“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa

dWhen 17-year-old Dedria Brunett won the Miss California Teen International Pageant this year, some might find it surprising that this confident young lady came through Ventura County’s foster care program. Brunett was only 6 years old when she was taken to Casa Pacifica in Camarillo, a campus-based residential center that’s been around since the mid-1980s, offering a number of services for abused and neglected children. Much like her biological mother, who was repeatedly raped, molested and abused, the only thing that the young Brunett knew was a life filled with negligence, abuse, homelessness, confusion and suffering, until a family cared enough to open up their hearts and home.
“Without Casa Pacifica, and the one person who cared enough to take a stand for me, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Brunett says.

Today doesn’t just encompass a pageant title. By the time Brunett was 15 years old, she had founded the nonprofit organization called Luggage of Love.

“These foster kids have been through so much, and when they are given a trash bag to put their belongings in, it sends out a horrible message. They need something to call their own — something that belongs to them, and the luggage is simply that,” she says.

In addition to her title and running a nonprofit organization for foster kids, Brunett graduates this month from Adolfo Camarillo High School a year early, with a 4.0 grade point average. In July, she heads off to Chicago, where she will compete for the Miss Teen International 2010 title, and her long-range future plans include hopes for admission to either Stanford or Harvard.

Casa Pacifica’s CEO, Dr. Steve Elson, has been with the organization since the beginning and remembers when Brunett came aboard.

“She came out of a pretty rough situation. At times she was living out of a car with her mother, digging in trash dumpsters for food, and oftentimes assuming a ‘mom’ role,” he says. According to Elson, during the year Brunett stayed at Casa Pacifica, she was unruly and she was repeatedly sent back to Casa Pacifica from various foster home visits.

“In the beginning, no one wanted me. I was a horrible child,” Brunett shared.

However, her life changed dramatically when Tanya Brunett, one of the counselors working at Casa Pacifica, took her home, adopted her and gave her the stability and love she desperately needed.

Stability and love are two life-altering factors that help shape the life of every child, and Brunett is living proof of that. “Dedria needed to connect with an adult, and she had a need for stability and a healthy mother figure, and Tanya certainly became that for her,” Elson says.

“Adoption does not always solve the situation. My story is uplifting, but this isn’t always the case,” Brunett says. “A lot of kids that I share my story with think I have a fairy tale story because I got adopted at 6. But keep in mind, the formative years are the most important.” Like any child who has been subjected to abuse and instability, Brunett has had many hurdles to face.

It is certain that early childhood years have a lasting influence in shaping a child’s life. Children who grow up in compromised life situations often have long-term affects, which can impact the way they respond as adults. The Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that the early years of a child’s life are crucial for cognitive, social and emotional development.

While Casa Pacifica was originally intended just to provide shelter care for the county, it now works with approximately 450 kids both on campus and within the community. The kids and families are always referred there, either through Child Protective Services (CPS) or the County Mental Health Department (CMHD). In addition, Casa Pacifica has a Children’s Intensive Response Team (CIRT), a crisis mobile response service for psychiatric emergencies for youth up through the age of 21. CIRT offers immediate support to families by providing specialized crisis intervention and home support in both Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

With the commitment to make certain foster children grow up in secure environments, why are success stories few and far between? In a recent show aired by Southern California Public Radio, 89.1 KUOR – FM locally, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich discussed the need for programs that will help foster children better prepare for their transition to adulthood.

“Young people aging out of the (foster care) system are vulnerable without the ability to find housing, earn a living and receive the education required to be successful, productive and self-sufficient adults,” Antonovich says. “More than 1,000 foster children in Los Angeles County reach the age of 18 annually without a plan for a successful transition to adulthood.”

2The problem with transitioning into adulthood is not specific just to Los Angeles County. On the contrary, it is a national and local concern. Even though the statistics for success seem rather dismal, there is a program offered to assist those kids who are transitioning out of the foster care program into independent living. The federal government actually launched the Independent Living Program (ILP) back in 1986, making it possible for each state to assist every youth with this transition.

Ventura County Human Services Agency’s Children and Family Services (VCHS) makes ILP available to every foster youth between the ages of 16 and 21. With a goal of helping them reach personal and professional goals and eventually self-sufficiency, VCHS is very committed to seeing the youth in Ventura County foster care utilize this program.

Judy Webber, the deputy director of the Children and Family Services Department for the County of Ventura Human Services Agency says, “In 2009, 94.3 percent of our kids received ILP services.” While this percentage may seem relatively high, Webber adds, “Keep in mind that once a youth turns 18 years of age, he or she is no longer obligated to be a part of any program the state may offer. Legally, they are adults and have the right to cut ties with the system.”

Every year, some 20,000 youth emancipate out of the system, and the percentages that end up incarcerated are disturbing. In a recent article written by journalist Shelley Seale, who recently authored The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, she says, “Children who reach 18 and adulthood in the foster care system without being adopted or having any family or mentor of their own have staggeringly high rates of imprisonment, homelessness, alcohol and substance abuse, and a myriad of other problems.”

This is no surprise to the overworked, underpaid social workers who labor diligently on behalf of foster children.

Finding permanency for every foster child is vital, and VCHS uses every available means to ensure the right placement for its children, giving consideration to every factor.

“It’s very important to identify the needs of the child and then place the child in a setting where the foster parents are trained and understand the problems that are symptomatic of the child’s circumstances,” Webber says.

