Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2006

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Help for Children and Youth, Just a Click Away

New websites are expanding the scope of child welfare.

By Kimberly M. Smith

Alvin Boarder, a youth with fiery red hair and a slightly grating voice reminiscent of Beavis and Butthead, is having a little trouble adjusting to the work world. Alvin applied for a job as an artist at a glass factory, but his boss hired him as a gopher, forcing Alvin to work his way up to a paid artist position.

To make matters worse, Alvin's idea of a proper dress code differs from his boss's, his mother wants him to get out of bed in time to get to work without waiting for her to wake him, and Alvin's friends continuously call him while he's on the job. He also must read the employee manual and learn how to use equipment correctly.

Lucky for Alvin and other youth in similar situations, friend Dale Funk comes to the rescue with tips and humor, just a click away. Alvin and Dale are characters in the online program, Take This Job and Keep It, featured on Vstreet.com, a website designed to teach life skills to at-risk youth and help child welfare agencies follow up with former clients.

The program is just one of a growing number of online resources geared toward enhancing the work performed by the child welfare field, from social workers to foster parents. New and innovative websites also provide greater resources and social ties for children and youth in need, such as lifeskills tips for youth transitioning out of foster care, assistance for children seeking adoptive families, online counseling for children or youth who have been abused, and virtual mentor relationships.

The websites come at a time when people increasingly are living virtual lives, particularly teens and young children. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project revealed that 73% of young people ages 12-17 use the Internet. The National Center for Education Statistics found that most prekindergarten children use computers, and 23% use the Internet. Many of these kids surf the Net for academic reasons and to find health information, counseling, and friendship.

As for adults, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 63% in the United States use the Internet; in many cases the Net has become integral to their lives.

An Online Resource for Transitioning Youth

Northwest Media, a developer of social learning products for more than 20 years, launched Vstreet.com, about three years ago to "teach solid information, weaved through engaging stories," according to Marketing Director Susan Larson. Vstreet offers animated life lessons for young people entering adulthood and is a resource for agencies following up with clients after they leave.

When young people log on to Vstreet, they can make the site their virtual second home. They receive a virtual bedroom to decorate by modifying flooring, wallpaper, and fixtures, and they can even upload their own personal artwork to add to the decor. Clicking on a light switch in the room saves the user's decorating changes.

Each bedroom comes with a stocked bookshelf of resources the user can read while listening to upbeat background music. Take This Job and Keep It, for example, leads to Alvin's story, an entertaining mix of photography and animation narrated by virtual host Dale Funk. Another book, Apartment Hunt, leads to an animated account of two girls, Kim and Rena, searching for an apartment. The narrator, Gabriella, recently conducted an apartment hunt of her own and gives Kim and Rena tips as they conduct their search.

In the first chapter of Apartment Hunt, Gabriella explains the difference between a want, a need, and a negligible option. For example, Kim and Rena need separate bedrooms to live comfortably. Kim wants a pool, but she can live without it. Each chapter ends with a lesson on what users have learned, and the book ends with a quiz in which users are asked to classify a list of apartment features as needs, wants, or things that really don't matter.

In addition to lifeskills information, users can also participate in discussion groups, such as Options to Anger, operated and monitored through Vstreet by subscribing agencies. Each agency designates a staff member to be responsible for administering Vstreet for that agency's users. Children, youth, and administrators must pay a $24 annual subscription fee to use Vstreet, but group discounts are available for agencies subscribing their clients.

Vstreet allows subscribing agencies to check their clients' or former clients' lessons and progress through the site. Agency staff can also monitor and modify certain elements of Vstreet, such as limiting discussion groups to clients from the subscribing agency and posting agency activities on the calendar. Agencies can also activate screen prompts that ask users specific questions, such as where they are living currently. The only part of the site closed to agency staff is the online journal for users. Vstreet administrators can only open a user's journal with a court order.

As part of its efforts to continually improve the site, Vstreet is assembling a curriculum to help agency staff--who may not be Internet savvy--administer the site for clients. Vstreet staff hope this will help the site further catch on in the child welfare field.

