Engaging Youth in Foster Care to Build a Brighter Future in Baltimore

Posted October 22, 2019
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Malik Jones, a Jim Casey Initiative Young Fellow

Malik Jones, a Jim Casey Young Fellow

When Malik Jones talks with youth in fos­ter care about his col­lege expe­ri­ences, they lis­ten atten­tive­ly and ask thought­ful ques­tions — because the Tow­son Uni­ver­si­ty senior grew up in fos­ter care, too.

This inter­ac­tion is part of a spec­trum of activ­i­ties that result­ed from a three-year-old part­ner­ship between the Bal­ti­more City Depart­ment of Social Ser­vices (BCDSS) and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive®, which works nation­al­ly to improve out­comes for young peo­ple tran­si­tion­ing from fos­ter care to adulthood.

Jones, a Jim Casey Young Fel­low, cred­its BCDSS for choos­ing him to speak to the mem­bers of the department’s Youth Advi­so­ry Board (YAB), which was revi­tal­ized as a result of the part­ner­ship. He hopes these exchanges inspire the young peo­ple to pur­sue a col­lege degree as they seek bet­ter lives. That’s a smart move,” he says of being select­ed to speak with them. It’s dif­fer­ent hear­ing from anoth­er youth about col­lege than hear­ing from an adult.”

Like the young peo­ple involved in Baltimore’s advi­so­ry board, Jones is com­mit­ted to improv­ing the fos­ter care sys­tem, whether by help­ing young peo­ple under­stand and cope with sys­temic racism or learn­ing about the threat of home­less­ness after leav­ing fos­ter care. I don’t want young peo­ple to go through what I went through,” he says. I’ll do what­ev­er I can to help.”

Bring­ing in trust­ed role mod­els is one way BCDSS part­ners with young peo­ple in fos­ter care. Young peo­ple with expe­ri­ence in fos­ter care or oth­er sys­tems are vital voic­es for change — and any effort to improve out­comes for them and their com­mu­ni­ties nec­es­sar­i­ly needs to involve them,” says San­dra Gas­ca-Gon­za­lez, vice pres­i­dent of Casey’s Cen­ter for Sys­tems Inno­va­tion. Young peo­ple are poised to make a dif­fer­ence. It’s time all of us pay attention.”

Ran­di Wal­ters, who was recent­ly named BCDSS direc­tor, adds: What I first noticed when I start­ed meet­ing with fam­i­lies and staff was the incred­i­ble opti­mism that emanat­ed from our part­ner­ship with the Jim Casey Ini­tia­tive. Staff and young peo­ple were engaged with one anoth­er and focused on results. That’s exact­ly the kind of ener­gy we need to dri­ve improve­ments in the child wel­fare sys­tem and beyond.”

Results of the rela­tion­ship between young peo­ple and Ready by 21, the BCDSS unit charged with help­ing young peo­ple pre­pare for adult­hood, include the YAB and Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port®.

Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port, which helps young peo­ple with expe­ri­ence in fos­ter care learn to man­age their mon­ey, has three com­po­nents: finan­cial edu­ca­tion, access to main­stream bank­ing and matched sav­ings. BCDSS is a leader nation­al­ly in enrolling young peo­ple in Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port, says Leslie Gross, direc­tor of the Jim Casey Ini­tia­tive. In Bal­ti­more, 158 young peo­ple have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the pro­gram over the last three years, with eight of them pur­chas­ing assets worth more than $27,000. Indi­vid­ual sav­ings of $13,600 were dou­bled through the program’s matched savings.

It feels good to help pro­vide assets to youth,” says Ready by 21 Pro­gram Man­ag­er Ame­sha M. Smith. Pur­chas­es go toward hous­ing, trans­porta­tion and even cer­tifi­cates of deposit. We know that young peo­ple cre­ate their own net­works, talk to each oth­er and spread the news,” she says. The Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port is good news to spread.”

The Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port also is a tool that pro­motes equi­ty. In a city where black youth have high­er rates of enter­ing the child wel­fare sys­tem and are 1.5 times more like­ly to be in a group place­ment than liv­ing with a fam­i­ly, nine in 10 Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port par­tic­i­pants are African American.

The YAB, a youth-run group that meets month­ly, is open to any young per­son in fos­ter care and includes din­ners, field trips, spe­cial events and net­work­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. It offers a chance for build­ing friend­ships and more — includ­ing giv­ing feed­back to BCDSS to improve poli­cies and practices.

We work with the board dif­fer­ent­ly now,” Smith says. When we are rolling out some­thing new that will impact young peo­ple — a pol­i­cy, a new life skills class — we first go to the young peo­ple and ask for their input. We also find oth­er ways, beyond the YAB, to gath­er youth input.”

When Smith’s team was work­ing to under­stand issues fac­ing preg­nant and par­ent­ing young peo­ple, she says, we brought two young ladies to the table who are cur­rent par­ents. We used sev­er­al of their ideas, incor­po­rat­ing them into our work.”

This fall, BCDSS is seek­ing to broad­en its col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Foun­da­tion, encour­aged by Lour­des Padil­la, who as sec­re­tary for the Mary­land Depart­ment of Human Ser­vices over­sees the state’s 24 social ser­vices agen­cies, includ­ing Baltimore’s. The agency’s work with Casey has demon­strat­ed that work­ing with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions can ben­e­fit kids and fam­i­lies, Padil­la says.

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