The State of California runs a thorough background check and requires 18 hours of training for every potential foster parent. In addition to that, Ventura County requires 26 hours of training, and foster parents are required to attend a foster care licensing orientation and complete a pre-licensing training series prior to ever taking any child into their homes. VCHS has additional contracts for specialized training regarding those kids who present other types of behavioral problems. Foster parents are also required to keep their licenses current with the state.

“Our goal is to find permanency for a child before he or she turns 18. When a child has stayed in foster care for over three years, we’re concerned, and it means we have failed,” Webber says.

Permanency for a foster care child is a big concern, but how is that defined? Some are under the impression that adoption is always the answer, but is it?

“Think about a kid moving five to seven times during their high school years,” Elson says of Casa Pacifica.

“Permanence is so important to a child, and it seems to be a huge plus for the foster care program that can lead to successful outcomes.” Both the federal and state goal is for foster children to have permanent families. While that seems like the best plan for every kid, Elson suggests that there may be other options.

“I would like to see an educational boarding school as an option for kids. I don’t know that a family situation is always the best thing for a kid. Bottom line — many kids don’t want another family; they already have one, but they do want stability,” says Elson.

Elson has seen a good amount of success with group settings, and believes that when we move toward the eternal quest to find a family, it isn’t always healthy. In fact, some can perceive moving through foster homes as a type of rejection. He maintains that some kids thrive better in a group setting, especially if they have issues with family intimacy.

“It’s a shame, sometimes, when kids have to leave. We have seen kids leave who want to come back. Once, a little 8-year-old boy left and found his way back to our doorstep by himself,” says Elson.

Elson referred to The Children’s Project Academy (TCPA) in Santa Barbara as being a promising option for permanence. “Why can’t we create a boarding school for foster kids? Rich kids do this,” Elson says.

It was only last week that TCPA was approved by Santa Barbara County’s Board Of Education.

“This is an important milestone toward our goal of changing outcomes for our foster youth,” says Wendy Read, TCPA’s CEO. “Foster kids often face repeated moves during their teen years. This instability affects their educational success and makes it nearly impossible to teach them the life skills they need for self-sufficiency and independence as adults.”

Vicki Murphy, the director of operations and development at Casa Pacifica admits that there are more unhappy endings and sad tales, however, “We don’t always get to hear success stories like Dedria Brunett or Christina Miranda, another woman who emancipated from the foster care system now working at Casa Pacifica and is a senior at California State University, Channel Islands. When we run across kids who have had success, we try to reconnect, because we want to do it again!”

Last month was National Foster Care month, and according to a recent national study released by Chapin Hall Research Center at the University of Chicago, youth who reach the age of majority (18 in most states) and leave the system often encounter a life filled with hardship. “More than one in five will become homeless after age 18; just 58 percent will graduate high school by age 19 (compared to 87 percent nationally); fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25 (compared to 28 percent nationally); and one in four will be incarcerated within two years of leaving the system.”

In California, there are a number of academically driven programs that offer support to former foster youth who want to attend college. The support includes financial aid assistance, a supportive services staff and housing, to name a few items. This support primarily came about through an initiative called the Foster Youth Success Initiative (FYSI) started by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

One does not have to search far to find the dismal stories of kids who have disconnected after leaving foster care programs, and that is just the ones who happen to make it to 18.

JB was a less fortunate youth who began his journey with foster care at the age of 3, when he was removed from his father’s home. The only thing he remembers was the panic that inundated him as his father yelled out, “The devil is here to take you away.” He was moved from foster home to foster home until he was adopted at 9. While Brunett has a successful story of adoption, JB does not. He and his two other adopted siblings were subject to the abuse of a functioning alcoholic father. By the time he was 10, a 17-year-old neighborhood boy began molesting him, and at 14, he ran away from home and lived on the streets for several years.

“The last foster home I stayed in was the only place I would consider sort of normal,” JB says. “My foster parent was a really cool grandma, who seemed to actually care about us kids. The rest of my kid experiences were @#$%ed up.”
JB has known some measure of success though. He is no longer on the streets, and has managed to get a job in retail for the last several years. At 22 years of age, this young man says, “One thing I’ve learned is to never get attached to people, places or things. ’Cause everything and everybody can get taken away in a moment.”

Manny “Bumper” Howard was thrown into the world of foster care at 2 years old when his teenage parents could not take care of him.

“I was never allowed to experience life with the two people who created me, but I was fortunate to have lived in the same foster home for all 16 of the years I spent in foster care, and my foster care mother was the most amazing woman I have ever known,” he says.

Against the odds, Howard managed to finish high school, get a bachelor of science degree in exercise science from Westchester University, and he is currently working on his master’s degree in education.

Recently, the organization AdoptUsKids.org posted Howard’s story on its website, and the response from people across the nation has been overwhelming. Today, Howard is a huge advocate for education, and holds local and national workshops in schools and with various organizations. Howard is the CEO of Howard and Associates LLC, a consulting firm working primarily with schools to help inspire, educate, train, recruit and perfect, and is committed to “inspiring hope and a future.”

Success stories, especially those that defy the odds, can offer a sense of connected hope.

“Success is measured over a lifetime. It is not just about incidents,” Murphy says. “I just got a text message from a girl today who wants help because she’s back on drugs. The point is not the drugs, but that she called. She wants help. If these kids are staying connected and reaching out for help, they are still succeeding.”