September 10 is International Suicide Prevention Day.
As of 2017, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. What’s more, it is estimated that youth in foster care are almost three times as likely as the general population to have had suicidal ideations.
At the R.J. Leonard Foundation, we are committed to providing our Mentors and Fellows with the information and resources they need to seek help and/or offer appropriate support. We believe that training, awareness and knowledge can make a difference.
Suicide is preventable. Be a part of the prevention.
Transitioning to college is challenging for all students but can be even more so for youth in foster care. They may lack the support, the finances and the experiences needed to best navigate the complex systems of higher education. Imagine trying to figure out FAFSA on your own for the first time or even the fourth time. It is no surprise, then, that the graduation rate of youth who are or were in foster care is extremely low - only 3% will earn a college degree.
Recognizing the unique needs of this population, professionals within the child welfare system and higher education have come together to develop and advocate for additional supports. While much of the advocacy is focused on the state and national levels, much of the developing supports take place in smaller settings, specifically on college campuses.
Colleges throughout Pennsylvania, for example, have worked over the past several years to not only identify a point of contact for students who are or were in foster care, but to also create programs that increase retention and academic success. Penn State launched the Fostering Lions Program, which aims to assist foster youth with the financial, academic, logistical and social/emotional aspects of college, for instance. While these programs have only been in place for a short period of time, schools have reported an increase in retention. It is hoped that further bolstering these supports will help change that 3% to a much higher number.
At RJLF, we are proud to know that many of our Fellows are attending colleges dedicated to helping youth in foster care, including but not limited to West Chester University, Cabrini University, Penn State, Temple University and Montgomery County Community College.
To find out more about what colleges in our area offer youth in foster care, click here.
When the lockdowns first began, headlines predicted that this was an opportunity for fathers to step up to the plate. They, too, could tackle childcare while working from home, proving to their partners that they were, in fact, partners.
However, nearly 6 months later, the data tells a different story. Mothers are overwhelmingly the ones who shouldered the burden, taking time off from work and/or stepping away from their careers to care for their kids and navigate online learning. Many who could not take time off worked nights and weekends to compensate for lost hours during the day. What has resulted, due to this and other factors, is a notable decline in female participation in the workforce and a notable increase in motherhood stressors.
Now, imagine what this has been like for single mothers. Taking time off when you are the sole provider is not an option but neither is leaving your kids home alone all day or night while you work. A step back from other responsibilities to care for always-at-home children may mean opting out of a promotion or taking a break from school. This can significantly impact the finances of a household - present and future.
At RJLF, many of our Fellows are single mothers. While they have been nothing short of awe-inspiring throughout the past several months, they have also struggled. And the pandemic isn’t over yet. Click here to find out how you can support these moms as they continue forward in the new normal as professionals, students and mothers.
We’ve shared with you one young person’s experience of aging out during the COVID-19 pandemic and last week highlighted the advocacy efforts that are aimed at securing additional funding and support for young adults in foster care. This week, let’s look at the numbers.
A recent national survey of youth ages 18 to 23 who are in or have aged out of foster care looked to find out just how COVID-19 has impacted the population. The results aren’t surprising. 72% of those surveyed said that their financial situation would be stable for no more than one month. 67% stated that the pandemic was impacting their educational progress, and 55% reported being food insecure as a result of COVID-19. As for mental health, more than half reported clinically-significant levels of depression and/or anxiety.
COVID-19 has been challenging for all of us, but it is fair to say that some populations have been more deeply affected than others - including youth in foster care. To help them, we need to ensure that services and resources are widely available and accessible. If you haven’t yet, check out the #UpChafee movement. And in the meantime, check in with the youth you know. Reaching out may seem like a small act, but it carries with it a huge impact.
When COVID-19 first took hold of the United States, those working with and for youth in foster care (not to mention youth in foster care) knew that special attention would be needed to help this population through the pandemic. In particular, transition-age youth - those on the cusp of adulthood - would need a safety net to help ensure their needs were met ongoing. And so, the #UpChafee Campaign was started.
Chafee services are federally mandated services offered to youth who are or were in foster care on or after their 14th birthday. The programs are designed to help prepare the youth for their transition to adulthood by teaching them a variety of life skills and offering assistance with education, employment and housing, as possible.
The #UpChafee campaign advocated for additional support for transition-age youth by extending foster care supports and increasing funding for the Chafee services already in place. On August 7, that campaign took one huge step forward. Representatives Danny Davis (D-Ill) and Jackie Walorski (R-In.) introduced the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act. The legislation would, among other things, provide $400 million in funding for FY2020 and place a moratorium on aging out of foster care due to age during the pandemic.
While the introduction of a bill with bipartisan support is a great sign, it is not the conclusion of the #UpChafee Campaign. More needs to be done to help pass the legislation - and that more includes you. Contact your state representatives. Urge them to support the bill. Speak out about the needs of transition-age youth and the impact COVID-19 has and will continue to have on them. These youth deserve our help.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation released its 2020 Kids Count Data Book this summer, in which it detailed the well-being of children throughout the United States. Overall, the data showed positive trends with more parents economically secure, more teens graduating from college and more children of all ages covered by insurance. In Pennsylvania which ranked 20th in the country for child well-being, the data showed fewer children in poverty and fewer households with a high cost of living burden, for example.
However, it is important to note that this data was pulled from 2018, and even if it had been true for 2020 prior to the pandemic, the trends likely aren’t as positive now. COVID-19 has impacted all facets of life but particularly (outside of physical health) employment and income. In Pennsylvania alone, nearly 2 million new unemployment claims have been filed since March 15. Without steady employment, other aspects of well-being are affected as well, such as insurance coverage, the cost of living burden and education. Even with safety nets, such as CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), the process of applying and obtaining coverage after losing private insurance could result in a gap - a potentially costly gap during a pandemic.
