Hamilton County’s Foster Youth Celebrate Graduation!

Last night, we had a tremendous celebration for more than 50 of our foster youth who have overcome incredible obstacles to graduate from high school. Our Celebration of Dreams event is always one of the highlights of my year.

The event includes dinner and an awards ceremony featuring student speakers, a keynote speaker and speeches from both agency and county leaders. The ceremony also includes the presentation of certificates, scholarship awards and other gifts for the graduates.

The teens invite their foster families and other important people in their lives, such as caseworkers, CASAs and guardian ad litems.

I’d like to thank Hamilton County Coroner Dr. O’dell Owens for an inspiring speech, and WDBZ’s Lincoln Ware for emceeing with humor and keeping the event running smoothly. And of course, all of the volunteers within and outside our agency for making the event so spectacular.

But I want to especially thank our graduates. These young people have to work harder than their peers to achieve academic success. They, along with their foster parents and those close to them, deserve a celebration and a pat on the back. This event is a fantastic opportunity to say congratulations to them and thank you to our foster parents, caseworkers and others who have provided the necessary support to make this day a reality.

I hope this is the beginning of a better life for these youth. This group has already shown they are fighters. Taking the next step will be a challenge, but their dedication and determination will help them be a success at anything they choose to do.

Hamilton County JFS Wins 4 of 13 National Awards Handed Out in Ohio

We just received word that we have won four achievement awards from the National Association of Counties innovative programs that contribute to and enhance county government.

The association recognized 500 innovative programs from around the nation, including 13 in Ohio.

I am extremely happy that our hard work has been recognized. To have four of the 13 programs recognized in this entire state right here in our agency is unbelievable! Our commitment to innovation and serving the people of this county in unique ways is paying off.

This is especially gratifying in a time when we are struggling with layoffs and huge increases in demand. Providing quality customer service is more difficult than ever, so innovative programs like our Library Initiative are out-of-the-box ways we can make life easier for the citizens of Hamilton County.

Here is a synopsis of the programs that won:

• Library Initiative: A new service designed to ease the application process for public assistance. Country residents can now drop off verification any documentation needed to receive agency services at any of the 41 libraries operated by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. This saves the applicant time, gas money and the aggravation of traveling down town. It also relieves stress on crowded lobbies at a time when JFS is experiencing a large increase in business. In one year, more than 3,500 residents have taken advantage of this new service.

• Everyday Heroes: A public-private venture to increase the number of foster parents, the Everyday Heroes campaign depicted foster parents as “Everyday Heroes” in television, radio and billboard advertisements. The campaign generated more than 500 referrals and brought in nearly 100 new foster homes. Increasing the number of local foster homes decreases the chance children will be sent out of county, enabling them to stay close to their neighborhoods, friends, family members, etc. This is better for their long-term success. The collaborative that resulted from the campaign is ongoing.

• REAL (Responsible, Effective, Accountable and Loving) Dads: A program that provides counseling, job coaching and child support information to fathers who are at risk of failing to financially and emotionally support their children. Many young fathers in the county do not provide financial or emotional support to their children due to a lack of employment experience and deficits in life management skills, such as parenting and responsible decision-making. REAL Dads, operated with Lighthouse Youth Services, helps eliminate barriers to employment and engagement with the child. In three years of the program, 72 fathers have successfully graduated.

• Sheriff Commissary Account Seizures: JFS partnered with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department to increase collections on current child support and arrears, especially on cases where orders are hard to enforce due to the non-custodial parent being in and out of jail. The two organizations work together to seize money from the commissary accounts of parents who are delinquent on child support payments. So far, more than $33,000 has been collected.

The National Association of Counties will list a summary of the programs in its Model Programs database. The winning counties also will be recognized at the association’s annual conference in Nashville on July 26.

Public Chats: One Year of Reaching Out to the Public

How would you like a chance to get a quick answer to your question about a Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services program – without making a phone call or coming to our offices?

Starting a year ago, we have offered that option to the public.

Every week or two, we provide live chats with program experts on http://www.hcjfs.org. Our main goal is to connect with the citizens of Hamilton County and relieve pressure on our phone lines and crowded waiting rooms. We are seeing increased numbers of customers at a time of staff layoffs, so any relief is much appreciated by our customers and staff.

People with questions, concerns or ideas can chat with a JFS expert about a topic such as child support, Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance, services for job seekers and employers, adoption and foster care, child care or child abuse.

We average about 12 individuals per chat and 20 questions in each hour-long chat. Some draw as many as 28 participants; some none. It depends mostly on the topic.

All of the chats end up getting more than 100 views within a week or so. And that number continues to climb because we offer an archive of previous chats, which ends up becoming a Frequently Asked Questions section.

