Hillsides Community Blog

How education is failing youth in foster care


By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO

A recent article in the Press-Telegram reporting the grand jury investigation of a number of school districts’ use of funds intended to benefit youth in foster care was an eye opener, pointing to the failure of school systems to adequately address the needs of children in the foster care system. In spite of the best of intentions and the availability of significant funding, the articled noted the inability of most school systems to effectively address absenteeism, school disruption, and graduation rate. Inconsistency regarding the utilization of additional funding is evident from school district to school district, creating enormous discrepancies regarding services available to support youth in foster care. Since these youth often move between school districts because of the lack of resources to maintain them within their school district of origin, these discrepancies have a negative impact on them.
Much has been done to convene policy makers, school officials, guardians, service providers, and advocates to address this crisis over the last several years but the failure to communicate effectively and stay focused on the child has led to disarray. The ineffectiveness of the education and child welfare system has placed children in foster care at risk academically and, in some instances, physically because of inadequate programs unprepared to address their complex needs.
Part of the problem is a result of school districts having used an influx of new funding to address budget deficits rather than develop specific services for youth in foster care. The lack of direction from the California Department of Education regarding the use of these funds and no system to account for how these funds actually benefit foster children has only added to the discrepancies sited in the article. The financial incentive of school districts to develop services once contracted to specialized providers has stretched their capacity to adequately serve these children and jeopardized the quality of care they receive.
This chaotic situation is at the root of the absenteeism, school disruption, and ultimately lower graduation rates for children in the foster care system. The failure of the education system to address adequately the needs of foster youth is yet one more factor that threatens the ability of these children to be successful. Education is the foundation for life-long success. Without a good education, youth in foster care are exposed to an almost insurmountable obstacle that will impact their lives forever.
Because public funding is so inadequate whether for education or child welfare, policy makers and public officials safeguard funding sources to the point of being blindsided as to the needs of those who ultimately are the beneficiaries of these funds. What is held in common is a genuine desire to serve the child. This intention must become the driving force in an examination of how both education and child welfare must work collaboratively to address the needs for these children and their families.
Grand jury investigations often lead to finger pointing and assignment of blame. As a provider of much-needed services to children who are so vulnerable, I hope that once the dust settles we can move beyond blaming to develop solutions that will leverage precious public resources to effectively serve the needs of youth in foster care. Each day, Hillsides deals with youth who have experienced trauma and become re-traumatized because the public school is inadequately prepared to serve their complex needs. As a result, residents are often suspended from school, victims of bullying, and occasionally exposed to unsafe conditions. All this undermines the educational agenda and makes it more difficult to address their therapeutic concerns.
The conclusions of the grand jury must serve as an opportunity to re-examine how we support the educational needs of youth in foster care and hopefully help develop a more comprehensive approach that joins the capacity of both the education and child welfare system to effectively serve children served through the foster care system.

Six Tips to Help Your Kids Get Even Smarter the Final Weeks of Summer


Edited by Lisa Gavitt

There are still several weeks left of summer, and you may be worrying that your children are losing some of the academic gains they made at school. While summer learning loss, a.k.a. the “summer slide,” is a real challenge, there are many things parents can do to promote ongoing learning disguised in a fun way.  Here are some ideas from two of our staffers at Hillsides Education Center, therapist Jill Anderson and parent partner Georgie Norris. Some of them take a little planning; others you can do on the fly.

  1. Turn Driving Time into Learning Time If you’re on a long driving trip, playing car games will sharpen your kids’ wits while staving off boredom. Try finding letters of the alphabet to complete license plate Bingo or else, have one child pick an animal (tiger) and the other use the last letter to name another animal (rat).
  2. Create an I’m Bored Bag  Fill a bag with things kids can do that are fun but take brain power, such as spelling quizzes, Sudoku puzzles, flashcards, and creative writing prompts. Then when your child comes to you for the hundredth time saying “I’m bored,” you can refer them to the bag.
  3. Stay Active  Studies conducted on children revealed that aerobic exercise stimulates brain growth and cognitive performance, leading to better focus and higher achievements. Here are some fun ways to keep your kiddos on the move this summer:
  1. Read, Read, Read This one might sound like a given, but it is necessary to be reminded of just how important reading is while away from the classroom. Numerous studies indicate that students who read infrequently or not at all during their summer vacation see their reading abilities plateau or decline The key here is having your child select books they are interested in and encourage reading for pleasure. If you have a resistant reader, you can try reading together or encouraging them with some outdoor playtime afterward. Parents who read for pleasure themselves are also very influential. After all, you are their greatest example! For a list of summer book ideas, check out the recommendations from our Hillsides Librarian: https://hillsidescommunity.wordpress.com/2018/06/15/eighteen-top-book-picks-for-summer-2018/
  1. Don’t be Afraid of Technology IPads and tablets can be your friend when keeping your children’s minds stimulated, plus there are a plethora of free educational online programs and apps available. Here are a few to try:
  2. Experience and Explore New Places Whether traveling on vacation or adventuring around your own city, experiencing something new is proven to form new connections in the brain. Los Angelenos are fortunate to have access to countless museums, parks, and aquariums, so take advantage! Visiting new places fosters opportunities for teachable moments and gets kids asking questions and wondering about new things. Here are some cost-friendly family favorites:
  • Skirball Cultural Center. The Center has many kid-friend exhibits, such as the current Jim Henson Exhibition running until September 2. Tickets are free on Thursdays https://www.skirball.org/