Mentoring Via E-mail

Mentoring is a "one-on-one structured relationship that has to grow," explains Eileen McCaffrey, Director of the Orphan Foundation of America (OFA). But sometimes it can be hard to initially establish mentor relationships and help kids understand the value of such relationships.

"We hear kids say, 'I've had four of those [mentors], and they didn't help,'" McCaffrey says.

OFA, a nonprofit organization that helps children in foster care find college scholarships and successfully transition to adulthood, is helping turn more kids on to mentoring through its virtual mentoring program, vMentor.com. vMentor pairs current and former foster youth ages 18-23 who receive postsecondary funding from OFA, or who are in an independent-living program that partners with OFA, with an adult mentor working in a profession that interests the young person.

vMentor provides a fast, convenient way for young people and adult mentors to develop relationships through weekly e-mails centered on the mentor answering the young person's questions about careers and the workforce and providing advice and encouragement. The program isn't about therapy, McCaffrey explains, but about the youth moving forward.

One of the program's benefits is that it isn't limited to finding mentors in one community. "We search the world for the best mentors," McCaffrey explains. Mentors undergo criminal background checks and must be at least 25 years old and established in their professions. They must also commit to mentoring a youth--whose background is not disclosed--for at least one year.

For security reasons, emailing between mentor and youth occurs through the vMentor system only. The system accepts attachments so students can upload school papers, rEsumEs, gift certificates, and photos for mentors to view. Case managers reinforce the mentor relationships by monitoring e-mails to rate the quality of the conversations. For example, a conversation that is highly focused on school and career-related topics will receive high ratings, whereas a conversation focusing on a more casual topic, such as pets, will receive a lower rating.

Case managers also screen conversations for safety reasons. A filter in the vMentor system scans for certain words, such as suicide or alcohol, that might alert them to possible situations that need their attention. This type of monitoring and support cannot be offered through face-to-face mentoring without the physical presence of a counselor or recording devices, which can be uncomfortable for both mentor and mentee. The system may seem invasive, but McCaffrey explains that with vMentor, "We don't define relationships. We define consistency."

After participating for a year, mentors and youth are permitted to meet each other, if all parties agree, after notifying the case manager. Some relationships have lasted as long as six years, McCaffrey says.

Many people feel they may be ill-equipped to mentor, especially youth with problems, but McCaffrey explains that OFA has support mechanisms in place. For example, when one youth lost his entire family in a fire, his mentor received the assistance of a grief counselor to advise on how to help the student. Before mentors even begin e-mailing their mentees, they get eight hours of training, and continue receiving training monthly and participate in quarterly conference calls with vMentor representatives and other mentors. Some 1,800 mentors are waiting for a match with a teen through vMentor.

Using the Web to Reach Rape Victims

According to Penelope Hughes, director of an online rape counseling hotline scheduled to open the third quarter of 2006, 80% of sexual assault victims are under 30 years old, and 50% are younger than 18. These figures don't include the victims who never come forward.

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) decided to create an online counseling center to better reach out to teens who have been abused, Hughes says, after it received numerous e-mails "from people who aren't ready to talk on the phone [about their abuse]." RAINN has also conducted focus groups and discovered that teenagers find it easier to communicate and discuss abuse through the anonymity of the Internet.

As a result, RAINN administrators are developing the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline with a host of other organizations, including the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley; e-commerce payment service VeriSign; America Online; KnowNow, an Internet-based business information systems provider; McAfee, the virus protection software maker; and others. The site will operate alongside RAINN's 12-year-old, 24-hour telephone hotline.

Users of the new web hotline will be able to use the system's instant messaging to communicate directly and anonymously with RAINN counselors and receive immediate responses free of charge. The site will also allow users to locate local rape counseling centers if they wish to speak with someone in person.

Online counselors will be trained how to communicate with young people via the web, including common online language, and in the legalities of online communication and Internet safety, such as clearing the cache to prevent abusers from using victims' computers to trace sites victims have used.

Online Parenting 101

For many adults who choose to open their homes to young people in need, foster parenting can be a continual learning process. Foster Parent College is working to ease that process.

