Desiree’s desire runs deep: A teenager’s yearning for a permanent family rises to the surface

With enough scuba gear attached to her back to nearly outweigh her slender frame, 17-year-old Desiree Lewis explored the natural wonders of the underwater theater off Key Largo, Fla., mindful of the number one rule of diving.

Never venture out alone.

“Trust your buddy and your equipment,” said Desiree, recalling the lessons she learned. “If you are in the dark under water, you don’t want your buddy to leave you. If you get tangled up or something, you’re going to need your buddy to help you out because if you try to untangle yourself, you get all messed up.”

Desiree’s dive was the culmination of a scuba certification program designed to help older youth in foster care develop the self-confidence they need – and often lack. It teaches them not only about life below water, but also above it. When dropped into choppy seas, support from others is necessary to stay safe and be successful.

Six older youth in foster care completed the program last year through Family Support Services of North Florida, a nonprofit agency that provides child welfare services in the Jacksonville area through a contract with the state of Florida. The program is made possible through a Title IV-E waiver, which has given Florida more flexibility to spend federal child welfare dollars on services other than foster care – such as those aimed at preventing child maltreatment and moving older youth in foster care into permanent homes.

Older youth in foster care need the same things as infants, toddlers and adolescents in the system – safe and loving families that will support them now and into adulthood. They need the stability and security of a permanent family. But they also need programs and approaches recognizing that older youth in foster care face different challenges.

Despite an increase in the number of adoptions over the past decade, youth between the ages of 11 and 17 account for only 17 percent of all adoptions while constituting more than 35 percent of those waiting to be adopted, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Even as progress has been made to reduce the overall number of children in foster care, the number of youth aging out of the system without having secured a permanent family has increased from 17,000 in 1998 to close to 30,000 in 2010. If that trend holds, more than 400,000 young people could age out of foster care over the next 10 years.

Casey Family Programs joins child welfare professionals, leaders, judges, lawyers and advocates across the country in declaring this trend unacceptable. Youth never should be allowed to age out of foster care without a sincere effort having been made to secure them a permanent family.

At the same time foster care caseloads are decreasing, an increasing number of older youth in foster care are aging out of the system without having secured a permanent family. This trend is unacceptable.
At the same time foster care caseloads are decreasing, an increasing number of older youth in foster care are aging out of the system without having secured a permanent family. This trend is unacceptable.

Child welfare systems can follow the lead of North Florida by adopting innovative practices and policies that encourage family reunifications, adoptions and legal guardianships so that older youth in foster care can have the permanent families they need to become successful adults.

Another innovation helping older youth secure permanent families is a process called permanency roundtables. During permanency roundtables, caseworkers, outside experts, youth and their families come together to scour case records and brainstorm ideas for achieving permanency for children who have spent years in foster care. Casey Family Programs is playing a leadership role in spreading this effective practice to public and tribal child welfare agencies across the country.

One reason that permanency roundtables work so well is that youth have a say in their own futures. Older youth typically resist the idea of permanency, at least at first.

One way to overcome that obstacle is to let youth realize for themselves the benefits of having a family that they can trust and rely upon for all time.

“I try to challenge the youth to investigate the issues and discover the answers for themselves,” said Judge David Gooding, who heads the Duval County Dependency Model Court in Jacksonville. “I’m definitely not going to harangue young people into accepting permanency, but I want to make sure they consider all the evidence and figure out what is best for them.”

Even when older youth have all the facts, their tough exteriors can be difficult to crack. Their expressions of “I don’t need anybody but myself” often are rooted in the fear of rejection. The idea of trusting another is difficult when trust has been betrayed previously in their lives. “If you can’t trust your own birth mom, it kind of leaves you wondering who else you can trust,” said Desiree, who first entered foster care four days shy of her 12th birthday.

The ageless need to feel safe, stable and loved inspires efforts to find permanent families for older youth in foster care.
The ageless need to feel safe, stable and loved inspires efforts to find permanent families for older youth in foster care.

Staring down her 18th birthday, Desiree was living with her younger brother Tracy in a loving foster home in Jacksonville, resigned to becoming one among the statistics of older youth to age out of foster care. But the child welfare system in North Florida had another idea – one that would allow her and Tracy to remain with the foster mother they had grown to call “Grandma,” and become part of her permanent family.

Calling to the table those who were interested in the welfare of Desiree and Tracy, the system took another hard look at their cases and pursued the option of adoption by their foster mother. At first, foster mother Margaret Russ was reluctant. She had adopted a child in her care once before, but it ended badly. She had needed the system’s support to make the adoption a success, yet felt abandoned by it. She did not want such a heartwrenching experience repeated.

Having learned from its mistakes, the system assured Russ that this time around it would help provide the emotional, financial and logistical support she needed to continue to raise Desiree and Tracy successfully. But Desiree was cool to the idea of her own adoption, and became convinced only after realizing that it would be best for Tracy, who was 13 at the time.

“Even before we adopted them, we had a tendency to consider ourselves a family,” said Russ, who has 18 grandchildren. “I never have liked using the term foster home. These are my kids.” Russ adopted the siblings two months before Desiree turned 18. The formalization of the relationship is not lost on Desiree.