Emancipation: A Rough Entry into Adulthood


Left to right:  Dennys Valle and Victor Pinzon

By Annika Lile

Two hundred dollars and a handshake.  This is what welcomed Dennys Valle, at the age of 17, into “adulthood” when he left the foster care system.

“I felt like an alien out in this new world,” said Dennys, a peer partner housing liaison at Hillsides’ Youth Moving On (YMO) program for youth transitioning from foster care to adulthood. Dennys also lived in YMO’s transitional housing program.

Emancipation typically has a positive connotation because by definition it means to free from restraint or influence.  The word is also associated with the end of slavery, as Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was intended to help free slaves from the shackles of oppression and abuse.

Yet, the word has taken on a whole new meaning for individuals in the foster care system.  Emancipation from the foster care system means that a young adult, between the ages of 16 and 21, depending on their situation, who was previously receiving foster care, is relinquished from the care of the government.  While some may think it is important for these youth to be out on their own, this is the opposite of what they need. Individuals in the foster care system have dealt with loss, abuse and traumatic life experiences.  While in the foster care system, they have often bounced around from home to home and fail to form attachments with adults. Once emancipated, because they don’t have a core support system, they often have no one to turn to and few resources.

Victor Pinzon, a former Youth Moving On youth and employee, also experienced emancipation first-hand.   He describes the mix of emotions he felt during this time as “stress, fear, loneliness, confusion and lack of support.”  Victor has since gone on to graduate from college and create a successful career for himself in the field of social work, however his personal experiences reveal the terrible vulnerability of emancipated youth.

Youth leaving the foster care system are at a high risk for homelessness and other challenges.   According to Foster Focus magazine, “within 18 months of emancipation 40-50% of foster youth become homeless, [and] nationally, 50% of the homeless population spent time in foster care.”

Unemployment is also high in this population.  According to Children’s Bureau’s most recent statistics, in 2016, 20,531 youths were emancipated in the nation, yet only 52% of these individuals were employed by age 21.  And when they do find jobs, they are usually lower paying than other youth their age.  In addition, other studies show that youth formerly in foster care face higher rates of pregnancy and incarceration.

Hillsides’ YMO program was created in 2006 as an anecdote to these issues.  YMO provides youth formerly in foster care with affordable transitional and permanent housing.  It also maintains a robust work force education program that provides youth who graduate from a workforce curriculum with paid internships and jobs.  In addition, the YMO Peer Resource Center is a one-stop shop of resources and services for youth ages 16 through 25.  The Center offers hygiene products, individual therapy and support groups, life skills training, bus tokens and coupons, school supplies and tutoring, food and cooking classes, and computer access.  It also offers youth unique experiences such as walks around the Rose Bowl, cooking classes, movie days, yoga sessions, barbeques, and even salsa dancing (Victor himself used to teach the classes).

While YMO can’t solve all the problems that come with emancipation from the foster care system, it has helped hundreds of youth create independent lives. Dennys, for example, may have left the foster care system with only a little money and a good-luck handshake, but at YMO, his post foster-care life fell into place. “YMO gave me a safe space to live, taught me how to open a checking account and budget my money, and helped me get my first job,” he said.  “Before, I didn’t know the meaning of the word support, but here, I finally received it and was able to discover strengths I didn’t even know I had.”

To learn more about the YMO Program, please visit www.youthmovingon.org or call 626-765-6010.

Annika is an intern in Hillsides’ advancement department.  A graduate from Arcadia High School, she is majoring in integrated marketing communications at Pepperdine University.  She intends to use her collegiate education to pursue a meaningful career that assists others in need.




