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For foster kids, grownup mentors make all the difference

Janice Chambers, a UW Champions program alum (UW '13) Credit: Janice Chambers

The girl’s father lost job after job. Her family often lived on throwaway food begged from local grocery stores. Stressed out and drinking heavily, her parents beat her brothers or locked them inside closets when they misbehaved. Her mother shook knives in the children's faces and terrorized them with graphic threats. Her parents were so drowned in booze and woes that the children became almost feral, a litter of sad-eyed pups tumbling in the yard.

Still, her parents weren't monsters. They did the best they could. They pushed all four kids to excel in school because their achievements raised mom’s and dad’s self-esteem, even wringing some respect from their own parents and sibs, who lived more presentable lives.

The four youngsters were never put in foster care. High expectations from the adults they felt close to propelled them through high school. Two finished college, and all held stable jobs through the years. None became a public burden by landing in prison or on welfare. Their parents’ desire to make them shine in society’s eyes may have sprung from their own narcissism, but it helped the kids discover strengths and resilience in themselves. I know this because the girl was me.

All children, especially foster children, need the emotional investment of an adult in order to be successful in school and at life. The foster child's future success must matter to one or more grownups who will walk alongside the child, exhorting her or him to work hard and aim high. Without that kind of caring and support, childhood traumas practically guarantee a troubled life.

Research shows that children separated from their primary caregivers are less able to regulate their emotions, control their behavior or persist in the face of intellectual challenges. (One study is here). Fortunately, research on brain development also shows that positive adult interventions can help these youngsters make up for early cognitive and emotional deficits. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed is a fascinating, hopeful narrative about the positive impact of sustained adult mentoring.

Washington state is home to several innovative mentoring programs that connect foster kids with adults who provide ongoing personal support that boosts their competence and self-sufficiency. Here are five Washington mentoring programs that are changing the future for foster kids:

Champions Program (University of Washington)

David Inglish (below) is a former foster child who is now a University of Washington sophomore. David lived with his biological parents until he was 12. They never shared any hopeful expectations about his future. Until he was placed with a foster family, says David, “I didn't think I’d amount to anything.” College, he adds, “was something a kid from a normal household would have access to.”

UW senior Jessica Sachara recalls that growing up as a foster child “was about surviving what I was going through at the time —  how I was going to eat and get to school —  not about the future.”

The UW Champions Program changed David's and Jessica’s lives. Champions recruits and mentors low-income high-schoolers who have spent a year or more in foster care after age 16. They must be the first generation in their birth or foster families to attend college. Champions students get the emotional and academic support they need to succeed at the UW and prepare for lifelong achievement.

Program director Melissa Raap personally contacts eligible students in the Washington foster care system. She invites them to overnight recruitment events on the UW campus, helps them apply to the university and guides their searches for financial aid. Youth who are admitted to the program receive warm personal mentoring throughout their years on campus.

That’s important, says Sachara, because the UW can be a challenging place. When things get tough, she can “drop into Melissa’s office and talk or cry,” says Sachara. “She helps me get through hard times.”

Raap encouraged Janice Chambers, another Champions alum and recent UW grad, to become a peer mentor in the program. The experience, says Janice, “helped me turn something negative in my life into something positive.”

Since it started in 2011, Champions has served 59 students. Thirty-five are currently enrolled. In 2013, 10 Champions students graduated from the UW; Raap remains in regular contact with seven. Of those, she says, proudly, “four went on to grad school, and three had jobs ready and waiting for them.”

Graduation Success (Treehouse)

The annual high-school graduation rate for foster youth in Washington is about 48 percent, compared to 72 percent for their non-foster peers. By 2017, those two rates will be the same in King County, and each foster teen will have drawn up a personal plan for the future.

Those are the goals of the Graduation Success program, launched by the nonprofit organization Treehouse in 2012.

The program puts education specialists in 100 middle and high schools in the county, where they work with students who are in foster care. Graduation Success also trains a staff member at each facility to be an in-school mentor for the students. Specialists and mentors team up to help foster kids excel at academics and develop what Treehouse CEO Janis Avery calls “mind strategies, or habits of mind – persistence is one.”

“Foster youth come in and check with me daily,” says Jamil Harding (at left), the in-school mentor at Cleveland High. “The conversation can be two or 20 minutes long, but if a kid’s not checking in I go to their classroom and ask what’s going on.” It’s important that the 18 foster kids at Cleveland know Jamil is there for them every single day. They need that stability, he says, because foster kids tend to feel that their lives are "transitional, in flux," a feeling that makes persevering more difficult.

Last year one of Harding's sophomores stopped checking in and started cutting classes. When her grades dropped, the education specialist convened a meeting with the girl’s teachers, social workers, foster caregiver and Harding. “We told her, ‘We’re here to help you, not to tell you you’re failing. This is what you need to do to pass,’” Harding recalled. The student was moved to tears.

After that meeting, “she started checking in with me again and stopped skipping class,” says Harding. This year, “she’s an ‘A’ and ‘B’ student. If she needs something, she lets me know. She had lost confidence for a while, lost motivation, but when we had the wraparound meeting that changed." She recently received a scholarship to Global Visionaries, an international service program based in Seattle, and will be working for a project in South America over spring break.