Clients who participate in the chats really like the direct access and quick response. We have had great success helping people better understand how to access our services. Many are in need of public assistance for the first time due to the economic downturn. They are not familiar with the basics.

We publicize the chats with traditional media releases, online newsletter articles, mentions during community presentations and social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook. Overall, we have been pleased with the chats. They are a worthwhile component in our external communication strategy.

They have been so successful that we added private one-on-one chats with Child Support technicians in March. The chats take place 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. You can access a tech by visiting the Child Support page, under Services on www.hcjfs.org. This video clip on YouTube explains the process.

We hope to expand the use of technology in the future because we really feel it is a great way to serve the public.

Foster Care Receiving Attention with Exciting New Ventures

Every Child’s Hope was a great success. We had more than 100 people stop to learn about foster parenting and the speakers were tremendous. Very inspirational. I really do appreciate those who gave of their time for this event.

We had another event on Saturday that was more successful than even I imagined. We kicked off a partnership with the University of Cincinnati that we hope will lead to more of our foster children going on to higher education. The Higher Education Mentoring Initative is currently recuriting mentors to help foster youth attain academic success in high school and transition to a higher education environment. Here’s something I wrote about it for our newsletter:

How are these for depressing statistics?

• 25 percent of foster children are incarcerated within first two years of leaving the child welfare system
• 20 percent become homeless
• 58 percent complete high school; compared to 87 percent of general population
• 3 percent earn college degrees; compared to 28 percent of general population

Those statistics, compliments of a 2004 Pew Commission report, tell a sad tale. Other studies show that foster youth also have disproportionately high rates of early pregnancy, sexual and physical victimization, mental illness and substance abuse. The path is clear: broken children lead to failed adults and a burdened community.

The annual financial toll of even the cheapest problem costs the U.S. billions. The human toll is incalculable. Broken children lead to failed adults and a burdened community.

Some in Cincinnati are saying this is unacceptable. They are stepping up to help foster children. They are willing to invest now, so the community does not have to pay later.

JFS, Hamilton County Commissioners, the University of Cincinnati and other interested parties have united to form The Higher Education Mentoring Initiative. The idea behind the initiative is to reduce delinquency and help prepare foster children for post-secondary education.

More than that, it seeks to provide hope.

If poverty is a root cause of social problems, then education and higher income are the answer. According to recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, workers with bachelor’s degrees earned a mean income of $57,181 in 2007. Those with high school degrees earned $31,286. That is more than a $1 million difference over the course of a lifetime. In the city of Cincinnati, 75 percent of residents over age 25 do not have a bachelor’s degree. Less than one-third of our eligible foster children graduate high school.

National studies show 70 percent of foster youth want to go to college. But for most, it will never happen. A Casey Foundation study estimates less than 13 percent will actually enroll in college; only 2-3 percent will obtain bachelor’s degrees.

While many foster parents open their homes or heart to foster children, higher education is usually not a frequent topic of discussion. Finding a place to sleep or something to eat is the main objective. Either the foster parents themselves have little experience with higher education, or the assumption that it is unaffordable makes it an uncomfortable topic.

And, for most, it is unaffordable. The Congressional Research Services reports that parents in the general population give their children a total of $38,000 between the ages of 18-34 to help with tuition, housing and other expenses. For most foster children, this type of assistance is not available.

The HEMI seeks to help foster youth graduate high school and transition to higher learning by supporting them with a mentor and financial assistance. The partnership between Hamilton County and the University of Cincinnati will recruit, train and support mentors to establish long-term, positive relationships with about 50 Hamilton County foster youth each year. The mentors will assist, encourage and support academic achievement in high school, as well as post-secondary education. The mentoring relationship will be formal, with results tracked and measured.

UC will provide additional support through social work students and an on-campus liaison to foster children. The initiative will also seek a pool of available funds to help support the academic and life needs of foster children as they progress through the higher education experience. Private businesses will be asked to provide both mentoring and financial support.

Mentors will be asked to commit two hours per week of personal interaction to each mentee. They’ll also be asked to be available for additional contact via telephone, e-mail, texting, etc. And, once a month, they will attend a monthly HEMI social activity. Mentors will be required to keep a contact log.

To prepare the mentors, a one-time six hour training will be devised, along with a three-hour quarterly training. All mentors will undergo complete background checks to ensure the safety of mentees.

We are extremely excited about this initiative and the long-term impact it can have on our children. If you are interested in becoming a mentor, please contact program coordinator Rayma Waters at 513-556-0104 or rayma.waters@uc.edu. To make a financial donation or host a short “Lunch and Learn” for employees or organizational membership to learn more about mentoring, contact Brian Gregg at 513-946-1728 or greggb@jfs.hamilton-co.org.