Aging out can cause an increase in crime in Houston and any other place where the teenage population in foster homes gets a low priority.
The Way Home Adoption organization was formed seven years ago to specifically address the stumbling blocks associated with this age-sensitive issue.
Problems with ‘Aging-out’
This is the common term used to identify foster children who have turned 18 years old, thereby legally aging out of the Children’s Protective Services (CPS) system. This means that these young men and women are legally adults and must fend for themselves.
Way Home co-founder Ashley Fields, a long-time social worker dedicated to finding solutions to serious foster home problems, stresses the downside for aged-out foster children who wound up with no permanent home.
Fields is taking her case to the Houston Police Officers Union, seeing her information-laced talks as a help for the children, the community and the local police. Before the pandemic the Badge & Gun featured profiles of potential adoptees. Now comes a renewal of that effort along with more information about the organization that has undertaken this crucial task.
Fields said the story of Way Home began with the brainstorming she and co-founder Kendall Monroe began when Fields was a Harris County CPS caseworker and Monroe a fundraiser for a non-profit.
The two recognized the need for an adoption agency for foster children nearing the age-out stage.
As Fields explained:
“We took note of what we were seeing in terms of their lack of normalcy growing up in foster care, what happens when they age out.
“We found that they make up 50 percent of of our homeless population and 70 percent of the prison population. Those who grow up in the foster care system and age out face a very grim reality. Too many are homeless, unemployed. They have seen life in foster care. They have moved several times a year.”
Fields and Monroe continued their ongoing brainstorm over a couple of years, studying what was working in other parts of Texas and other states in the four corners of the nation.
“Do we need mentorship programs, more transitional support or a better foster care system?” the two crusaders asked.
“When kids are adopted,” Fields explained, “they are more likely to finish high school, more likely to be employed, less likely to be arrested. Adoption is the only way to change their trajectory for the better.
“We found that adoption was the only answer.”
Now then, finding adoptive homes for babies or younger boys and girls poses a unique set of problems for CPS and adoption agencies.
Just imagine how those problems compound when the children in the system turn into growing teenagers whose many peers with permanent families are more easily heading toward high school graduation and college.
Now you see the Way Home challenge that Fields and Monroe have undertaken and that Fields portrayed at the HPOU’s April general membership meeting.
Fields asked and then answered the obvious question: How do we get teenagers adopted?
“Our program has three components, all based on other programs around the country,” she said.
Ways of doing a Hard Job
They are capsuled in three words: Reconnect, Recruit and Engage. To elaborate:
- A Cold Case Unit: “Connecting youth with important adults from their past and current communities.”
- A Community Recruitment Effort: “Identifying new families from our community to become forever homes.”
- Enriched and Engaged: “Providing innovative ways for youth to meet potential parents while also building self-esteem and developing new skills.”
Then come some details from the dedicated co-founder:
“We’re connecting youth with important adults from their past and current communities. This is our cold case unit. We do an extensive search for family, former parents – any other adult that the child has known. Fifty percent of our success rate comes from this effort.
“The second aspect of our program is our community recruitment. The way we recruit for parents is child-centered. It’s not just any adoptive parent.” The child might have special dislikes and needs and this process entails finding the right match, which is no easy task.
“We go out to the community at large and say, ‘Here is (their name).’It’s a very specific recruitment. Would it be a good fit for this kid? This approach works better for teenagers but not necessarily for younger kids.”
Way Home Adoption Inc.
Ashley Fields is the co-Founder & Director of The Way Home Adoption, an organization aimed at getting older youth out of foster care and into adoptive families. She began her child welfare career nearly 20 years ago as a caseworker for Child Protective Services in Houston and then in Philadelphia. She has worked in family preservation, advocacy, and long-term residential care for teens, all of which led her to develop new solutions for older youth in foster care. Ashley graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Arts. She holds a Master of Social Work with a focus on nonprofit leadership and administration from The University of Houston.
Kendall Pace Monroe has a background in development and fundraising, specifically in the non- profit sector. She has worked as a major gifts officer before moving into a planned giving role specializing in estates, trusts, and charitable planning. Kendall graduated Magna Cum Laude from Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Communication. She also holds a Masters of Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, graduating Cum Laude.
Fields stresses that “We’re not always looking for a traditional family. There are empty nesters or people who haven’t had kids yet. There are all different types of families who are able do this.”
She said Way Home combs high and low for adoptive parents, using all the methods to get out into the community – feature stories in local newspapers and on television and “on our website.”
“We try to give our kids opportunity to talk before church congregatins and in places where their appearances builds self esteem.”
Then comes the engagement segment of the adoption goal, or as Fields asks and answers, “What we do with them once theyu say, ‘I’m aninterested adoptive parent.’
“We tell them, ‘Fine, come to our events.”
Way Home sponsors cooking classes, golf lessons, art class and career workshops “held all over town.”
These programs see potential parents “engaging” with potential adoptees, bonding that hopefully leads to building a family.
Way Home does not receive any payments for its services. There is no government funding. The organization is funded by individual donors, some grants and two fundraising events every year.
Coincidentally, one of them was set for April 7. The H-Town Dine-around features about nine restaurants offering “bites” of their menu favorites at the Miss Carousel Bar in downtown. Tickets are $75.
The other event is the annual Way Home Adoption Open golf tournament set for Sept. 28. The event features various corporate sponsors and $1,750 foursomes. “It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year, the most important event we have,” Fields said.
She reflects pride in Way Home’s adoption success rate but only with the hope for improvement.
The overall success rate in Way Home’s seven years is “43 percent that end up in a permanent home. “A comfortable rate for CPS is 20 percent,” she said, “and we’ve doubled that.”
Way Home doesn’t house any of the teens in its program. CPS is responsible for housing, which includes foster homes, group homes, residential treatment centers or emergency shelters.
“Most are in residential treatment centers,” Fields reported. “They are not medical centers. A lot of kids in long-time foster care have behavior problems that escalate. You move up in the system from a family life setting to a group home to residential treatment. As behavior gets better, you’ve earned the privilege of returning to a foster home.”
Getting Word Out
She said, typically, the behavior problems do not involve drug usage.
Success stories abound. Fields recalled that one adoptive father recently told her that his son overcame problems in school, earned high praise from his teachers and is now bound for college.
“We are serving at any given time around 40 kids,” Fields said. “The wait list is usually much, much longer than that but right now we have another 45 on the list.
“As I’ve said so many times: I will talk to any group of people of any size. To volunteer groups, chur congregations, employee groups. We spoke at a NASA ‘lunch and learn.’ We talk to anyone about this. I feel it’s my job to keep shouting from the rooftops.”
A key part of that message is that there are 120,000 American children in foster care waiting to be adopted. “There are $235,000 savings in total public benefit for each child that is adopted before aging-out,” Fields pointed out.
Now-retired Sgt. Tom Hayes, HPOU 3rd vice president and an ardent leader of Assist the Officer, first brought Way Home to the attention of HPOU and the Badge & Gun.
“We owe a lot to Tom Hayes,” Fields said. “He has been so supportive over the last few years. He was the first to say, ‘We want to give you guys a bigger audience.’ “
And she continued:
“There are people out there who didn’t realize how many kids in our city need homes. All these kids need homes. Are you the family they’re looking for?
“The real number? I’ve been told that there are probably around 150 or 200 In our area, in Houston. Sixty percent are male.”