CEO Avery summed up the key to her program’s successes: “establishing an authentic relationship where kids believe the mentor and education specialist believe in them and care about them.” Youngsters with college potential, she adds, get the encouragement they need to overcome one other dismaying statistic: “Only two percent [of foster kids] complete a B.A.” (Nationwide, about 30 percent of their non-foster peers get a college degree.)

Family Finding and Independent Living (YMCA)

Last April, YMCA Greater Seattle launched its innovative Family Finding and Engagement program. The Y locates adults who are or were in touch with current and former foster youth (ages 11-24), and helps develop a network of grownup support for each child.

Kevin Campbell pioneered Family Finding while working with Catholic Community Services of Western Washington in 2000. His intensive search method is used in the Relative Search that the Department of Health and Human Services (DSHS) is required by law to conduct whenever children are removed from their parents' home. Searches locate relatives who might take the children in.

Family Finding is also used nationwide by agencies looking for relatives who want to stay in touch with a foster child even if they can't take care of him or her. Searches attempt to locate at least 40 adults with connections to the youngster; sometimes they turn up more than 100.

Adults found through the YMCA's searches may be family members the youngster lost touch with long ago or never even heard of, according to program navigator Abbi Griffin. If they aren't related by blood or marriage, they may have had a personal history with the youngsters or with their extended family. Assuming a background check comes up clean, Griffin invites adults found in the course of the search to consider joining a support network for the youth.

If they agree, the foster youth will meet with the adults. Griffin mediates these encounters, “asking the questions, making the conversation easier,” she explains. “I've gone bowling with a kid and the whole paternal side of the family. Or I might go to church with them.”

After the meetings, foster kids decide whom to include in their support network and how each adult might help them. Adults might teach the youth a career skill like welding, or commit to meeting with them regularly, or offer a standing invitation to holiday dinners, etc. The final step is drawing up a permanency pact. The document, which is signed by the foster youth and each adult, outlines some specific commitment, small or large.

Griffin has 12 former foster youth in her program right now; her target caseload is 25. Once the program has a solid foundation, other agency partners will be brought in to help with a broad expansion.

The Y is also DSHS's contracting agency for engaging older foster youth in the state's Independent Living program. A federal law passed in 2008 requires the state to prepare young people for transitioning out of the foster care system by training them in basic life skills and helping them draw up individual plans for the future.

Fostering Scholars (Seattle University)

Each year foster youth in Washington are invited to apply to Fostering Scholars at Seattle University. The program’s scholarships combine with financial aid from other sources (such as Pell grants) to cover all expenses: tuition, year-round housing, health care and continual mentoring.

Fostering Scholars students, fall 2012, Seattle University

“Coming here is a pretty big culture shock” for foster youth, says Colleen Montoya Barbano, Fostering Scholars director. “We make sure we’re connecting with these students throughout their enrollment.” Barbano and peer mentors meet and work with students regularly and closely.

Seattle U junior and Fostering Scholar Patricia Kama needed that connection and reassurance because her foster family had discouraged her from going to college. “They told me, ‘You’ll fail. College is too hard. You don’t have the brain,’” she says. With help, Kama has proved them wrong. She won a Governor's Scholarship in 2011 and heard about Fostering Scholars from Barbano at the reception.

After that initial meeting, says Kama, “Colleen emailed me every week: "‘Are you still thinking of applying?’”

Developing a stable personal connection with foster kids takes time and patience, says Barbano. “Many just aren’t ready to jump into a trusting relationship.” (“I was a little intimidated, but Colleen was with me the whole way,” recalls Kama.) Once trust is established, says Barbano, students like Kama are in her office almost every day. What they want to discuss is “often not about academics,” she continues. “We [coach them in] independent living skills and help them navigate the complex system that is a university.” A conflict with a roommate. A health-related issue. Whatever. “We’re the go-to people.”

Fostering Scholars was launched in 2006. Eighty-five percent of its students graduate, compared to about 71 percent of college students nationwide, including at Seattle U. As of 2013, 20 students in the program have received their degrees and moved on to careers in social work, law, computer technology and public policy.


In the end, it turned out well for society that my siblings and I weren’t taken from our parents, brutal and negligent though they often were. Our emotional ties with a mom and dad who insisted we grow up competent and diligent motivated us to be exactly that. We wound up better off than many kids who are removed from their primary caregivers. According to the seminal Chapin Hall research and more recent studies such as this one in the American Economic Review, foster children are far more likely than their non-foster peers to experience homelessness, unemployment or incarceration during their adult lives.

One day the U.S. may come to view its policy of “banishing children from their birth parents” as “a tragic social experiment,” says NYU law professor Martin Guggenheim — who has represented many kids in court  — and author Rachel Aviv in a recent New Yorker article. Tearing children away from their primary attachments causes enormous pain; then society must spend huge amounts of time and treasure dealing with the downstream social consequences of that separation.

Here in Washington, new foster care practices that connect foster kids with caring adults promise to improve the psychological health of at-risk children and the economic health of their communities.

To read all our Kids@Risk coverage, go here.

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