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September 2013Vol. 14, No. 7Connecting the Dots for Transitioning Youth

Each year in Ohio, between 1,000 and 1,400 youth transition out of foster care. Jennifer Justice, Deputy Director, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) Office of Families and Children, said the State needs to do more to meet the needs of this vulnerable population. "Kids that don't achieve permanency and emancipate from our care have extremely poor outcomes. We have to do better by them, because we are their parents." That's where Ohio's Connecting the Dots program aims to make a difference.

Connecting the Dots From Foster Care to Employment and Independent Living is a new effort to increase cross-system collaboration among State and county agencies by connecting child welfare caseworkers, employment counselors, mentors, and other services with youth who are exiting care. The State has used funding from its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to operate this program.

The impetus for the program began in 2011 when members of the Ohio Youth Advisory Board—consisting of youth currently in care and those who have emancipated—met with ODJFS Director Michael Colbert. Because ODJFS is an umbrella agency for health and human services that includes programs such as workforce development, unemployment compensation, child support, child care, and food assistance, Colbert was not specifically entrenched in child welfare. Justice said the Youth Advisory Board members captured Colbert's heart and brought him up to speed on the challenges they face after leaving foster care. Colbert then realized that the offices within ODJFS needed to break out of their silos and collaborate to better serve these young people.

The first phase of the program was cross training. "We had to set a baseline of understanding about what our departments had to offer," Justice said. "We had to explain to the folks in child welfare what the workforce development people did. We had to explain to workforce development what child welfare is about, what our kids have gone through, and what their needs are. We needed a better understanding of how our different systems worked."

To achieve this goal, 13 training webinars were conducted, and not just for staff. Some of the trainings focused on youth and foster parents and covered State-level resources, such as online job search tools and training and a "real cost of living" program through the Department of Education that focuses on the actual costs of apartments, utility bills, and other necessities.

An even larger strategy was employed to help reduce the number of children who age out of foster care. ODJFS entered into a partnership with the Dave Thomas Foundation's Wendy's Wonderful Kids program, which awards grants to agencies to implement innovative recruitment programs to help move children from foster care to adoptive families.

Justice added that even with increased recruitment efforts, not all children in care will be adopted. "We know there will always be some percentage [of youth] who will not achieve permanency through adoption, and we can't allow them to leave our system without better tools in their toolbox," Justice said. "We have to think about permanency in a different way. We believe that even if we can't succeed in finding permanent adoptive homes for these kids, we should always make sure they have a permanent adult connection in their lives." Enter, Big Brothers Big Sisters.

ODJFS is partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters to provide volunteer mentors specifically focused on vocational counseling for youth preparing to leave foster care. "Big Brothers Big Sisters has a rigorously evaluated mentoring service, but they typically mentor younger children," said Alice Worrell, Project Manager, ODJFS Office of Workforce Development. "Working with older youth is a new venture for them."

The partnership has yielded a customized curriculum for mentors, which was developed after focus groups with youth from across the State gathered information about what youth want from a mentor or an adult supporter. Recruiting began this spring, and the program aims to match mentors with youth who have common interests in vocation and background.

The partnerships with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Wendy's Wonderful Kids are currently being piloted in five locations in eight counties in Ohio. While Ohio has a State-run, county-administered child welfare system, Justice said she hopes successful program elements can be implemented statewide. "We are already sharing with other counties as much as we can about best practices from the pilot locations. It is our hope that these efforts will be big pieces in connecting the dots for youth."

More information about the Connecting the Dots from Foster Care to Employment and Independent Living program is available in a press release from ODJFS:

Special thanks to the following people for providing information for this article: Jennifer Justice, Deputy Director, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) Office of Families and Children; Alice Worrell, Program Manager, ODJFS Office of Workforce Development; James Lacks, Program Administrator, ODJFS Office of Families and Children; and Amy Eaton, Section Chief, ODJFS Office of Families and Children.