As National Foster Care Month comes to an end, the foster care system continues to face both old challenges and new obstacles in the wake of the pandemic.
Although the number of foster children in the system has dropped over the last two decades in Monroe County, a gap remains between the number of foster families and the existing need. More than 700 children are served by the foster care system.
In addition, children aging out of the system face a lack of support and guidance following years of highly programmed structure. COVID-19 has added more trauma on top of an already trauma-filled experience.
“I had no choice but to be on my own. It felt like the system washed its hands of me,” says Marla Dinkle, a student services specialist at Monroe Community College and who aged out of the foster care system. “Now I see these young people and the mental health issues are really real. The number of breakdowns and suicides are quite sad and this is an underrepresented population almost doubly so because they get so often overlooked.”
At the same time, there are rays of hope for foster children as well. One of those is the brainchild of Ashley Cross, a third-generation foster parent. Growing up with people who were so dedicated to this issue, Cross says her upbringing was filled with caring about children. However, she did not immediately fall into that field.
“Originally I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll probably just be an attorney,’” says Cross, recalling her early days in higher education.
She did return to it, though, working in the child care system as an outreach organizer and in 2013 starting Project Manna Girls’ home, the first home for homeless girls in Tulsa, Okla. After moving to Rochester in 2016, she took some time to examine the area’s specific challenges and started the foster care support organization the Hub 585 three years later.
“(Unlike in Tulsa), I didn’t feel like I needed to start a residential program; there were other ways I could help the system,” Cross says.
Cross has focused the Hub 585 on the theory of hope and has named its physical space a hope center. Hope was always a vague term to Cross, who has since completed a dissertation on the concept and measures it on a 64-point scale using rubrics of agency, the belief one can achieve, and pathways, the route to accomplish their goals.
“The definition of hope is that your future can be better than your past,” she says. “Because of that we use goal setting, which is not used enough in our field, and work from there. For example, a child wants to be a lawyer and they have all the confidence in the world, but don’t know how to get there.
“That would be high agency, a high belief in themselves, but a lack of pathways,” she explains. “Hope is not only optimism; you have to believe you have the power to make your life better. It’s a way to access that power.”
As someone who was institutionalized in the foster care system from age 10 to 21, Dinkle has volunteered at the Hub 585 and is a supporter of its approach.
“When I went through all of it alone—the programming, the court cases, the counseling—it grew in my mind that I really did have these issues, that I don’t fit into the real world. Socially, I was very disconnected,” Dinkle says. “(The Hub 585) is doing things in a normal way, not the programmed way. It lets them have a place to be themselves.”
“Trauma-informed care asks, ‘What happened to you?’; never ‘What do you have? What are you good at?’” Cross says.
The Hub 585 also has a Care Portal system, which Cross piloted during her time in Oklahoma. The portal connects families in need, investigators in the child protective system, and community welfare partners, such as local churches, in a vetted process to have quick responses to issues.
For example, if a child needs new clothes, that information can be tracked and passed down to have a gift card sent to the family in a matter of days, not weeks.
“There’s a comfortability for people who want to help, but maybe don’t know how,” says Cross.
In addition to the Care Portal, the Hub 585 has Voices of Hope, a mentorship program where young people are connected with three to four older peers because foster children’s needs are complex and can require more than one perspective. The Hub has also partnered with East High School for culinary art programs, including a pizza-making event last month.
For children aging out of foster care, the Hub 585 has the Dr. Sherri Tapp Legacy Fund, which bundles apartment startup materials such as pots and pans or toiletries with gift cards to Wegmans and Target.
“We talk about the prison pipeline a lot, but with foster care, there is a homeless pipeline for children aging out of the system,” says Cross.
The National Foster Youth Institute estimates that 20 percent of foster children become homeless the moment they are emancipated.
Dinkle, who struggled as a single mother and dropped out of classes her first semester at MCC after aging out of the foster care system, feels this on a personal level. She did return to MCC and higher education nine years after that first semester and recently completed graduate work in education at the University of Rochester.
Her dissertation on the Foster Youth College Success Initiative, a program that gives financial support to SUNY and CUNY students who have experienced foster care, is something she believes can make a difference to children aging out of the system.
“The money is up to $9,000. That can go a long way on top of financial aid for people in that situation,” Dinkle says. “Young people see (college) as more school, but I tell them you’re going to get so much more from it. The socio-economic support, the way you can understand other cultures, races, economic positions. The support I got (from people at MCC) is why I’m here today. I don’t know where I’d be without them.”