 702-990-2416 or [email protected]
THE TRANSITION FROM FOSTER CARE TO ADULTHOOD
In FY 2011, 107 eligible Clark County foster youths were surveyed by Nevada’s branch of the National Youth in Transition Database. The survey was intended to track the outcomes of transitioning out of care, but the sample was too small to apply to the larger population. No outside agency has reviewed the stats or survey method, said Madison Sandoval-Lunn, a federal NYTD reviewer.
While some categories saw positive change over time, it is important to note that by age 21, more than half of the surveyed youths were unemployed, 30 percent had not earned a GED, and lower numbers using Medicaid reflected that they were either not connected to services or did not know they qualified. It is not possible to infer if the drop in those receiving public assistance was a positive change — i.e. they didn’t need it — or a negative change — i.e. they weren’t connected to services. This reflects the critical need for data collection, and for that data to be reviewed by an outside agency.
• Age 17: 98%
• Age 19: 60%
• Age 21: 28%
Had finished high school
• Age 17: 4%
• Age 19: 60%
• Age 21: 70%
Had been incarcerated in their lifetime
• Age 17: 27%
• Age 19: 12%
• Age 21: 27%
Had been referred for substance abuse treatment in their lifetime
• Age 17: 21%
• Age 19: 9%
• Age 21: 15%
Had been homeless in their lifetime
• Age 17: 24%
• Age 19: 15%
• Age 21: 35%
Had children in their lifetime
• Age 17: 6%
• Age 19: 10%
• Age 21: 32%
Were employed part- or full-time
• Age 17: 12%
• Age 19: 32%
• Age 21: 49%
Had Medicaid coverage
• Age 17: 92%
• Age 19: 72%
• Age 21: 61%
Could not be located
• Age 17: 2%
• Age 19: 10%
• Age 21: 20%
Were receiving public assistance
• Age 17: NA
• Age 19: 75%
• Age 21: 28%
PROBLEM AREAS AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS IN LOCAL FOSTER CARE
• Problem: Trauma endured at home and sometimes in foster care drives older children to aggressively lash out, which can lead to numerous placements and negative outcomes just when they most need stability and life-skills training.
• Possible solution: Consider implementing the 3-5-7 model at all levels of the child welfare system. The model is designed to help youths understand and move past their trauma by clarifying life events to reconcile losses, integrating activities that rebuild relationships, and actualizing future goals that establish permanent connections.
• Problem: A silo mentality keeps organizations working to transition kids out of the system from sharing vital data or collaborating for optimal results.
• Possible solution: Clark County’s Department of Family Services could strengthen partnerships with: Clark County School District to mentor foster youths and ensure they’re on track to graduate; the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada to support cultural competency around LGBT youth in foster care; the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth to provide services for foster kids who end up homeless; the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force to identify how many have been trafficked in the interest of prevention.
• Problem: Across the child welfare system, there is a general lack of transparency.
• Possible solution: All arms of the system would benefit from open communication with each other and the public about the challenges of child welfare.
• Problem: There is little data-driven oversight due to the fact that program outcomes are not tracked.
• Possible solution: DFS could partner with an outside agency to gather statistics on all programs with the aim of improving efficacies and outcomes. “Understanding how the data were collected, and the validity of the data and how people are trained, is going to affect your report,” Sandoval-Lunn said.
• Problem: Stories of success and failure need to be told more often.
• Possible solution: Alumni could be tapped for their unique perspective to spark improvements to the system and help show those in foster care that they’re not alone.
RESOURCES FOR FOSTER YOUTH IN TRANSITION
If you need information about your rights
Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Foundation: 702-455-4306, casalasvegas.org
If you ran away from placements or aged out and need guidance
Clark County Department of Family Services Post Foster Care Specialist: 702-455-8485, clarkcountynv.gov/family-services/fostercare
If you are part of the LGBT community and need guidance
Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada: 702-733-9800, thecenterlv.org
If you need help finishing high school or getting your GED
Clark County School District Division of Adult Education: 702-799-8650
If you need help accessing transitional living programs
Clark County Social Service Department: 702-455-0468, clarkcountynv.gov/social-service
If you need help knowing how to transition
Read “Into A World: A Life Book,” a resource guide put together by former foster youth: caanv.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/INTO-THE-WORLD-FULL.pdf
If you need food
Three Square Food Bank: 702-644-3663, threesquare.org
If you are homeless or at-risk
Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth: 702-383-1332, nphy.org. Other options include calling NPHY’s crisis hotline — 1-866-827-3723 — heading to any Terrible Herbst gas station with a Safe Place sign or boarding any RTC bus and asking staffers for help connecting you to the organization.
If you were a victim of sex trafficking
Call 9-1-1 if it’s an emergency. If it’s not, call 3-1-1 and ask to be transferred to VICE. If you’re unsure of where to place your call, dial 2-1-1 or visit nevada211.org for the state’s information and referral service to help people get the help they need when they need it.
If you want your voice heard
Join Clark County’s Foster and Adoptive Youth Together (FAAYT) board. FAAYT comprises current and former foster youths ages 13 to 21 who meet monthly to support one another and advocate for necessary changes to the system of foster care: facebook.com/FAAYTLV.