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I’ve been working in human services for nearly 17 years. Most of that time, I’ve specialized in at-risk youth. “At-risk” meaning: runaway, throwaway, homeless, and foster youth as well as young offenders.

One of the questions I’m often asked is “what kinds of programs are effective in helping these kids?” The question might come from anywhere: an overwhelmed parent, a interested reporter, a concerned politician.

It’s a hard question to answer. Here’s why: most programs stink. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. Forget about the anecdotal evidence and the nice stories. Look at the statistics. What happens to these kids when they leave the program or age out of the system and go out on their own?

Half of all former foster youth are homeless within the first year of leaving the system. Less than half are employed two to four years later. Only 1 to 5 percent will ever graduate from college. The girls are six times more likely to give birth before age 21 than the general population. Parents with a history of foster care are almost twice as likely to see their own children end up in foster care or become homeless.

Pretty sorry outcomes.

Can’t we just stop putting children into programs and make everything better? Sadly, no. Parents will continue to abuse their children and children will continue to run away (for good reason) or be removed by children’s services (also for good reason). If the child isn’t lucky enough to end up with caring relatives, the only real option, other than the streets, is a program.

So programs are a necessary evil, so to speak, and they’re not going away anytime soon.

Getting back to the original question (“what kinds of programs are effective in helping these kids?”), I prefer to start with a different question. The question we should ask is: “Where do our most successful young adults come from?”

The answer, of course, is the family. This is the model that programs should be emulating. If a homeless or foster youth has to live in a program, make sure that the program incorporates as many elements of a healthy family home as possible.

What do healthy family homes provide? It’s not rocket science. It’s more like Grandma’s Logic. High expectations matched with high levels of love and support. Plenty of opportunities for the child to discover her talents and interests. Last, but not least, a commitment, from day one, that this is where the child will finish growing up (unless, of course, the biological family gets its act together and family reunification can occur).

No more bouncing around from place to place. No more school changes. No more one size fits all. It’s a commitment to the child as an individual to do everything possible to make this placement his last.

I don’t mean to bash all the institutional programs out there. There is one thing that institutional programs do very well. Institutional programs do a great job of preparing kids for institutional settings as adults. In California, 70 percent of state penitentiary inmates spent time in the foster care system as children.

So they’ve got that going for them.

By the way, November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Please support your local programs serving homeless and foster youth. But, before you give of your time and talents, please make sure you’re supporting the programs that provide children with a home, not an institution.

— RICK NEWMYER

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