“When you are in a real family, instead of being a foster child, it’s a big difference,” said Desiree, who recalled instances when her caseworker would show up at her school and her classmates would ask who she was. “I’d try to throw them off. I don’t have to do that anymore. I don’t have a label on me – we don’t have a label on us – anymore.”

Desiree and Tracy do, however, have a new legal last name: Russ.

Desiree, who is very shy, is gaining more poise through the nurturing advice of her adoptive mother.

“I will see her at times kind of let people walk all over her,” Russ said. “I try to tell her it’s all right to be nice and it’s all right to be sweet, but by the same token you’ve got to be kind of strong because people will take your kindness for weakness.”

The scuba certification program also did wonders at giving Desiree a newfound confidence in herself and trust in others. Keeping her buddy close, Desiree felt relaxed on her inaugural scuba dive off Key Largo, even as she experienced great depths. The feelings surprised her. After all, this was a young woman who screamed whenever her foster family went fishing and their catch wriggled on the hook.

Now she was swimming among fish as big as her head.

Without the funding flexibility provided through the Title IV-E waiver, the scuba training program – and several other innovative child welfare services in North Florida – might never have happened. Florida is one of five states with a waiver.

Older youth in foster care need to have a say in their future.
Older youth in foster care need to have a say in their future.

“Agencies should have discretion on how to spend their funds to improve the well-being of the child,” said Nancy Dreicer, northeast regional director for the Florida Department of Children and Families. “With the waiver, we have been able to use our resources in the right places and in the right way.”

Through a major redesign of its child welfare system – led by Dreicer and carried out by Jim Adams, chief executive officer of Family Support Services of North Florida –the number of children in foster care in Jacksonville’s home county of Duval has gone from nearly 1,800 in 2005 to 825 in 2009 – a 54 percent reduction. As a result, the amount of money Family Support Services of North Florida spends per day on foster care beds has decreased from about $23,000 in January 2008 to about $13,000 in January 2011.

Adams said his agency has been able to reinvest some of the money saved into services that help secure permanency for older youth, such as the scuba training program.

“I consider self-esteem building and giving youth a sense of normalcy as necessary services,” he said.

Through the support of Casey Family Programs, the practice of permanency roundtables has spread to North Florida. By the end of 2011, public or tribal child welfare systems in 34 states are expected to hold roundtables, which can be tailored to meet the unique characteristics of a jurisdiction.

For American Indian tribes, for example, the focus is on family reunifications and guardianships as opposed to adoptions because tribal courts are reluctant to terminate parental rights.

“We never want to take away the opportunity of families to be able to change their lives and get back on the right road again,” said James Trosper, director of the Northern Arapaho Department of Family Services in Wyoming.

Casey Family Programs recently evaluated a permanency roundtables project in Georgia that began in 2009 to help find permanent homes for nearly 500 children who were in foster care for extended periods of time.

After one year, nearly one in three of the 500 children whose cases went through the roundtable process achieved legal permanency, either through reunifying with family, adoption or guardianship. Although 57 percent of children remained in foster care a year after their cases went through roundtables, many have made strides toward achieving permanency because of the ideas that percolated out of the process.

Working in partnership with child welfare systems, youth and families, Casey Family Programs also is working to remove barriers that historically have prevented many older youth from achieving permanency.

The state of Idaho, for example, has not provided financial assistance to relatives who serve as foster parents and step up to become legal guardians. The state, however, does provide room and board reimbursement if they remain licensed foster parents, thereby creating a disincentive to become legal guardians.

Through its Idaho Field Office, Casey Family Programs is demonstrating the value and cost-effectiveness of having licensed relative foster parents become legal guardians. Under a guardianship assistance project developed by the field office, licensed relative foster parents who become legal guardians may receive financial assistance for up to two years in the same amount they were receiving as licensed foster parents, thereby eliminating the financial disincentive to become the youth’s legal guardian. They also continue to receive case management services for up to two years, or until the child turns 18.

The program is for youth ages 11 to 18, whose cases are managed by the Idaho Field Office. As a result of the program, several youth have achieved legal permanency with relatives.

“Foster families often articulate that they believe in the values of permanency but do not want to go at it alone,” said Jane Morse, supervisor of child welfare services for the Idaho Field Office.

A thorough evaluation of the program is under way, but the belief is that the state of Idaho can save money by providing financial assistance to licensed relative foster parents who become legal guardians compared to what it spends to maintain those youth in foster care.

This year, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is planning to implement its own version of a guardianship assistance program for licensed relative foster parents, aimed at youth in foster care who are age 14 and older. Achieving permanency for older youth can be challenging – but it is possible.

Before ultimately embracing the idea of being adopted, 18-year-old Aiden Eska’takii said he worried about becoming a financial burden to his loving foster parents who were stepping up to adopt him. But Aiden, whose case was managed through the Idaho Field Office, also came to understand the many benefits of having a permanent family. His adoption was finalized last September.

“It’s just nice to know someone will always be there for you, even when you are fine and you don’t need them,” Aiden said. “It’s even better to know that someone is there to catch you in case you fall.”

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