The No. 1 way to help foster children transition successfully to adult life is make it easier for programs to pair them one-on-one with committed long-term mentors, Will Kiefer told members of Congress this week.
“That is the gold standard,” he said.
Kiefer is the founder of the Bench Mark Program in Lancaster, a nonprofit that uses gym training as a starting point for a wide range of social services for underserved and at-risk youth.
On Wednesday, he was one of four witnesses at a hearing titled “Pathways to Independence: Supporting Youth Aging Out of Foster Care,” convened by the Work & Welfare Subcommittee of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee.
As part of the process of reauthorizing funding for federal child welfare programs, the subcommittee is looking at ways to streamline them and make them more effective for the young people being served. Kiefer attended at the invitation U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, Lancaster County’s Congressional representative and one of two subcommittee members from Pennsylvania.
The quartet of witnesses and the subcommittee members all agreed the existing system is forbiddingly complicated. As a result, potential beneficiaries either aren’t aware of what’s available or can’t jump through all the hoops required.
Indeed, fewer than half of the individuals eligible for federally funded foster youth programs take advantage of them, subcommittee Chairman Darin LaHood, R-Ill., said.
Kiefer said expanding mentorship is a more cost-effective approach than trying to overhaul the programs themselves — or worse, adding more layers.
“It takes an individual with incredible persistence and “system know-how” to access those resources,” he said in his prepared testimony. “… The solution lies not in changing the system, but in hiring and preparing more navigators to get youth through (and well beyond) the system.”
Rebekka Behr is a former foster youth and board member of Florida Youth SHINE, a youth-led organization advocating for child welfare reform, told the committee that the assistance provided by her mentor was “pivotal” in her life trajectory. Mentors, she said, help youths like her build life skills, social skills and trust.
Jordan Otero, a foster youth turned case manager in Indiana, said mentorship is especially valuable when, as in his case, it comes from people with lived experience who have navigated the system themselves.
Otero and Behr both said transportation was a major barrier for them in their late teens. It needs to be easier for foster children to secure driver’s licenses and insurance, they said.
By the numbers
According to the Annie. E. Casey Foundation, there were 147,143 foster children aged 14 to 21 in the U.S. in fiscal 2021, including 6,043 in Pennsylvania. About 19,000 age out of foster care each year.
According to statistics on foster care youth presented U.S. House Work & Welfare Subcommittee Chairman Darin LaHood, R-Ill. at Wednesday’s hearing:
- 20% become homeless;
- 70% are arrested by age 26;
- Only 55% are employed;
- Only 24% are enrolled in post-secondary education or training.
“These statistics should deeply concern all of us,” LaHood said.
Kiefer said Bench Mark focuses intensively on young people who are the most at risk because it has the greatest potential payoff. He offered several case studies, including that of Kenneth Jackson-Kiefer, his adopted son, who was sitting behind him in the hearing room.
Jackson-Kiefer entered Kiefer’s household as a foster child and is now a college freshman. Speaking to the committee at Smucker’s impromptu invitation, he said foster children need “support and guidance.” Bench Mark provided that “countless times,” he said, adding that he will always be grateful and that he hopes to start a similar program himself one day.
On average, young people served by Bench Mark stay in regular contact with their mentors for more than three years, Kiefer said. The consistency of having the same mentor sticking with them month after month is what keeps them engaged, he said.
Bench Mark’s metrics show it’s “on the right track,” he said: In 2023, 92% of its justice-involved young people did not reoffend, and 83% of those with truancy issues returned to regular school attendance.
The fourth scheduled witness was Todd Lloyd, a senior policy associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and former policy director at Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.
He urged the subcommittee to pursue policies to keep children out of foster care as much as possible and to promote positive outcomes when foster care is unavoidable.
Among his recommendations:
- Continue encouraging the placement of children with relatives whenever possible;
- Enhance accountability and focus on outcomes;
- Double funding for the federal John H. Chafee Program, which assists foster children transitioning to adulthood;
- Increase mental health funding.