After being shuffled from one foster home to another, Dontae Lartigue found himself homeless and without a job at 19 years old.
Nearly a decade later Lartigue is at the center of a massive effort to overhaul the county’s foster care system — just weeks after a new report found Santa Clara County is failing to meet the foster kids’ basic mental and physical needs.
“Exiting foster care, one of my biggest concerns was where I was going to live, and how I was going to survive,” Lartigue, 28, told San José Spotlight.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to move forward with reforms to the county’s foster care system, which include focusing on abuse prevention, prioritizing early intervention, minimizing trauma to those in the system, giving foster youth priority access to county services and improving educational and employment opportunities.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez presented recommendations from the county’s Joint Foster Youth Task Force during a meeting in late December.
The task force lambasted the substandard foster care system in Santa Clara County in a new report, saying the current system can cause “unintentional system-induced trauma.”
“Compared to State and National levels, the overall education, employment, health, housing, placement and permanency outcomes for foster youth in Santa Clara County (SCC) are disappointing,” the report said.
And an alarming 13.9 percent of youth in Santa Clara County’s foster care reentered the system, more than 5 percent above the national average.
“Santa Clara County has been unable to consistently meet successful physical, mental, and behavioral health outcomes for foster youth as this population is not receiving timely medical exams, timely dental exams nor do they receive sufficient mental health resources,” the report said.
The task force recommended early intervention for at-risk families by assigning a “mentor parent,” expanding family finding services and increasing placements with the child’s relatives.
Other reforms include improving family matching, investing in job-placement and mentorship opportunities and ensuring foster youth receive timely medical and dental examinations.
By prioritizing family placement, Lartigue says foster youth might find “authentic” relationships and alleviate the load of case workers who, in his experience, are often overworked and underpaid.
More than 2,500 unaccompanied children and transition-age youth experienced homelessness in 2017, according to the county’s most recent homeless count. This represents a 175 percent increase from the county’s 2015 census, and a striking challenge the task force hopes to overcome.
The Joint Foster Youth Task Force, which launched in Nov. 2015, is comprised of about two dozen advocates, county administrators and executives and former foster youth.
Lartigue, a member of the task force, and cofounder of nonprofit advocacy organization, Razing the Bar, shared his struggles after aging out of the system. He said at 19-years-old, he had to find steady employment his own place to live — which, with Silicon Valley’s astronomical housing market, was no small feat.
The task force recommends adopting the ‘All the Way Home’ housing model for assisting homeless veterans, a local initiative which has housed over 1,200 homeless military veterans in Santa Clara County.
“What this would do is it would provide first months, last months and security deposits for youths for them to be able to find a placement — somewhere they can call home,” Lartigue said.
Christina Anaya a former foster youth who now works in foster care, said fear drives foster youth away from accessing programs or seeking help.
As a chronic runaway in foster care, Anaya found herself homeless at 18 years old.
“I didn’t know how to navigate that information. I wasn’t able to ask for help because I didn’t want people to know.” Anaya, 41, said.
Anaya said she hopes the county expands programs to help families stay together instead of separating them.
Education is another major concern for foster youth.
“Each and every foster youth can be successful in school, careers and in higher education if they are provided the opportunity and individualized support they need,” said Dr. Mary Ann Dewan of the county’s office of education.
Supervisor Chavez said the county needs to “take a deep dive” on how funding for foster youth is spent. She also detailed plans to open a new center for foster care services and education called “The Hub.”
The current hub is San Jose’s Bill Wilson Center on N. King Road, but the county is buying and retrofitting a new youth center on Parkmoor Avenue for $6 million. Chavez spokeswoman Beth Willon said the tentative opening for the new hub is Dec. 2019.
San Jose resident Terri Carter said she’s hopeful that these new initiatives might open access for youth with disabilities.
“The youth need these services to be able to do something with their lives and not just become homeless,” Carter, 53, said. “We do this because we love our children.”
Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.