The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors restored funding to foster care programs Thursday, but according to a recent grand jury report, more mentorship is needed to keep young foster care graduates off the streets and out of prison.
The report recommended the Board of Supervisors and Human Services Agency create a formal program to train and recruit mentors for teens who have aged out of foster care.
“So much of the success of these kids depends on them having a good mentor, an older person who can help them through all of life’s decisions, encouraging them to go to college, helping them to manage their money and so on,” said Ray Basso, the grand jury foreman.
The report said mentorship is crucial because one of five California foster youths ends up incarcerated and one in four becomes homeless within two years.
While traditionally foster care ends at 18, a 2010 law will eventually enable eligible youths to extend their care until they are 21 years old.
However, Margot Rawlins, who runs the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s foster youth program, said most don’t want more foster care — they just want support.
“When kids turn 18, they’ve been in the system for a long time and they want to be independent, to get people out of their business and move on,” Rawlins said.
Although the new extensions won’t be fully available until 2014, the law speaks to a growing awareness that young people do not become independent until later than once believed.
“For kids coming out of foster care, turning 18 is the most terrifying day in their lives,” Rawlins said. “For most kids, it’s a rite of passage.”
Basso said expanding mentorship programs would cost the county little money, as it could rely on volunteers and partnerships with groups such as parent-teacher associations or the Rotary Club.
Amanda Kim of the Human Services Agency said the county already attempts to identify quality mentors at least a year before kids are released from foster care.
County social workers might be a devoted lot, but Kim Golter of Jeremiah’s Promise, a nonprofit that helps emancipated youths attend college, said mentorship primarily comes from volunteers.
The county partners with several nonprofits on guidance for youths no longer eligible for foster care. But many kids never meet mentors, said Patricia Miljanich, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of San Mateo, who added that more mentors are desperately needed. Finding volunteers is easy, she said. What’s lacking is funding to support them.
CASA provides mentorship and advocacy to about half the 500 to 600 kids in foster care each year. The group obtains about 10 percent of its funding from the state, a third from foundation grants, some from the county and a large share from individuals.
About 200 volunteers worked in mentorship programs for CASA this year, and about 500 will be needed next year — especially Hispanic and black mentors, Miljanich said.
Local youths who have lived through foster care say ongoing mentorship is essential to their success.
After Jasean Edison’s aunt gave him up, he lived in five or six group homes between the ages of 15 and 18, at which point he left foster care.
“I never met my dad, and my mom wasn’t stable,” Edison said. “I guess she wanted to live her young life.”
At 17, he met his mentor through the Court Appointed Special Advocates.
“He helped me through my difficultness; he invited me to be part of his family,” said Edison, 20, who talks to his mentor almost daily.
“If I didn’t have him in my life, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” said Edison, who has a part-time job setting up sound systems for concerts and plans to enroll in college this fall.
But some of Edison’s peers didn’t fare so well.
“A lot of people that I know and grew up with in group homes, now they are on drugs because they didn’t have the extra support of the CASA worker that I got,” he said.
Anna Torres, 22, also left foster care at 18. She held a string of jobs in retail and at various county offices, and briefly attended college. But it was hard for her to focus, she said.
The CASA mentor Torres was assigned helped her find her path.
“She’s one of the people I know who stuck with me when I got out of foster care,” Torres said. “There were people that would check on me, but nobody else really showed interest.”
Now Torres is a full-time Jobcore student in San Francisco, where she is studying to be an office assistant — something she said she couldn’t have achieved without her mentor.
Such support is crucial for young people, especially those who have received so little of it, said Margot Rawlins of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
“They have no safety net,” Rawlins said. “They don’t have anyone to turn to. They don’t have anyone to say, ‘It’s going to be OK, let’s work together.’ There’s a sense of total isolation and hopelessness.”
— Niko Kyriakou
Eligible youths must meet one of these five criteria: