Problem: In the transition to adulthood, many at-risk youth, including foster children and former foster children, end up homeless, in jail or pregnant. They are less likely to have a job or go to college.
Solution: Team up at-risk youth with young successful adults — who used to be at-risk — in a program called Youth Support Partners.
Teens often need a mentor to help guide them into adulthood — even more so when they are involved in foster care, human services or juvenile probation. To help them navigate, Allegheny County, Pa.’s Department of Human Services started a Youth Support Partner Unit nine years ago.
The unit, which mainly helps youth ages 14 to 21, got its start in 2008 with a budget of $370,000. At the time, the program hired three Youth Support Partners or YSPs and two support staff; today, there are 39, plus a management team of seven, with a $4 million budget. The unit is funded with a combination of federal, state, county and grants and is spent on personnel, operating expenses, travel and administrative costs. Last year, the unit helped 556 young people. Since 2009, the unit has helped approximately 1,650 youths.
The unit measures success in a variety of ways including the number of youth who rebuild relationships with their families, the ability to advocate for themselves, finding natural supports who will be there in the future and the independent life skills they learn such as finding housing, securing a diploma and finding a job. The unit also measures success by the increased number of referrals they’re seeing each year (including the number of court-ordered referrals), the desire for those who go through the program who want to “give back” by pursuing a YSP role themselves and being called upon by other counties, states and other organizations to provide knowledge and training on the model to build their own programs.
The program employs young adults who were once in a tough spot themselves, who have successfully made it through foster care, behavioral or mental health treatment, intellectual disability or the juvenile justice system. The partners’ job is to connect with and help troubled youth figure out the path to someday make it on their own.
Leonardo Johnson, 25, saw a flyer about working in the unit while he was an intern at the county’s Department of Human Services and began working as a Youth Support Partner earlier this year. “My favorite part of the job is meeting with the youth,” he said. “I really like helping people, so whenever I meet with them — and I see a change, see some growth — that’s the most rewarding part of the job.”
People like Johnson, who previously was a client in the county’s child welfare system, “are engaging hard-to-reach, difficult adolescents — if you’ve already been there, you have credibility,” said Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The county contracts out the hiring of the partners, most who are in their 20s, who receive salaries and benefits. Johnson began working in the unit in January and works with 10 clients, with two more on the way.
Youth Support Partners have to help their clients become self-sufficient. “That means helping them with employment, housing, education and possibly mental illness or addiction,” Cherna said. The partners are expected to:
- serve as role models
- ensure the youth has a “voice and choice”
- support improved self-efficacy and confidence
- promote and strengthen healthy relationships
- help others understand youth culture, and
- use their personal story to teach.
Their clients get into the program in a variety of ways, from a judge’s recommendation, a case worker or guardian. About 97 percent opt into the program, which is voluntary. “Judges love it, they rave about it,” Cherna said.
Each Youth Support Partner has about a dozen clients. The initial meeting consists of the partner and client getting to know each other. “There’s the initial engagement — ‘What’s up? Tell me a little about yourself.’” Cherna said. Youth Support Partners will meet their clients at their homes or sometimes they meet at a one-stop drop-in center, 412 Youth Zone, for homeless young adults ages 18 to 24 who have aged out of foster care.
There is no rule on how long a client is in the program. “There’s no hard and fast timeframe,” Cherna said. “It can be pretty intense or they might check in every couple of months.”
All 39 Youth Support Partners gather on a regular basis to share success stories as well as challenges. Johnson said it’s rewarding to see his clients get their lives back on track.
“I had a youth who was embarrassed about his grades, he was two classes back,” he said. After setting up a team meeting with an educational liaison and the school, they laid out his options and got him back in the classroom. “There was immediate success right there.”
Can anyone become a “YSP”? It takes someone who has the right motives, Johnson said.
“Youth can pick up on whether you’re there for them or not,” he said. “You have to have that in you, put your all into it. You’ve got to have heart.”
When asked what advice he would give other counties considering a YSP unit of their own, Cherna had just two words: “Do it!”