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My Life
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: September 16, 2015

Opening new possibilities for foster teens

SHAWN MAY moved out of his mother’s house at 14. There was just too much friction, so he went to live with his dad, who was bipolar. That didn’t go well either.

“I lived with him for 20 months until I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says.

His next step was moving in with his grandmother and uncle. That lasted five and a half months. She kicked him out on his 16th birthday. He tried living with his mother again, but he didn’t get along with her new husband. So, out of desperation, he found temporary quarters at a group foster home. 

This wasn’t supposed to be a long-term solution. But it became one after he found out that his mother and siblings had abruptly moved to the Czech Republic, her husband’s home country. They didn’t bother to tell Shawn; they just left.

May’s story is all too common among children in foster care, who share a common backstory of instability, often through no fault of their own, during their most vulnerable years. Sometimes their families cannot provide them with the basic safety and protection they need. Many have also faced difficult experiences, including parental substance abuse, sexual or physical abuse, and abandonment.

“All of them have experienced trauma. Most of them have some form of PTSD,” says Larry Dalton, community development coordinator for the Oregon Department of Human Services. “When you have that trauma history, you need support.”

Currently there are 1,581 youths 15 and older in Oregon foster homes. In the last year, 413 Oregon young people between the ages of 18 and 21 transitioned out of foster care, Dalton says. That’s an average of more than 34 per month.

Not surprisingly, they don’t fare as well as young adults with more stable, loving homes. They’re more likely to be incarcerated, drop out of school, be unemployed or homeless, abuse drugs and have teen pregnancies.

May, however, is bucking the odds with the help of a Portland State University program called My Life, which helps youth successfully transition out of foster care. 

MY LIFE pairs foster youth with mentors who help them build life skills, including finding jobs and getting into college. The project is led by professors Laurie Powers and Sarah Geenen in the Regional Research Institute for Human Services, the research arm of PSU’s School of Social Work. Last year, My Life was named one of the best programs of its kind in the United States by the Center for Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C. Teens in the program are coached over a one-year period. During that time, they also attend several workshops with other My Life youth and adult mentors who have been in foster care. 

One of those mentors is Emilie Morris, 23, who entered the foster care system at age 16, and who is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in political science at PSU. 

“My parents were abusive,” she says. Her mother had a history of mental health challenges, Morris says, and would do things such as sell Morris’ possessions—including a car Morris had purchased on her own—and keep the money. Her mother and stepfather kicked her out when she was 16 with the idea that she go live with her father, but he didn’t want her, Morris says, so she went to live with her grandmother, where more abuse awaited.

At this point, Morris’s high school got involved and contacted the Oregon Department of Human Services, which assigned her a caseworker. Morris used that opportunity to ask to be put into foster care. 

All too often, foster care isn’t the safe haven it’s supposed to be. The turnover can be high and the quality of care is hit-or-miss. Morris started out in a homeless youth shelter, then was transferred to her first foster home, which she described as an “absolute nightmare.” That lasted about a month until she was transferred to another group home.

“It made me a stronger person, albeit more cold and jaded than I would have been otherwise,” she says. “There’s a fine line between someone who gains a lot of strength and the ones who can’t take it and resort to self-harm, suicide or a life of mental problems.”

She used that strength to get her own apartment at 18 and to go to college. People involved with the My Life program heard about her and asked her to be a foster youth peer mentor. She was a mentor for two years: four six-month rounds, each of which involved 20 to 30 young people. 

“My time as a mentor was telling youth how to successfully gain independence, but to also let them know I knew where they were coming from. That had a deep impact,” she says.

SIXTY-NINE FOSTER YOUTHs were involved in My Life when it started as a small pilot project in 2003. Grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health to expand the program have resulted in 300 more young people being involved during the past five years. There is a large research component to My Life, so while half the youth participants receive weekly coaching to help them formulate goals and work toward a plan of achievement, the other half—the control group—receive standard state services. Analyses from the larger My Life study are still being conducted, but data from the pilot study show that 72 percent of the young people receiving the intensive mentoring graduated from high school and 45 percent of them had paid jobs compared with 50 percent and 28 percent in the control group, according to Geenen.

Even though it’s still in the research stage, two Portland agencies helping youth in foster care —New Avenues for Youth and Albertina Kerr—have adopted the My Life model into their own services. 

“Our approach is helping young people identify and work toward goals that are personally meaningful to them,” Geenen says. “The traditional way is to fit kids into existing services. My Life is very individualized and focused on meeting youth where they’re at.”

Shawn May is one of those people. He’s been coached by Summer Pommier, a My Life manager. At 19 years old, May now has a job, 29 college credits and is working toward an associate’s degree in order to be a park ranger. He says he’s considered a role model in his foster home, and soon will be moving to an apartment with one of his foster brothers.

“Before I met Summer, I didn’t think about going to college. I didn’t want to go to school again. But she helped me develop the mindset that I can do anything I set my mind to,” he says.

Reaching out through research

The Regional Research Institute for Human Services is the research arm of Portland State’s School of Social Work, which has graduated more than 5,000 students since its first class in 1962. At any given time, RRI is conducting as many as 65 projects in partnership with agencies, municipalities and service organizations in Oregon and around the country. Projects may address outcomes anywhere from attendance at a single elementary school in Portland to HIV prevention in the Amazon.

Some important projects in the past few years include assessing the quality of services for emotionally at-risk American Indian youth living in Portland, and evaluating Catholic Charities’ services for victims of human trafficking who now live in Oregon. In addition, RRI staffs Reclaiming Futures, a project started in 2001 through a $21 million grant that is now in 41 communities helping young people involved in the juvenile justice system.

John Kirkland is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Caption: Illustration by James Fenner