With that in mind, what should the takeaways be from the Kids Count Data Book? The data is still relevant. It shows that as a state and a country we are making progress in promoting and maintaining children’s well-being, while also highlighting areas that need to be worked on. And it demonstrates the holistic nature of well-being. It’s not just physical health but rather a host of different parts of life that make up the well-being of one person.
Thinking, then, of COVID-19, we can look at the data book as a guide to what we need to focus on and help rebuild during and after the pandemic. Like all of us, children have been affected by COVID-19, and it is a part of our job - as community members and adults - to help mitigate the impact.
For most of us, the past four months have been laced with frustration, stress and maybe even panic. These emotions are reasonable and justified; our daily routines have been upended, and it does not seem like the world will be returning to normal anytime soon. But this COVID-19 world won’t last forever, either.
With the mindset that this state is temporary, it is important to try to think about what quarantine gives to us. We suddenly have the unique opportunity to develop habits and attitudes that can ultimately make our post-pandemic lives better. Typically, we live in a stimulation-heavy world and often find ourselves searching for somewhere better to be. Many establishments, however, are still closed or not safe yet, so going somewhere else in search of summer fun is not an option. Learning to be more present with friends, family or just yourself is an invaluable tool that leads to greater satisfaction and happiness in the long run.
One way to do this is to look to your own yard for entertainment. Maybe learn how to plant a garden by yourself or with your kids. Nature will always be around us despite whatever stressors are thrown our way, and engaging with the outdoors can be grounding and calming. Another way is to get creative in the kitchen. Cooking can be a uniting activity, and everyone in the household can get involved or just appreciate the end product.
Now is the time to pick up projects and activities we normally wouldn’t think of doing or have time to do in our normal past routines. Take advantage of this change-up, and discover the gift that is finding joy where you are.
This year, many of us are mourning the loss of our summer vacations, as they are cancelled out of caution, due to state closures or because of travel bans. In doing so, we are finding out just how valuable those trips were to us. They introduced us to new places and people while allowing us time to recharge.
Our lack of vacationing may seem unique to 2020, but for many - particularly for youth in foster care - going on vacation is the actual rarity. Few, if any, youth in foster care get to experience a vacation in their childhood. Their foster families either don’t take trips or send the youth to respite homes for the duration of their travel. Those in group homes can expect to see the weekend or backup house parents in place of their primary guardians.
Once youth age out of care, vacations may be equally as rare. Only an estimated 3% of foster care youth earn college degrees. Without a bachelor’s degree, employment options are limited and wages even more so. Vacations and even staycations become an unattainable luxury.
The RJ Leonard Foundation aims to change that, by helping youth transitioning out of care earn their degrees and start toward a career of success, and by making the needed luxury of vacations a reality when possible.
RJLF helped its Fellows take trips to Thailand, California and across the country in 2018 after its Dare to Dream initiative highlighted Enriching Experiences. We look forward to doing so again once travel is safe. Click here to find out more about Dare to Dream, RJLF and how you can help.
Thanks, in part, to the romanticized versions of summer camp found in TV and movies, many view it as a luxury - a fun experience that parents enroll their children in to help facilitate a magical childhood and soon-to-be nostalgic memories. But the truth of the matter is summer camp - whether sleep-away or day - is a necessity for most parents. Very few jobs have the summers off and even fewer professionals can afford to take them off if they do. (An estimated 1 in 6 teachers have second jobs year round.)
Summer camp/care is a much needed childcare service, keeping children of all ages not just entertained but safe from June through August. This year it feels particularly necessary. Children have been home since March with limited, if any, access to their friends. Parents - unless deemed essential - have been home, as well, trying to work, and educate/care for their children at the same time. Camp is a haven for both - time out of the house for the kids and time to work for the parents.
However, it also seems risky. After months closed off to the world, is it safe to send children to camp even if it’s outdoors? Will temperature checks, hand washing, smaller cohorts and masks on staff be enough to keep kids healthy? And is it affordable? Many have lost their jobs or seen reduced hours and pay since the pandemic started. Summer camps range from $100 to $500+ a week. That means a few thousand dollars per summer, per child (more than the stimulus checks sent out in April).
This decision, particularly this year, will weigh heavily on parents, including many of our Fellows. How do you choose when the wellbeing of the child, the parent, the family and the community don’t necessarily align?
If you Google the word “resilience”, article upon article of research and commentary will pop up. Lots of “How to’s” emerge on the screen displaying strategies to build resilience. These articles seem to provide access to wisdom at the click of a button, theoretically equipping people with the necessary tools to be resilient in the face of adversity.
This wealth of information, however, can be misleading. It is unrealistic to assume that young adults, particularly those transitioning out of foster care, can successfully cope with adversity on their own simply by throwing the word resilience on a screen in front of them and/or attaching the word to them as a population. Resilience involves managing trauma by truly acknowledging and experiencing the trauma without crumbling underneath it. Guidance and support is necessary to adopt better thoughts and behaviors and learn how to be resilient. Relying on the concept of resiliency does not equal a life free from struggle.
Youth aging out of the foster care system constantly deal with unimaginable stressors, and they often face these circumstances alone. The pandemic further introduces intense challenges and adversity for them, as it does for many of us. Now is the time to help youth learn about and cultivate resilience. As a potential guiding force, you can help to convert these negative situations into opportunities.
Click here to learn more about Mentorship and ways you can play an active role in making a resilient foundation possible for others.