CHILDREN IN FOSTER CARE
Tennessee Valley, 13-county region: 784
Hamilton County: 271
The Partnership Youth Service: 45
Source: Department of Children Services
At the Gardner House, a group home for boys in state custody, a handful of teens sits around a dinner table and clips coupons together before their parents pick them up for the weekend. They wield the scissors with excitement.
Some pocket a coupon or two to use on Doritos or a soda when they get their $33 monthly allowance from the state. Others talk with the house mother about how they can use the discounts on the group's groceries for the week.
"Have fun, sweetie," Jocelyn Stodghill yells to one boy as he leaves. "Follow the rules."
"I will," he yells back.
The activity is just a small sign of all that is changing at the Partnership for Children, Families and Adults' group home and foster parent program this year. A new program, tested in South Carolina and New York and called the Circle of Courage, is forcing children in state custody to learn independence before they get spit out of the system by the time they turn 21.
Foster parents and the Partnership's group home have begun reinventing their approach to training the children and teens while they have them. They hope their work can be a model to other agencies across the state.
"Now we teach them to survive," said Stodghill.
Many of the teens are nudged out of state custody when they are 18, but some stay with their foster parents or in transitional housing until they turn 21. After that, the state says they are adults and expects them to get a job or get into school to make their own way.
Before the Circle of Courage, the goals for the seven or eight teen boys at the Gardner House and the 35 foster children that the Partnership oversees were simple. Attend school. Attend counseling. Follow rules. Pass drug screenings. If they met those goals, they were cleared to return home.
But children were leaving state custody unable to demonstrate life skills. They would call back needing help. Of those under 21, 9 percent re-enter state custody within 12 months of leaving, according to state figures.
Many came into foster care or state custody because of neglect or dependency issues in the home. Others were unruly, with criminal charges, and their young parents couldn't handle them, officials said.
Stodghill said some were so afraid of leaving the Gardner House, either when they met their goals or aged out, that they would get into trouble just to force the court to keep them.
The Partnership, which is the only agency of six in the area to adopt Circle of Courage for children, already has seen the total time of children in state custody shrink from 200 days to 125 since February.
Now, instead of adults setting goals for each child, the youth are involved in setting their own goals. Under the Circle of Courage model they have four areas in which they have to prove proficiency -- belonging, mastering, independence and generosity.
Belonging requires them to learn social skills. Mastering requires that they show they are learning new skills, whether it's how to participate in a sit-down dinner or fill out a job application. Independence requires they show they can be self-starters, that they understand they are accountable for their actions. Finally, generosity requires they show they can give back to their communities.
Each child has to show mastery of the areas for 30 days. And activities that prove mastery can range from anything from daily chores to mission work. If they don't show mastery, their time spent in state custody usually is prolonged.
"In the past [we] didn't have a demonstration process in place," said Jack Parks, director of youth services for the Partnership. "There was no way to know if it was sticking. ... [This] puts some accountability with the kids."
At the Gardner House, the boys recently decided they wanted to repaint and redecorate their rooms, which were covered in gang graffiti. They picked out the colors and the linens for their beds.
Most are in state custody because of behavior problems but have proved they are ready for weekend passes to be with their families. Stodghill hopes they will take their lessons home.
Their rooms were left spotless. Beds made, belongings tucked away. The boys mowed the lawn, too.
They seem to have taken ownership of their space. They seem to feel empowered, Stodghill said.
"We used to just make the plan and tell them to do it," said Stodghill. "It's important that we listen and hear their feedback and teach them to negotiate. Life is about negotiation."
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...