2008-09 Dallas Youth at Risk Roundtables
In 2008, CAG selected Aging Out of Foster Care as a focus for the Youth-at-Risk Roundtable. This topic was chosen because of the many issues foster children face when they grow up in the state’s care and eventually age out of the child welfare system between eighteen and twenty-one years of age. It is also a topic with national significance. The ABA Center on Children and the Law, in conjunction with Casey Family Programs and some other organizations, started the Bar-Youth Empowerment Program in 2008, which aims to improve outcomes for youth in foster care by promoting youth participation in court cases affecting them and ensuring they have access to legal counsel.
On November 14, 2008, a half-day Aging Out of Foster Care Roundtable discussion was held in conjunction with the Transition Resource Action Center (“TRAC”) on the SMU Dedman School of Law campus. Various professionals who interface with foster children ages sixteen through eighteen were in attendance, including DFPS program directors and administrators, special guardian ad litems from the Dallas county juvenile district courts, the public defender’s office of Dallas county, Dallas Court Appointed Special Advocates (“CASA”), a District Juvenile Court Judge, TRAC staff, and representatives from some of the child placement agencies who currently have children in this age range in their foster homes. After a short presentation of hard statistics and facts about the various challenges and barriers foster teens face as they begin to matriculate out of foster care, a useful brainstorming session ensued.
For many of the topics covered, such as the court hearings held twice a year for children in permanent foster care and circle of support (a group designed to assist foster youth with aging out of care), there was a consistent recommendation to include the youths more in the process. It became apparent that the youths had many needs that weren’t being met, such as having an advocate in the area of education, getting their mental health needs addressed earlier, sealing juvenile records, and getting the health and disability benefit process started before they leave state care. At the end of the first roundtable, the Caruth clinic circulated a survey that polled the participants regarding the priority of the issues brought up during the discussion so that some attainable goals could be set for the next roundtable.
The second Aging Out of Foster Care Roundtable was a youth roundtable hosted by TRAC on February 6, 2009. Former foster youth came to the TRAC office to share their experiences in the CPS System with several special guardians and attorneys ad litem for children, TRAC support staff, and a District Court Judge. Four foster youth, two female and two male of different races, poured out their frustrations with the court process, their relationships with their attorneys, and transitioning from foster care. They also expressed the pain they felt in being separated from siblings and unable to communicate with them while they were in foster care. The special guardian ad litems had the opportunity to ask questions of the young adults, and they spoke about what they would change about the current foster care system. Some of their suggestions included:
- making it mandatory for every child in permanent foster care to come to court for their hearings held twice a year in the juvenile district courts;
- starting the transition from foster care earlier than 15½ years old; and
- assigning them mentors or a Big Brother or Big Sister who could help them with decision-making as they are aging out.
Their input was invaluable to our collective dialogue, and their feedback and suggestions were taken back to the original group for the next roundtable.
On March 27, 2009, the third Aging Out of Foster Care Roundtable was held on the SMU Dedman School of Law campus for another half day session. The goal for this meeting was to prioritize the list of services needed for youth transitioning from foster care, identify projects that could be completed within six to eight months, and to assign project chairs and committee members. The meeting started out with an overview of the first roundtable, survey results, and the foster youth roundtable. During the facilitated discussion, six short term projects were named:
- training for special GALs regarding improving legal representation for these youth;
- an education program for youth focusing on money management, social relationships, sex education and job preparation;
- a hearing checklist for child’s attorney highlighting tasks to be completed by next court hearing;
- exit interviews for youth aging out;
- ‘Hearing Your Voice’ book to assist youth aging out with the Texas court process;
- training foster parents on how to better support youth aging out of care.
Out of these six projects, four have chairpersons and committees which were selected at the roundtable. The group decided to reconvene in six months to give the committees and chairs time to meet and develop their respective projects.
Thus far there have been several positive changes resulting from the Aging Out of Care Roundtables. Based on what she heard from the foster youth roundtable, a juvenile district court judge has made it mandatory for DFPS to bring foster children to their court hearings held twice a year. Both juvenile court judges conducted meetings to clarify what is expected of the special GALs representing children in permanent foster care. The development of the exit interviews and the ‘Hearing Your Voice’ book for youth is underway, and DFPS will provide the group with what is currently being offered in the way of training for foster parents and youth regarding the preparation for aging out of care.
2007 Dallas Youth at Risk Roundtable
The 2007 American Bar Association ("ABA") President, Karen Mathis, made it a priority of her term in office to find ways that the law and the legal community can better identify and support America's at-risk young people. To lead this initiative, she established the ABA Commission on Youth at Risk to undertake a year-long effort to identify the challenges facing this population (particularly those in the 13 through 19 year age range) that greatly elevate their "risk." President Mathis chose to highlight youth at risk because of the serious problems our nation’s
ABA President, Karen J. Mathis, discusses purpose of ABA Commission on Youth at Risk.
youth face, such as severe abuse, chronic neglect, domestic violence within their families, desperately poor and violent neighborhoods, serious unmet mental health needs, gangs, and poor educational and employment options. These problems place youth in the United States at high risk for entering the juvenile and criminal justice systems. She strongly believes that lawyers can and should use their legal expertise to work and volunteer in activities that will enhance the policies, practices, and programs designed to help prevent teens from becoming delinquent. President Mathis also endorses collaboration between lawyers, other professionals and community leaders who serve youth so that prevention, intervention and treatment programs can be improved for youth and their families.
As part of the ABA’s mission, the Commission on Youth at Risk established “Youth at Risk Roundtables” across the country in an effort to bring together various professionals who work with youth at risk. The roundtables are intended to establish an open dialogue to identify local issues affecting youth, as well as innovative solutions on how to combat these complex issues. On May 23, 2007, the Dallas Youth at Risk Roundtable was hosted by the W.W. Caruth, Jr. Child Advocacy Clinic on the SMU Dedman School of Law campus. Over
President Mathis thanks Jessica Dixon for organizing the Dallas Youth at Risk Roundtable.
twenty child welfare professionals in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, including judges, CASA executive directors, a juvenile public defender, the chief juvenile district attorney, social workers, religious leaders, and other non-profit community leaders convened with special guest, ABA President Karen Mathis. Jessica Dixon, the Clinic’s Former Director, moderated the two hour dialogue between professionals about meeting the needs of youth aging out of foster care and combating truancy in the Dallas Independent School District.
There was great dialogue between professionals on such topics as areas of growth for foster youth in transition and truancy in the Dallas Independent School District. Some of the areas that were mentioned regarding youth at risk include:
- youth aging out of foster care
- literacy programs
- need for emergency shelter
- free tutoring for youth at risk
- better connection between services
- increase mentoring/volunteering
- parent education
2007 Dallas Youth at Risk Roundtable gets underway with various leaders in the child welfare and juvenile justice area.
How can the legal community can do its part?
- expand the number of externships available to law students that focus on organizations that work with youth at risk
- encourage retired lawyers work pro bono with various service organizations
- recruit more lawyers or law students to serve as mentors to youth at risk
- create a database of web information that professionals serving youth can access (see www.texaslawyersforchildren.org)
- create a statewide Commission on Youth at Risk.
The W.W. Caruth, Jr. Child Advocacy Clinic will continue to host roundtables to support more cross-collaborative efforts between professionals who serve youth at risk in the North Texas area.