Since its launch in Oregon in 2003 by Northwest Media--the company behind Vstreet.com--the program has expanded to more than 1,000 individuals and 100 groups, including state human resource departments, community colleges, and private agencies throughout Colorado, Florida, Oregon, and Wyoming. The web-based Foster Parent College offers two-hour classes on behavioral issues pertinent to caregivers in the child welfare system, including self-harm, running away, sexualized behavior, fire-setting, sleep problems, anger outbursts, and eating disorders.

Comprising a video, a review questionnaire, 20 multiple-choice and true-false questions, and a discussion group, the online classes remain open to users for 30 days, allowing users to watch the video as many times as needed and print a video guide, the questionnaire, and a certificate of completion worth two training hours.

Carol Collins, Director of the Oklahoma Court-Appointed Special Advocates in Osage and Nowata Counties, and a foster parent for several years before adopting three special-needs children, took many foster parenting courses in classroom settings before discovering Foster Parent College. She points out that despite the many advantages of taking courses in the classroom--for example, brainstorming with other parents to solve problems--there are down sides, too, for foster parents who must find the time to spend hours in the classroom. For many, the advantages of online classes can outweigh the disadvantages.

"It's not that they aren't willing to get all the training they can to deal with the problems kids face...but who's going to take care of the kids when they go to class and both parents work?" she asks. Foster parents who live in rural areas may have to drive dozens of miles to get to the nearest town offering a class. Taking courses through Foster Parent College allowed Collins to gain more training while remaining at home with her children.

Foster Parent College's online classes cost $8 each, and participants can purchase DVDs online. The courses fulfill state training requirements in some places, and although they are intended for individual use and certification, a group version is available.

Placing Names with Faces

AdoptUsKids.org uses the Internet to attach faces to thousands of children in need of permanent homes and families. According to Rebecca Jones Gaston, National Recruitment Manager for AdoptUsKids, the site hosts the first federally funded photo listing of children waiting for adoption. Since its inception in 2002, 4,700 children have been adopted thanks to the site. According to Alexa, an Amazon.com company that tracks website traffic, the site attracted 20% of all Internet users using the Alexa program over a three-month period in 2005.

Under a section called Meet the Children, AdoptUsKids users can read short narratives about children waiting for adoption, including information about their personalities and interests, in addition to viewing their photos. Web users can also search for children based on ethnicity, age, and gender. The website's homepage features a child and a sibling group every week. "Each state has a featured child once a year," Jones Gaston adds.

"Agencies register as users and post narratives themselves," she explains. Because state agencies act as intermediaries--uploading pictures and biographies of children in the foster care system for posting on the site--youth involvement with the biographies varies from state to state.

AdoptUsKids issues a toolkit called Lasting Impressions to help caregivers write descriptions and take pictures, and encourages the involvement of the children and youth in writing their own biographies. The guidelines advise leaving identifying and personal information about specific diagnoses out of the narratives. Narratives contain links to a dictionary with information about physical and emotional disabilities that site users may not be familiar with, but the disorders are not attributed to specific children.

Users interested in particular children can find out more about them by inquiring with specific agencies about becoming site members. Browsing the Meet the Children section is free to the public. AdoptUsKids also contains a resource center featuring adoptive families' stories and links to other useful websites, including sites for the National Foster Parent Association and the National Adoption Center. AdoptUsKids also links to a companion Spanish-language site.

AdoptUsKids is a collaborative effort of the U.S. Children's Bureau, the Adoption Exchange Association, and other agencies, including CWLA.

Wave of the Future?

As more websites geared toward child welfare develop, many questions will inevitably arise. Will traditional methods of child welfare hinder the complete use of this new technology? How can child welfare, with its limited resources, obtain and maintain funding to take advantage of all the benefits the Internet offers? Are the results gained from the virtual world worth the investment?

Most of the answers have yet to be determined, but for now, the Internet provides those in the field a chance to meet an increasingly computer-savvy generation at their own level and help them become productive, sound adults.

Kimberly M. Smith is a Contributing Editor to Children's Voice.

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