How independence is achieved through connectedness


When we measure success for our clients, we assess to what degree they have achieved a level of independence that would allow them to function well unencumbered by the issues that brought them into care in the first place. However, independence is more likely than not achieved because of a sense of connectedness. We sometimes think of independence as a sign of being on our own but the fact is that we are very reliant on others to achieve and maintain the kind of well-being and functioning that helps us to be independent.

The best example of this certainly is the reliance that family members have on one another. Those essential relationships are the building blocks for self-esteem and confidence that help to create a healthy sense of independence. Our goal is to treat the needs not only of the child but of the whole family, so that strengthened in their relationships they can support one another. For families’ independence is the fine line between healthy reliance on one another and the self-confidence needed to be independent. All parents know how challenging walking this fine line can be. This is even more so the case for families dealing with the challenges of addiction, emotional instability, violence, and trauma.

The role of the extended family and community is important in providing a supportive network that reinforces the good functioning of the family. What independence is achieved is the result of the interrelationship of many to support the well-being of the individual.

The 4th of July, Independence Day, is perhaps the greatest of all our holidays because it embodies not just our individual hope for freedom but the collective effort of our nation to be independent. It celebrates what is the quintessential character of America: freedom and liberty for all. It also recognizes that freedom is achieved through the efforts of many to safeguard it with great sacrifice, if necessary.

It is this desire for authentic freedom that draws so many to our borders. This is poignantly depicted by desperate families seeking refuge from the ravages and threats of violence in their native countries. The issue of authorized entry to the United States is a core concern that challenges people of good intention who represent any number of political points of view. Regardless of our particular position on this issue, the tragedy of families being separated at the border is heartbreaking and contrary to the sense of personal dignity that we cherish as a nation. More than anything else these families seek independence and freedom for themselves and their children. They recognize it will not be achieved without the assistance of those who enjoy the freedom they seek.

For them and indeed for all of us, independence is defined by interrelationship. Strengthening a sense of support and care nurtures independence and makes for a strong community. This is true for our clients, for all of us and especially true for those at our borders seeking assistance. Although our Independence Day celebrations emphasize our freedom, it is important to remember that the independence we enjoy is the result of the reliance we have on one another. This truth is at the center of how we treat our clients and it is worth keeping in mind as we care for one another and especially those who desperately seek freedom and liberty.

If You See Something, Say Something

Anthony Avalos

Los Angeles Times: Anthony Avalos (Family photo published in LA Times)

In commenting on the most recent death of a child, Anthony Avalos, in the care of the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), Supervisor Kathryn Barger asks how could this happen when there were so many opportunities between teachers and law enforcement, let alone social services staff, to intervene and prevent this horror. This awful situation reminds us that the task of keeping children safe does not rest solely with family. Especially when the family cannot assure the child’s safety, it is the responsibility of all of us as a community to safeguard the well-being of each child. They are our children!

Every time there is a tragic child death, we lament the failure of the social services system. However, the failure is not just of the foster care system but of the whole community. Some would say it is unrealistic to assume that we can prevent this kind of tragedy, it is evitable that children in the care of the state will die, and there are so many factors at play that it is impossible to assure the safety of all these children. The statistics may demonstrate this to be true, nevertheless it is unacceptable, and we cannot operate waiting for the next child to die.

In our terrorist-alert world, we often encourage everyone to report any suspicious activity. We would do well to adopt the same approach to child safety: If you see something, say something. Without generating unnecessary suspicion, we encourage everyone to embrace a protective and vigilant attitude when it comes to children. There are so many issues that make families so vulnerable. Support systems for families have eroded as families become more mobile and disconnected from extended family. Addiction to substances is increasing and often masked by strong coping skills. Mental illness is often undiagnosed and not addressed. The list of the complex issues affecting families and therefore the safety of children are many. All this points to how essential it is for us as a community to see the well-being of children as a task of the whole community not just the immediate family.

Recently at the Open House celebrating the inauguration of our new Bienvenidos Family Resource Centers, Arcadia, a client served by our Wraparound program shared her story of surviving domestic violence and being supported by our treatment team and the community until she was able to secure housing and get her children assistance. It reminded me that when we are vulnerable, the assistance of many lightens the burden and sees us through the crisis. At Hillsides, all of the services we offer provide a tangible expression to children and families that the community values them and cares for them.

All of us have a role to play in assuring the safety of our children. We do so because of our role as a social services provider but we all have a role to play as neighbors and members of a community to look out for all children and their families.

The death of Anthony Avalos is more tragic because it should have been avoided. This is a sad reflection not only on the systems that failed him, but on the community that somehow did not provide the interventions that would have saved his life. In an effort to make sure his death was not in vain, if you see something, say something, to keep our children safe.

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