handle with care

Criminal records more likely than diplomas for Colorado foster youth

PHOTO: Joe Mahoney/I-News
Colorado state Sen. Linda Newell, left, listens to Tori Black, a former foster child, testify at the Colorado state Senate's Finance Committee in favor of the "Fostering Connections" bill sponsored by Newell on Feb. 24, 2015. The bill failed to move out of the committee, 3-2.

Tori Black, 25, “aged out” of Colorado’s foster care system seven years ago. Her story is one of survival, but also of perseverance and rare success. She didn’t soften the words of her struggle as she addressed the state Senate Finance Committee.

“The pathway from foster care to higher education is a cliff, and most of us are just completely falling off the cliff,” Black said, her voice rising, as she explained her view that the state is failing foster youth.

Black spent most of her childhood in foster care. Now a college graduate, she is an advocate for “youth in transition,” or kids who age out of the child welfare system at 18.

In taking testimony from Black and others on legislation that would impact foster care in the state, the senators heard about a system that many consider dysfunctional.

A Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analysis of data provided by the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) revealed that only 28.7 percent of foster youth will graduate from high school on time, but at least 38 percent will have been incarcerated between ages 16 and 19.

By age 19, foster youth who were never placed in a permanent home are more likely to have a criminal record than a high school diploma.

Foster care outcomes are particularly bleak for Colorado minorities.

According to CDHS statistics, blacks are four times more likely than whites to enter the child welfare system, and Hispanics are nearly three times more likely than whites to spend time in out of home care.

“I was an eight-year-old kid,” Alfredo Carrillo, a former foster youth said. “I thought I should be home with my mom, not having other people tell me when I can sleep, when I can eat.”

Carrillo said that living in foster care and group homes boosted his chances of getting into trouble with the law, that his background has followed him into his adult life.

“I’m still looked at as a criminal,” Carrillo said. “Just because I have tattoos, the color of my skin and how I lived my life, back in the day.”

Carrillo, 21, said that he “started robbing houses” as a juvenile, but maintained that he has since avoided criminal activity. He currently lives just a few blocks from where he grew up, and was able to find housing through a program called Bridging the Gap at Mile High United Way. The program provides 18 months of housing vouchers for youth who age out of child welfare or the division of youth corrections.

This gave Carrillo the opportunity to escape the alternative, homelessness, he said, and has helped him to stay out of jail. He said that while he was in foster care he felt like he was being prepared for prison.

“They make you feel like, you’re one of the statistics, you’re going to the penitentiary,” Carrillo said. “So we’re gonna get you set up for the penitentiary.”

Nationwide, former foster youth and young adults are more than 10 times as likely as their non-foster peers to be in jail or prison as their “current living arrangement.”

The national data show that 43 percent of women and 74 percent of men who emancipated from foster care will have been incarcerated at least once in their lives.

State officials said the primary solution to addressing this problem is to place foster kids in permanent homes, either through adoption or being reunited with their birth families.

“We know that aging out of foster care, without a family, without a permanent family, does not have good long-term effects,” said Robert Werthwein, director of the Office of Children, Youth and Families in the Colorado Department of Human Services. “Having a family is really key. You don’t just stop growing at age 18.”

But for teens in foster care, finding a permanent home can be difficult. In Colorado, close to 70 percent of teens in foster care live in group homes with other foster teens.

“I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention; basically, that was my second home during my teenage years,” said Tamisha Macklin, 26. Often group homes are populated by both those in the juvenile justice system and those who are not.

Macklin entered foster care at age six and by 14 she was spending most of her time in group homes and detention centers. “I would just leave, or miss curfew and be counted as a runaway, I would just violate,” she said.

Macklin now works as a foster care advocate, regularly appearing before the Colorado General Assembly and appealing to lawmakers in Washington.

She uses her past experiences to help others, including Anthony Piccolo, 21, who said he also experienced several placements after fighting with foster parents or running away. He said that life in group homes helped him build a rap sheet.

“Living in these group homes, there are all these guys and then all this testosterone and you get in fights and then that’s an assault charge,” Piccolo said. “It’s the simplest things that you end up going to court for.”

Common behaviors like fighting or running away – which youth policy advocates say is common for all teens, not just those living in care – can lead to harsher penalties for foster youth.

“It’s normal for kids to break curfew,” said Kippi Clausen, a policy consultant in Colorado working on child welfare programs. “Some of these challenges are normal for kids.”

State officials say that it’s not policy to require criminal charges for what might otherwise be considered simply youth acting out, but that there are reporting requirements to ensure safety.

“We have licensing and monitoring in Colorado, we need to know what’s going on,” Werthwein said. “But that doesn’t always mean charges – it’s a different track than a judicial charges.”

Werthwein says his goal is to reduce the size of group homes and to help more kids remain with their families or a family member, or with a foster family.

“Not in an ideal world, (but) in this world, we need to have more foster homes,” Werthwein said. “It’s not an easy thing.”

A recent report from policy research group IFC International, submitted to the state auditor’s office, estimated that Colorado needs 574 new caseworkers and 122 additional supervisory positions to meet the demands of the 10,000 foster youth flowing through the system each year. There is also, CDHS reports, a consistent shortage of foster homes.

But attempts to address staffing and housing shortages have been difficult. This year, Gov. John Hickenlooper requested that the $25 billion state budget include room for 130 new caseworkers. That request didn’t make the final budget.

Other bills to address the needs of teens and young adults leaving the foster care system have faced similar challenges.

“I thought, ‘I cannot let these kids down,’” said state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Arapahoe County, who has proposed a number of bills that would support older foster youth. “The hundreds of kids across the state, those kids who through no fault of their home have lived with this system as a parent, I couldn’t let them down.”

She sponsored the “Fostering Connections” bill to help foster youth get into college, while keeping them off the streets and out of jail.

The bill failed by a 3-2 vote in the Senate Finance Committee.

Tori Black and Tamisha Macklin, who both testified on behalf of this bill, said they were saddened and somewhat surprised the bill failed – but remain steadfast in their advocacy for foster youth.

The senators who voted against it said that focusing on foster kids and higher education missed the mark. As it is, many foster teens have gained a juvenile record and will have trouble graduating from high school.

“I think this is a huge problem, I just don’t think this is the solution,” said Sen. Tim Neville, R- Littleton, the committee chair.

Most advocates and former foster youth do not think there is a simple solution to all that ails the system. They hope legislators and the human services department will continue to seek ways to decrease the incarceration rate for foster youth.

“I’m worth it,” Carrillo said. “I have a chance to prove something to society. I am not who they think I am. I am better.”

Chalkbeat Colorado brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Katie Kuntz at [email protected]

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.