Children Services helps fill gap when parent is missingWritten by Joel Sensenig | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The following is the third and final installment in a series about Lucas County Children Services in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election.
When birth parents are either not around or not able to teach their children how to live independently and self-sufficiently, Lucas County Children Services (LCCS) is there.
The agency, through its Independent Living Program, foster parenting and educational services outreach, tries to fill in the gap when parents are missing.
The Independent Living Program is meant to help youth ages 15 and a half to 18 years old emancipate themselves from LCCS care.
“We provide them with a caseworker, who works with them in different areas: education, housing, budgeting, cooking, housekeeping, and legal issues,” said Amy Galvan, supervisor of the Independent Living Program. “We help prepare them to live independently, as our parents taught us, if you were under the custody of your parents. We want them to be able to be self-sufficient when they leave our care.”
While Galvan works with youth in the few years before they legally become adults, Patricia Harrelson coordinates efforts to give younger children the tools they need to be successful in their teen years. Harrelson, manager of policies and improvement initiatives at LCCS, is in charge of all the agency’s educational policies and procedures, managing the staff of education specialists and monitoring the schooling needs of children in foster homes.
Because many of the youth under custody of LCCS are facing socialization challenges in the form of emotional disturbances and behavioral difficulties, specialized attention is needed, Harrelson said.
Currently, 23 children receive tutoring contracted through an outside agency because they do not qualify for free tutoring, which is always sought first, Harrelson said. Those students able to achieve a 2.7 GPA or better get incentives (such as $10 gift cards to Meijer), which are made possible through donations from the community.
“We try to take those donations and do those things to help our kids, because they are often academically behind,” Harrelson said. “Not always, and I don’t want to give that impression, because we do have honor kids in foster care, we have kids that do very well.”
Galvan said financial incentives are also a big component of the Independent Living mission, as the teens are able to put away money they can use after being emancipated from children services. These cash incentives for the 85-100 teens typically in the program at any one time are funded through the children services levy.
“Our kids can walk away with a significant amount of money to help them live independently,” Galvan said. “It can help with housing, books if they go to college, car or transportation — whatever they need to live independently.”
Leaving LCCS with $2,000 is not unheard of for youth who have been with the program several years, Galvan said.
While LCCS is taking a pseudo-parenting role in preparing youth for life outside “the nest,” officials realize there are limitations to what they can accomplish.
“We’re not like a parent in that they can’t come back home,” Harrelson said. “So we have to do everything we can before that launch date or post-emancipation date of age 21. A lot of times those kids don’t have anywhere to go once they leave us.”
“We really work on building a strong support system for when they leave our care. We focus on four areas: education, housing, support system and employment. These are four areas we really want to have a plan for them when they leave,” Galvan said.
Harrelson said public schools in the county have been instrumental in helping the children get the services they need, from making sure immunizations are given to helping keep youth from getting suspended, which has been a problem in the past. LCCS caseworkers routinely go visit schools to check with counselors and teachers to monitor how the students are acclimating to their educational settings.
Many of the children LCCS sees go through its system are at a sizeable disadvantage when compared to their peers, Harrelson said.
“Educationally, our kids our generally behind,” she said. “Many come in unprepared even for a preschool or kindergarten type of environment — colors, shapes, letters, numbers. We have a lot of kids who haven’t had good educational opportunities previously. We have to get them a good solid exposure to an educational environment.
“We have kids who have repeated grades by the time we get to them, so they’re older and larger than classmates and a grade behind kids they should be with socially. They struggle with that emotionally. The number one thing our children deal with is trauma. Trauma from significant neglect, trauma from physical and sexual abuse, and that type of trauma comes out in classrooms, in schools, in structured environments, in foster homes.”
While the barriers can seem rather large, Harrelson is quick to mention that she is consistently amazed at what children in LCCS custody can do.
“While the public needs to see that we deal with barriers, we also see kids, when given the right opportunities, when given the right support, are amazingly resilient kids who respond well to the supports that we can offer them, the schools can offer them and this community can offer them,” she said.
As an example, Galvan said that of 17 recent graduates emancipated from LCCS care, 10 of them are going to college. LCCS teams up with University of Toledo and Owens Community College to show the youth that higher education can be in their future, by organizing campus tours and going over grant and education funding options. Also helping those who further their schooling is the Ohio Education Training Voucher, which entitles every teen leaving children services care to $5,000 to use for college.
Harrelson, who has worked in the child welfare field since 1992, said LCCS and other agencies are changing the way they address the educational needs of children under court-ordered custody.
“People are paying a lot more attention to the impact of chronic neglect of children,” she said. “When I first started in caseworking, a lot of times we knew about sexual and physical abuse and a little bit about neglect. What we know now is that a lot of the children that we have are not just victims of sexual and physical abuse but of chronic neglect. Part of combatting that is keeping kids in their home school district.”
Harrelson said foster parents, regardless of where they live, are encouraged to consider driving their foster children to the school they have been attending in an attempt to maintain that educational connection.
Galvan said she has seen a more hands-on approach to handling the educational process, mentioning the GIFT (Gaining Independence for Teens) program, which is training foster parents undergo to help teens with life skills such as banking or budgeting.
“We’ve really enhanced our foster parent training and the training and interaction with the kids,” Galvan said. “Our caseworkers are required to see the kids at least twice monthly, but they see them way more than that.” O