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Child advocates question plan for WVU Tech campus

By JAKE JARVIS

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When KVC Health Systems recently announced a plan to transform the West Virginia University Institute of Technology campus in Montgomery into a college specifically for children transitioning out of the foster care system, many child advocates and others who have worked in the system were surprised.

The move to bring children from across the state to the eastern part of Kanawha County breaks with years of research that says a child in foster care is best served when kept in their own communities, several advocates say.

Tina Faber runs the state’s Mentoring with Oversight for Developing Independence with Foster Youth (MODIFY) program. Although few details have been released about the school, Faber said the proposed college would not be a good idea for children in foster care.

“It’s very important for them to live a normal life, be with peers of their own age that aren’t foster kids and learn how to get the skills and the attitude that will help them become self-sufficient,” said Faber, who is based at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

KVC, which is based in Kansas but already runs several facilities in West Virginia, hopes to eventually bring 500 former foster care children to a new college at the WVU Tech campus. The college would have additional mentoring programs not offered at traditional colleges. Behavioral health specialists would also be on hand for students attending the school.

The college will immediately target children in West Virginia, but might bring in students from out of state.

“As far as bringing kids in from out of state, that really goes against everything that the federal government has said is good for foster youth,” Faber said. “Foster youth really need to be in their home communities where they have connections, where they have support and extended family that is not a part of their biological family. When you take them out and plop them into another state, you’ve removed all of that familiarity and support that they’ve had. They would struggle.”

Faber said many of the children she’s worked with in the system likely wouldn’t choose to attend this type of college.

“They do not want to be known as foster kids. They really shy away from that identity, and I think it goes back to they just want to be normal,” she said. “They want to be seen as any other kid, any other young adult, and they want to experience going to college and all of those other things you get to experience. They crave that normalcy.”

Tommy Bailey, a lobbyist who works at Spilman Thomas & Battle and has served as a local spokesman for KVC, said the agency wants to create the “going away to college” experience for former foster care children. He also has said many children coming out of foster care don’t use benefits that allow them to go to college practically for free, and those benefits would help support the proposed college.

When Daymark director Vicki Pleasant first heard of the proposal, she said she didn’t think it could work. Instead of starting a new college for children coming out of the system, Pleasant said she thinks it would be easier to help those children attend one of the many existing two- or four-year colleges throughout the state.

In the late 1990s, Pleasant said, her organization sponsored a house on the West Virginia State University campus for students transitioning out of the foster care system. The young adults would live in the house on campus for a while before moving into one of the school’s dorms or out on their own.

“We were able to focus on the youth and give them the time and the energy and the resources they need,” she said. “It really helped the youth in the program.”

At the house, case managers and other support staff were on hand around the clock to provide any needed services. But there’s a caveat — Pleasant said everyone in the program came from the Kanawha Valley, and none of the participants came from other parts of the state.

“I have always felt that keeping youth in their communities, and wrapping services around them, is more productive than any other option available,” said Pleasant. “That means you utilize the services already available in your community. I don’t know what [KVC’s] plan is, but I can tell you it sounds to me like congregate care.”

What exactly is congregate care? Faber said it differs from institution to institution, but children often live and go to a facility away from their families and sometimes far away from the community they grew up in. They usually attend a structured therapy program.

Faber said congregate care should only be used in limited cases and only when children have severe mental health and behavioral problems that cannot be improved where the child currently lives. Even then, Faber said, the child should only stay in congregate care for six months to a year.

KVC’s own website says the organization believes children are best in families, that residential congregate care should be available as a temporary treatment but not a permanent living situation for children.

Bailey said KVC’s plan for a college should not be thought of as congregate care.

“It’s easy to assume its congregate care,” he said. “Congregate care is not the kind of environment where someone can leave voluntarily. This is not that at all. In a friendly way, I’d remind our advocates that most of us don’t go to college in our own communities.”

If a child attending the college wants to leave at any time, Bailey said, the school would help them depart.

WVU has still not released details of a plan for KVC to lease and later purchase the Montgomery campus. At a recent community meeting, WVU officials said the two organizations have reached an “agreement in principle” outlining the generalities of the agreement, but the fine details had not been decided.

Steve Tuck, the chief executive officer of Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, said although more work is needed to help foster care children transition to college, he and many of the other foster care workers he’s spoken to don’t see KVC’s plan panning out.

“We know and we work very hard in our shelters and foster care system to partner with local resources,” Tuck said. “My premise would be, among the nine community and technical colleges and the six or so smaller four-year colleges, the youth in this target population could be served far better in a community-based and decentralized approach to their individual circumstances.”

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