By: Cori Dunton
Last spring, I watched a 9-year-old curly haired girl run across a park to hug her sister for the first time in four years. Sammy and her sister had been separated due to Sammy being in the foster care system. Unfortunately, this kind of injustice is common for youth who grow up in foster care. They lose touch with loved ones; they get separated from their friends and family and the people they call home. Before this beautiful spring day, I had been working with Sammy as a Family Engagement Specialist in the Youth and Family Services Permanent Connections Program. My role in her life was to support her in reconnecting with family and other social supports she had lost contact with due to being in the foster care system for several years.
The Permanent Connections Program exists to help families establish a lifetime network of support for children and youth who are disconnected from their loved ones or at risk of disconnection through placement outside of their home and community. In order to offer the best support possible Permanent Connections utilizes the nationally recognized models accepted as necessary for successfully putting this work into effective practice. These models include The Family Finding Model (developed by Kevin A. Campbell) and the 3-5-7 Grief and Loss Model (developed by Darla Henry).
Currently, there are over 3,000 youth and children in the San Diego foster care system. For many of these youth, access to their birth culture, including relationships with individuals who look like them and speak the same native language, is often inaccessible. However, when formed, these relationships become a guiding force for youth in care, allowing them to develop an identity rooted in shared history, values and rituals. Not only do these relationships support a youth’s legal right to cultural heritage, they provide the vital connections youth need in order to build trust, develop social capital and ensure they do not exit the foster care system without the permanent relationships necessary to navigate adulthood.
When I began my role as a Family Engagement Specialist it was difficult for me to imagine a life without access to my biological family or natural supports. I grew up with three sisters, we shared clothes and got on each other’s last nerve and choreographed rollerblade dance routines that, to this day, I still think are pretty cool. Simply put, I’ve never known a life where my siblings weren’t a door or neighborhood or phone call away. But when you’re growing up in the foster care system, every new school or new group home results in a disruption of your entire life. The relationships a youth worked so hard to develop are often stripped away overnight and the family they knew before entering the foster care system may not be aware of their new location or how to contact them. There are hundreds of reasons why families ultimately get pulled apart and disconnected from youth in foster care, and with each reason I encountered I began to understand how vital life-long connections are for youth in care.
I have had the privilege of working with amazing youth and families during my time at Permanent Connections. I have walked alongside these individuals, helping them establish new relationships and reconnect with family they thought they’d never see again. I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of relationships; how they offer a safe place to land, a strong foundation to build our lives upon.
Last spring, as Sammy bounded across the park, I wasn’t just watching a 9-year-old reconnect with her sister. I was watching a future transform in front of my eyes. I was watching life-long support and love bloom, I was watching her resilience grow, I was watching the opportunities for her future increase ten-fold.
Cori is the YFS Permanent Connections Program Director. She has her Masters in Social Work and has been serving the San Diego community for the past 7 years. She is passionate about transforming the foster care system and ensuring that youth in care are afforded every opportunity to thrive. On the weekends you can find Cori rollerblading around the bay (watch out though, she still doesn’t know how to brake).