Nationwide, more than 463,000 children live in foster care. In many states, including Virginia, the number of foster youth has tripled in the last 25 years. As of Sept. 30, 2011, nearly 5,000 youth were in foster care in Virginia, according to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Physical abuse is the most common reason children enter foster, but it’s not the only reason. Often there’s emotional abuse, sexual abuse and the parent or caretaker’s inability to provide a safe environment due to substance abuse. The prospects for youth who age-out (or “emancipate”) from foster care are bleak, according to the ACF. More than half of the children who age-out of foster care end up “couch-surfing,” and essentially homeless. In a 2009 ACF report:
- Less than 3 percent go to college;
- 51 percent are unemployed;
- Emancipated females are four times more likely to receive public assistance than the general population;
- In any given year, foster children compromise less than 0.3 percent of the state's population, and yet 40 percent of persons living in homeless shelters are former foster children. A similarly disproportionate percentage of the nation's prison population comprises former foster youth.
In 2005, Fairfax County launched a program called Fairfax Families4Kids, which actively seeks mentors to connect with older children in foster care, those most at-risk for homelessness. Beverly Howard, the program’s coordinator, agreed to a Q&A interview. To find out more about the Fairfax Families4Kids program or becoming a volunteer or mentor, contact Beverly Howard, Ph.D., coordinator of the Fairfax Families4Kids Program at 703-324-7518.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the background of the program? What niche does it fill?
A: Fairfax Families4Kids is a mentoring program, now housed out of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, which focuses on supporting older youth in foster care (or those youth who are at risk of re-entering foster care). The program’s goal is for the youth in foster care to form and maintain healthy, positive and long-term relationships with caring adults and peers while learning essential life, leisure and social skills. It works to accomplish this through group mentoring events and individual mentoring relationships. The twice-monthly group mentoring events are outings in the community where the youth, mentors, volunteers, and prospective adoptive families come together in a safe, supervised and supportive group environment to participate in enjoyable activities together. (Events have included chess tournaments, basketball clinics, kite festivals, a Broadway show, exercise classes, horseback riding, Internet and web design classes, and community service projects).
Q: What does FFX4Kids offer foster children, and the parents who foster them?
A: FFX4Kids provides a social network where youth in foster care can interact with mentors, prospective adoptive families, dedicated volunteers and other children in foster care.
The dedicated FFX4Kids mentors are at the core of the “relationship-building” that keeps the youth coming back. Every participating youth experiences group mentoring for several months prior to being assigned a one-on-one mentor who agrees to mentor for at least two years. Many of these caring adults commit to being life-long supports for the youth they mentor. Some have even adopted their mentee. Other mentors have been consistently and actively involved in the program for five, six, and seven years, and have mentored a number of different youth during that time.
Q: What are some FFX4Kids "success stories?"
A: We have many success stories. We have participated in 10 adoptions of youth ages 11 to 18 (most have been between ages 14-16 at the time of the adoption) and 10 permanent connections for youth ages 18 to 21. A “permanent connection” means that these young adults leave foster care with a caring, adult connection who can provide guidance and emotional support as they embark upon adulthood. Most of us know that just because you turn 18 or 21 years old, you don’t automatically have all the answers, and it is always good to have an adult to help answer some of the questions that come with being an adult.
Success Stories: “Mason” was adopted by his mentors when he was 15 years old. He had already spent six years in foster care, and lived in numerous adoptive homes and residential facilities. He is a charming, likeable, athletic young fellow who is now a freshman in college and working part-time. He regularly returns to the FFX4Kids events to encourage and motivate the other kids, and just to share in the fun. His parents also continue to be active mentors for other youth in FFX4Kids and a strong supporter of the program.
“Mason” is good friends with “Paul.” “Paul” has been in foster care for almost 10 years. “Paul” has also had numerous placements. He is still in foster care, participating in the Independent Living program, and enjoying his freshman year in college also. As he participates in the twice-monthly FFX4Kids activities, he finds continuous support and encouragement from the group mentors, who genuinely admire his strength and his tenacity. He is a role model and “Jr. Mentor” for the younger kids in the group.
Q: Knowing all of the obstacles, all of the challenges for foster children, what motivates you to keep working with foster children?
A: I love what I do. The youth that I have been blessed to know, are wonderful and all of them have enriched my life immeasurably. The adoptive families and mentors never cease to amaze me—by their commitment to the youth, their dedication, their energy and creativity, and their ability to see well beyond the labels that so many of our youth have gathered along their journey in foster care. They see the gifted artists, the aspiring scientists, the comedians, the athletes, and the beautiful children waiting for an opportunity to bloom.
I also have been blessed to have my own family expanded through the adoption of two older youth (ages 8 and 9). I know firsthand the joys and challenges this brings. I also know that love is not enough. The decision to adopt an older youth must come from both the head and the heart. It is critical that the adoptive family make an informed decision cognizant of all of the challenges before them, with realistic expectations, and knowledge of resources available to support the family. It is hard work, and not for the faint of heart.