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Fostering Independence

When teens grow too old for state care, Deanne Pearn helps with adult practicalities.

Barbara Ries

NONPROFIT PAL: Pearn with Tuoto, who gets assistance from First Place for Youth.

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By Jill Wolfson

When Deanne Pearn, '93, came home after her first term as a Stanford undergrad, her close-knit Colorado family gathered around the Christmas tree. Andy, a young man in foster care who had been befriended by the family years before, joined in the festivities.

"That year, all the gifts for Andy were practical things—plates, dishes, towels," Pearn recalls. "He was turning 18, my own age, and it meant that he was aging out of the foster care system. He would be totally on his own, no support, no services. His past had already been so full of violence and sexual abuse. And now, he was being abandoned again."

Pearn's family eventually lost touch with Andy, but she never forgot the "gross injustice" that awaited him. "The transition from teenager to adult is tough for anyone. Most of us have the help of parents, family, teachers," she says. "But what if, when you turned 18, you had no one at all to help you?"

After majoring in human biology at Stanford and working at several nonprofits, Pearn enrolled in a graduate program at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC-Berkeley, with the goal of learning how to "combine direct service with the analytical tools for a broader impact." In 1998, fellow student Amy Lemley was putting together a grant to provide housing support to foster children who were aging out of the system. Lemley asked Pearn whether she'd like to join her in doing something about some horrendous statistics: Sixty-five percent of these youth faced imminent homelessness; 20 percent would be arrested or incarcerated; only 3 percent would graduate from college. The idea, Pearn recalls, "appealed to my heart, my head and my soul."

What started 11 years ago as a pilot program with a staff of two, a budget of $80,000 and a caseload of five youths, has burgeoned into a nationally recognized model for helping young people make the transition out of foster care. Based in Oakland, First Place for Youth is California's largest such program. This year, a staff of 54 serves 900 youth in four counties with a budget of nearly $8 million. In addition to helping with housing, youth receive educational and employment support, health care and one-on-one counseling. First Place recently opened a bright and welcoming resource and referral center in downtown Oakland. Next year, a new branch of the program will offer similar services to foster children in Los Angeles.

Victoria Tuoto, 22, knows the challenges facing foster youth all too well. As a teen, she spent two years in the system, moving to at least four different homes in that short period. Despite the upheaval, she finished high school, saved money and completed a course on becoming a medical assistant. When she turned 18, she looked forward to being self-sufficient. But as the economy stalled, she found herself out of work and sleeping on friends' couches. About a year ago, she turned to First Place.

These days Tuoto works almost full time at a fast-food restaurant while taking a full load of courses at a community college. First Place helps her with rent (she shares an apartment with another foster youth), transportation and groceries. A caseworker provides some of the adult guidance and support that other college-age kids get from their families.

"At first, I resisted getting help. I had a lot of accomplishments and, like any kid, I wanted to stand on my own," Tuoto says. "But I realized that everyone needs help at some point in their life. This is going to help me in the long run."

As chief development officer for First Place, Pearn recognizes that such support and services don't come cheap, "but what we know—and what we've seen firsthand—is that we either invest in our youth now or pay even more later. I'm a real believer in measuring outcomes . . . if a program doesn't work and doesn't help kids, we shouldn't be wasting public dollars. Our program works and yields huge social and financial dividends."

Indeed, compared to other transition-age foster youth around the country, those in First Place are five times less likely to experience homelessness and three times less likely to be arrested. Women who have been helped by First Place are three times less likely to give birth before the age of 21. There's also improvement in economic security, health, connection to the community and educational attainment.

"In moving youth into their own place and teaching them the life skills needed to live, work, learn and lead healthy, responsible lives, they are learning real life skills, such as how to apply for a job, make a doctor's appointment, obtain a driver's license and plan a budget," says Pauline Seitz, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Local Funding Partnership, which provides funding through its matching grants program.

In October 2008, then-President Bush signed legislation that provides federal funding opportunities to states that offer support for foster youth until age 21. Currently, there's a proposal in the California legislature to opt into that support. First Place was part of making that happen. Along with offering individual help and developing what Pearn calls a "kick-ass" program, one of her greatest successes, she says, has been "raising awareness, bringing the problem into the light and building a movement."

JILL WOLFSON is the editor of Bay Area Parent—Silicon Valley and the co-author of Somebody Else's Children, a book about child-welfare issues.

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