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MacArthur Foundation Fellow Tells World How to Improve Foster Care System

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Recently, I asked Founder and Publisher of Youth Communication, Keith Hefner, his opinion on the current state of the foster care system because he has been helping foster youth use writing as a cathartic tool for decades. Beyond winning the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, he received the Luther P. Jackson Award for Educational Excellence from the New York Association of Black Journalists in 1977. Hefner is a 2004 graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, Institute for Non-Profit Management, Executive Level Program.

Marquis Cabrera: What are your thoughts on the state of the current foster care system?

Keith Hefner: The experience of foster care for most young people is the foster family. While many families are excellent, far too many are not. And, of course, children lose whatever support they have from those families at age 18 or 21 -- which is far too early for most to succeed on their own.

Marquis Cabrera: Can you tell me about Youth Communication and any innovative programs you support?

Keith Hefner: I am disposed to like programs that increase youth voice in the system. Represent [Magazine] does that through writing. The Mockingbird Society does that (in Washington State) through lobbying. Foster Youth in Action does that in several states by training young people to advocate for themselves and their peers at the county and state level. The Jim Casey Youth Initiative runs programs in several states that increase youth involvement. These are all wonderful programs, but they are afterthoughts. They need to be built into the system and well-funded.

Marquis Cabrera: What methods or approaches do you believe will help to innovate the foster care system insomuch that more youth will beat the odds?

Keith Hefner: To put pressure on systems to improve foster families. The first step should be systematically collecting reports from foster youth about the quality of their placements. These teen reports should not be determinative, but they should figure strongly in agency decisions. For example, consistently low-scoring homes should be given the opportunity to improve. Such a scoring system would expose the low quality of many homes, and put pressure on agencies to close them (which would likely create a massive shortage of foster homes). The prospect of that would put real pressure on agencies and government to figure out how to solve the problem. Solutions could include more intensive support for birth families (to cut the number of youth who need foster homes in the first place), better training for foster families, higher pay for taking foster youth to attract a wider range of families, etc. But the first step is to create methods by which young people themselves can rate their experience in foster homes so agencies and the public cannot just bury their heads in the sand and ignore what's happening.

Another thing we have noticed is that youth often have multiple workers -- employment specialist, housing specialist, social worker, etc. The cast of adults that teens must interact with is too large, and as we know, when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. It's well known that a connections with stable, caring adults are important for youth in care. Systems should be designed to increase the likelihood that foster care professionals can serve that role.

Finally, foster care systems need to find ways to provide a series of (declining) supports to youth until their mid- or late-20s -- housing, medical care, tuition support, mental health services, etc. For foster children, the state is the parent. For children who are not in foster care, the "new normal" is that many or most parents continue to provide support for them children well into their 20s (e.g., financial support, tuition, a bedroom, keeping the children on their health plan, etc. etc.). The state, as parent, needs to recognize that parenting has now changed and expelling youth at 18 or 21 -- especially the society's most vulnerable youth -- is cruel and immoral. The few post-18 and post-21 supports, like ETVs, need to be greatly expanded. For example, youth in care should leave the system with a voucher for $5,000 in mental health services, to be used any time up to age 40. That could be paid for by cutting the vast amounts of money spent forcing youth into therapy before they are ready to engage it.