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  • The Direction in Which We Move

    by Matilda Raffa Cuomo
    and Deborah E. Lans

    “It is not the place we occupy which is important, but the direction in which we move.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes

    The “Shame on Foster Care,” as Time magazine recently headlined, has been well-publicized in recent years. Even looking behind the sensational headlines at those aspects of the foster care system that function well, foster children face enormous difficulties. Often growing up in underserved and impoverished neighborhoods and facing substantial personal traumas, these children live in a uncertain and often sustained limbo, with their surroundings shifted and relationships disrupted.

    As foster children “age out” of the system, the problems compound. Nationwide, only 35 percent of them graduate from high school and barely 11 percent go on to college. Yet these marginally educated youth, lacking financial wherewithal and often any supportive adult relationships, are expected to live on their own. Not surprisingly, many former foster care children go on to travel what has been dubbed the “foster care circuit,” a cycle of joblessness, homelessness, welfare and crime.

    It is both intuitive and well-documented that children in foster care need caring human relationships. Yet until recently, no established mentoring organization, the ideal entity to provide such connections, had tried to offer programs to this population. Efforts by foster care and other non-mentoring organizations had been made, but they generally withered because of lack of focus or funds to those programs that were not central to the agencies’ core activities.

    In 1998, Mentoring USA (MUSA), the largest site-based one-to-one mentoring organization in New York City, with thirteen years experience in running mentoring programs for at-risk youth populations, set out to investigate the feasibility of one-on-one mentoring for children in foster care. Working initially with staff of the Administration for Children’s Services, we developed a special training protocol for mentors, then ran a small pilot program with Good Shepherd Services. The pilot allowed us to refine our screening, training and support services.

    In the summer of 2000 with additional funding we moved on to provide mentors to children living in group foster homes, in partnership with the foster care agencies running those homes, and in schools having “clusters” of children in foster care.

    We anticipate that by providing foster children with stable, consistent trained and supported adult mentors for weekly meetings, MUSA will generate many of the positive outcomes generally seen in well-structured and supported mentoring programs: better school attendance and performance; improved peer and adult relationships; and an enhanced sense of self-esteem and opportunities for the children. We know that the foster children mentored in our pilot program visited museums; heard concerts; shared meals and most powerfully, received personal attention from volunteer mentors who chose to make a difference in their lives.

    The special meaning for these children of a one-to-one relationship which is not mandated by statutory, contractual or employment requirements, but which a mentor freely offers to help a child cannot be overstated.

    If the foster care system remains a failure, in spite of successful reforms, at least we can recognize that a variety of efforts are being made to move individual foster children into relationships with volunteers who can provide care, support and role modeling for the child, helping them confront and overcome their unfortunate circumstances. The mentor gives the child hope for the future. #

    Matilda Cuomo is the Founder and Chairperson of Mentoring USA and Deborah Lans is the Executive Director.

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