Circles of Support help teens
devise a plan for the future
By Haley Smith
Baptist Child & Family Services
SAN ANTONIO—When young people age out of the foster care system, they are required by law to sit down with a counselor or social work to develop a plan for the future and learn about available benefits. But a program offered by Baptist Child & Family Services goes far beyond what the law requires.
Circles of Support, part of the agency’s Preparation for Adult Living program, help teenagers make the transition to independent living.
|Circles of Support meetings offer foster youth along a support system and the opportunity to work together to plan and accomplish goals for the future. (Photo by Martin Olivares/BCFS)|
Initially, the program contracted to perform 96 Circles of Support meetings its first year; it provided 135 planning meetings for teens coming out of state, ensuring the young people knew where to go for help and how to access resources available to them.
Now halfway through its second fiscal year, the program plans to complete 175 support meetings before August, according to Coordinator Jessica Salinas.
“I usually ask the young person to give me a list of names of who they would like to invite to their meeting,” Salinas said. “They often invite biological families, teachers, pastors and foster parents, forming a true circle of support.”
The young adult and the people he or she invites to attend bond over a meal provided by the agency, since the meetings tend to last several hours.
“I don’t know what it is about food, but eating together seems to break down so many walls in our meetings,” Salinas noted.
The state coordinator also attends the planning meeting at the Preparation for Adult Living transition center, which presents the chance to discuss issues and options.
“We use the opportunity to focus on the young person’s strengths, as it does no good to focus on weakness,” Salinas explained. “We want to know how we can help, whether that is through continued therapy or other options.”
Ideally, meetings should take place when the young person in foster care is age 16, but some planning meetings are not scheduled until he or she is 17 or 18. The agency creates a priority list based on age and circumstance.
“For example, we just had a student known for having a tendency to run away. Although only at the age of 16, we went ahead and rushed a COS meeting,” Salinas said. “We want to make sure these kids know the benefits available to them and the fact that they won’t be eligible if they check out of the system early.”
The agency attributes the success of the program to the cooperation and teamwork of related organizations, as well as a positive connotation surrounding the program.
Most referrals to the program come from Child Protective Services workers who later receive a copy of the established plan.
“CPS likes the Circles of Support program because they are often so busy that it helps to have assistance with the task,” Salinas said. “We had trouble in the beginning getting referrals because people didn’t know the purpose of the program. Everyone seems to take advantage of our services now though.”
In rare cases when a teenager is not interested in having a support meeting, the CPS worker makes a plan with the youth without family and friends in attendance.
Child Advocates of San Antonio also supports the Circles of Support program with a quarterly service in which both organizations then tag team to solicit referrals from CPS.
The overall connection to other programs fuels the system, generating awareness of the opportunity, with expectations of numbers rising for next year. For example, youth often begin their training with the Preparation for Adult Living program at age 16, where they attend six classes. The last class titled “Planning for the Future” introduces the students to Circles of Support and gives them the opportunity to sign up for the program.
The program also works with several partners in the San Antonio area to help students fulfill their plan. Alamo Work Source assists in finding the students employment prior to and pending graduation. Norma Davila, president of Education Source, helps secure scholarships and financial aid.
The youth’s transition worker—along with everyone in attendance at the meeting—receives a copy of the plan so they can work together to help the young adult achieve the goals.
“Before these support meetings, young people would leave care and after a gap of one or two years, they would find their way back to us, but at that point in crisis mode,” Salinas said. “This program ensures that those young adults don’t slip through the cracks.”