Frustrating but Powerful

This week I attended a meeting hosted by the Mockingbird Society where foster youth and young alumni of “the system” present proposals they’ve worked on in small groups for a year on how to improve their experiences. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended this event, and it won’t be the last.

These young people make incredibly powerful presentations that get right at the heart of how to make our foster care system actually work for the kids instead of the adults. It’s frustrating because the solutions seem like they should already have been done, and some themes repeat year after year. Every year we take some of the ideas they present on and try to get them implemented.

I didn’t take notes on everything, but some of the ideas struck me as immediately implementable and almost criminal that they haven’t happened yet. We will follow up with the youth and the Mockingbird Society to make sure we are taking care of what needs to happen.

Seventeen and a half meetings. Every youth is required to have a meeting with the adults surrounding their case at age 17 and a half to plan what happens at age 18 when all of a sudden their financial support from the state ends. This could be the middle of their senior year in high school. All of a sudden they have no housing, no food, no job… The youth wanted to make sure that

  • They were actually AT the meeting. It seems like sometimes the meeting got “pencil-whipped” and didn’t actually happen. They had good suggestions like required signoffs from everyone with a checklist of what to cover.
  • They got full access to their documents, like their birth certificates and other records. We heard stories of waiting 18 months for these. Young people need documents like this to get a drivers license, a job, etc. This can’t be hard.

Soft Landings. 400-500 youth age out of foster care every year. We took advantage of a new federal law and implemented part of “foster care to age 21” last year, ensuring that kids in school can continue to get basic support with federal matching funds. By adjusting the system this didn’t cost that much. We didn’t cover most of the cases though, and need to ensure that we provide enough services that we’re not moving kids directly from foster care to destitution.

Housing is a big issue here. For those of us who have kids this age we understand – it’s really, really hard for a 17 year old to figure out how to get housing, find a job, finish high school, and apply for college or some other post-secondary skills training, all at the same time and without parental support. It’s hard enough with help from competent parents.

Sibling and other Family Visits. The only family many of these kids have are their siblings. There were a couple of good ideas here – one was to really, really make sure that these young people can visit their siblings regularly, and that withholding these visits is not an appropriate means of discipline. This is actually in the law, but doesn’t seem to be being followed. We need to ensure that there is funding for this in some rational way – This is my job and I will work to ensure we do so next year.

Over-Medication. One group of young people was very concerned about the number and amount of psychotropic medications administered. They wanted access to a hotline to review medication plans and check interactions, and wanted review. I think we need to ensure we’re looking into this carefully, both for cost issues (these drugs are expensive) but mostly because it’s bad for kids to be on lots of mental health drugs. I’m not sure what the real solution here will be, but it’s something to look into.

We have a lot of work to do here in order to make this system more humane and functional, as well as to comply with the Braam agreement the state made with the federal court system to improve care. These young people do remarkable things, but improving the college graduation rate of 3% for this population is one of my goals in the next few years.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.