Beyond the Foster Care System: The Future for Teens
by Betsy Krebs, Paul Pitcoff
In the foster care system there is practically an army of professionals working to make sure each children is placed in an appropriate setting once he is removed from his home. Judges, social workers, attorneys and mental health professionals all weigh-in on the decisions that affect the child's everyday life, from home visits to the school enrollment and a clothing stipend. It is all part of a system meant to provide a haven for a child removed from a home that was considered unsafe-but it has its own faults. Working as attorneys in the foster care system in New York, Betsy Krebs, a Goshen resident, and Paul Pitcoff of New York were familiar with the bureaucratic chain of command, the lengthy battles it took to place a child with a relative out of the state or enroll a foster child at a local public school. The work they did was frustrating, and at time disheartening. Yet, there was one particular error in the system that caused them great concern. The young teens, with so many adult professionals assigned to look out for their well-being as they grew up in the system, were not learning the necessary skills to rise above the challenges they faced coming out of foster care.
The teens were growing accustomed to disappointment; they watched others take control of their lives and make the important decisions. "I felt that teenagers in the foster care system were a very neglected population," Ms. Krebs said. "My job was to represent them regarding their foster care placement issues and many wanted help with education and what to do with their future and I felt nobody was really focusing on developing ways to help them transition out of foster care." Rather than wait for changes, Ms. Krebs and Mr. Pitcoff took action. Working with teenagers experiencing life in foster care first hand, they started the Youth Advocacy Center in New York City in 1992. Its workshops and seminars teach teens to advocate for themselves and take control of their futures. They learn about what rights they have while living in foster care and how to work with the system to achieve their goals.
The program has spread and seminars have gained a reputation among social workers and educational professionals. Stemming from their experiences at the advocacy center, Ms. Krebs and Mr. Pitcoff recently released a book titled "Beyond the Foster Care System: The Future for Teens." Using anecdotal stories of actual teens who faced problems in foster care, the book chronicles the two professionals' journey from their experiences as law guardians-essentially attorneys for foster children-to the creation of the center and the programs it provides. It is meant for all audiences, from those working in foster care to those who have a general interest in helping to make the system better. "So many communities expressed a real common desire to empower the youth and help them succeed.
So we really wanted to share our experiences with how we developed our program and what it is like working with youth and what challenges there are and what opportunities there are for people to get involved," Ms. Krebs said. The book was written to draw attention to the foster care system and the two hold nothing back and they explain their own experiences in the system. Each chapter uses the story of a different teen to illustrate their journey. Mr. Pitcoff's first story is about Teresa. He was assigned to be her law guardian while working as a New York attorney. She wanted to be removed from her group home and placed with either her grandfather in Chicago or her sister in New York City.
Overloaded with cases and facing an uphill battle, Mr. Pitcoff was unable to help, and her case got lost in a maze of bureaucratic processes. "I better understand now Teresa's lack of affect, a common trait among teens in the foster care system," he writes in the first chapter. "She knew the first day we met that neither I, nor any other member of the system, was going to help her. She had no reason to believe that things would change for her, and she was correct." Teresa's case was one of Mr. Pitcoff's first while working as an attorney. It was a second career for him, since he previously spent 20 years working as a filmmaker and professor at Adelphi University. He met Ms. Krebs while working as an intern in family court. Ms. Krebs started working in the Manhattan family court after graduating from Harvard Law School in the late 1980s. Mr. Pitcoff and Ms. Krebs worked together in family court, facing constant obstacles and at times feeling helpless to create any real progress for the teenagers they met daily. Eventually they both left the legal profession.
Mr. Pitcoff returned to filmmaking and Ms. Krebs started raising money for what would become the Youth Advocacy Center. "No one experience motivated us to leave family court," they wrote in their book. "We ended up leaving not just because we felt we could provide no lasting help for children and their families, but because we began to realize our own sense of justice, humanity and hopefulness was being diluted each day we remained as part of the system." Eventually Mr. Pitcoff joined Ms. Krebs as she worked toward creating the center. They met teens like Carlos and Jenny who were in foster care and helped create the basis of the center's programs.
The stories of both teens, who went on to be successful adults, are included in their new book. "So often teenagers are portrayed in stereotypes as kind of a privileged teen or one is who quote, 'at risk' We don't have a good sort of full picture of them as people who can contribute something meaningful to our society, so we're hoping to bring that out at the forefront also," Ms. Krebs said about the book. The "Getting Beyond the System" program discussed in the book teaches teens to take control of their own education to better prepare for lives as independent adults. A key part of the seminar is a meeting with a professional working in a field that may be of interest to each student. These outside volunteers serve as mentors, or career coaches, to offer advice on how to achieve whatever goals the teens might have.
The dedication from these professionals working outside the foster care system inspires Ms. Krebs and Mr. Pitcoff to continue working on the programs at the center. The center has done seminars in New York City and in Philadelphia, and there are plans to bring it to Baltimore and Hartford. "I think the resilience and potential of the teens motivated, and continues to motivate us, to stay at this," Ms. Krebs said. "It can be very frustrating and disheartening. There is a lot of bureaucracy and failures in the system, but the teens promise and hope for the future is very inspiring."