Youth & Family Programs
A foster care agency that attempts to reunite children with relatives whenever possible rather than placing them in foster care would appear to be on track for obsolescence.
But that’s not the case at Youth & Family Programs. It’s developing innovative, progressive programs that are expanding rather than contracting the organization’s program of work.
Established in 1984 to work exclusively with local children, Youth & Family Programs initially offered foster care services and then added group home care for older teens. It also offers independent-living skills and transitional housing for young adults leaving foster care.
Over the years, the emphasis on foster care has shifted from the child to the entire family. Youth & Family Programs currently works with all family members in an attempt to use the strengths of the family to reduce the demand for foster care.
Youth & Family Programs Director Ralph Ward says that, because “family sticks with you,” the agency’s primary goal is to try to place the child with a relative—an aunt or uncle, a brother or sister—rather than in long-term foster care. He says this approach differentiates Youth & Family Programs from other foster care agencies.
“We’ve become sort of anti-foster care. We’ve become intensely pro-family,” Ward said. “We work really hard at keeping foster care short-term and returning the kids home.”
Ward said his organization’s philosophy is “in harmony” with the current thinking among county government officials. Not surprisingly, then, Youth & Family Programs has entered into a joint venture with Butte County’s Children’s Services Division to provide 12 beds of short-term shelter care. The expectation is that by slowing down the process and providing a place to assess children and families prior to placement, their needs will be better met.
“The county is starting to look and say, ‘Gee, sometimes we move too quick on kids,'” Ward explained. “If we had this place, a safe place we could put them for a short time, we could look at them and see if there are family members around, see if there is something else we can do.”
The week or so a child might stay in the shelter allows for phone calls to be made and research done on the child’s background. That could prevent the child from being placed into the foster care “system,” only to be pulled out in a few months when a relative is found.
Despite its emphasis on placing children with relatives, Youth & Family Programs continually recruits potential foster parents. By his own admission, Ward says his organization is “pretty demanding.”
For example, Youth & Family Programs foster parents routinely meet with the child’s natural family. While there may be some initial negative attitudes toward the natural parents on the part of the foster family, Ward says all that dissipates when everyone meets. The foster parents are motivated to help the natural parents figure out how everyone can get back together.
“When they’re in the room together, there’s tremendous empathy,” he said. “Much more than I would have ever believed.”
Youth & Family Programs’ also solicits donations from the community. Funding covers all the basics for the children—food and clothing—but they don’t get many “extras.”
Imagine being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and forced to leave your home with a few belongings stuffed in a garbage bag. That’s why a local dentist supplied a six-month supply of toothbrushes, and Omega Nu has offered duffle bags.
Or imagine being a foster parent who unexpectedly has three more kids to feed at dinner. Restaurant and pizza gift certificates help fill the gap.
Ward’s last wish is for a little empathy from the public and acceptance of foster parenting.
“They’re pretty wonderful people who’ve stepped forward and said, ‘I’ll try it.' Everybody who’s come in here has at least offered to try to take care of a kid. That’s pretty amazing."