Wanted: Adult Safety Nets For Foster Youth

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By Mark Redmond

I recently attended a two-day training seminar, “Permanent Family Connections for All Adolescents,” which issued some challenging words to those of us in the group home and residential treatment center (RTC) business.

It was run by Bob Lewis, an independent consultant and trainer who spent most of his career in the Massachusetts foster care and adoption system. His seminar has become so popular and is seen as so important that the New York City Administration for Children’s Services is paying him to train its workers and those in every voluntary agency in the city.

His two basic premises are: No child should age out of the child welfare system without a permanent family connection, and adolescents have not given up on the promise of a new family despite words and behaviors to the contrary.

Why is this challenging? Because when a child age 13 or up arrives in our programs, we almost automatically assume a goal of “independent living.” If someone said, “Let’s find a family for this child,” we’d come up with a dozen reasons why this could not be done: No adult wants a child this old, the adolescent doesn’t want a new family, this isn’t realistic, let’s not set the youth up for failure.

Lewis insists otherwise. He thinks we can find families for adolescents. But, like anything else worthwhile, it takes work. These families are not just going to drop out of the sky. Agencies must be committed to finding responsible adults who will serve as the permanent resource for adolescents. We then have to train these adults and do all the follow-up work necessary to make the match succeed.

When I look back at the group home and RTC youth I knew who have succeeded in life, nine out of 10 had some adult who served as a safety net for them. I think of Tony, a 19-year-old who was homeless in New York City when I met him at Covenant House. For some reason we connected, and even after he was discharged for getting caught with angel dust, we kept in contact.

I was there for him five years later when he was imprisoned at Rikers Island. I stuck with him through his second prison sentence in an upstate New York facility. We stayed in contact through several turns in drug rehab. And now he is gainfully employed, has been drug-free for almost five years and has an apartment of his own. I am the godfather of his 2-year-old daughter.

There are a lot of reasons that Tony made it, not the least of which include his own determination to find a life beyond drugs and dealing. But I like to think my presence throughout his journey had something to do with the outcome.

There is a similar story at my present place of employment, Domus Foundation. One of our former group home residents arrived at Domus at age 14, transferred to our independent living residence two years later, finished high school and two years ago graduated from Norfolk State University in Virginia. Today he works at a bank and is a success in every sense of the term. But this young man will be the first to acknowledge that it was the constant contact of our executive director, Michael Duggan, that helped him reach much of what he has achieved.

Young people graduating from Harvard have to go home and live with mom and dad before branching out on their own. If these young people need an adult safety net, how much more so do young people graduating from foster care? We should teach young people independent living skills, but that isn’t nearly enough to assure their success in the outside world. They need that safety net of responsible, caring adults who are going to be there for them no matter what difficulties may arise.

If we really want to see the young people in our group homes and RTCs make it in the world, we would be wise to accept the advice of Bob Lewis. We should make every effort to find adults who are willing, if not to adopt a youth, then to serve as the permanent resource while these youths are in and exiting from the foster care system.

Mark Redmond is associate executive director of the Domus Foundation in Stamford, Conn. Mredmond@domusfoundation.org.