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Wanted: Stable foster homes and intensive guidance for teens in South Carolina

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Akil CDYC hallways.jpg

Akil Grant, 18, walks down a hallway at Callen-Lacey Center for Children with Rachel Brown, one of the staff members he has grown close to since landing in foster care on his Sweet Sixteen birthday. Michael Pronzato/Staff

Akil Grant's mother spent much of his childhood in prison or mysteriously gone from his life. He never met his father. Mostly, he grew up bouncing among family, friends, a woman he called "grandma" and his mom's ex-boyfriends. 

His mother reappeared one day when he was about 15. A year later, she left to go shopping one night. And never returned.

Workers from the state Department of Social Services came and took him to Callen-Lacey Center for Children, a group home in Moncks Corner. 

Akil brought a single bag of clothes. 

It was his 16th birthday.

Two years later, Callen-Lacey wasn't just a foster care placement anymore. It was home. Despite turning 18, Akil chose to stay. He'd grown close to a stable crew of staff who dressed him for prom and cheered at his high school graduation. They also helped him find a job and get training for it, even waking before dawn to drive him. 

Therein lie the critical — but often missing — tools to address the disturbing statistics that await youth who age out of foster care: Adults with the time and commitment to provide them with emotional support and help navigating the adult world.

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Rachel Brown, a staff member at Callen-Lacey Center for Children, helps Akil Grant prepare for his high school graduation. A caring adult can alter the life of a foster child heading into adulthood. Michael Pronzato/Staff

As of May 1, more than 4,500 children were in South Carolina's foster care system — about 1,600 more than the number of homes to care for them.

One of the biggest shortages is in Charleston County, where DSS has only 135 foster homes to serve 420 children in its care. 

Such a severe shortfall means traumatized children removed from their parents often get placed out of their home counties, split from siblings and ripped from their familiar schools, churches, relatives and friends.

“People don’t realize how extensive the problem is," said Kim McDonald, longtime residential manager of Callen-Lacey. "We're full. We've had to turn kids away.”

Worse for teens: Most adoptive families don't want them, and many foster parents fear them. 

“There are a lot of unfair stigmas about older children in the system,” said Beverly Hardin, chief executive of the nonprofit that runs Callen-Lacey. 

Other states, however, have had more success recruiting foster parents and providing the intensive guidance young adults so desperately need. 

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Akil Grant plays basketball with staff and other boys who live in the Moncks Corner group home where he has lived since his mother abandoned him and he landed in foster care. Michael Pronzato/Staff

Wanted: caring, stable homes

New Jersey is among the only states with more foster home beds than children who need them, according to a report by The Chronicle of Social Change.

Its success came in part from bolstering supports for foster parents and relative caregivers after a 7-year-old boy was found dead near the home of a family member who had taken in him and his siblings. The state now contracts with the nonprofit Foster and Adoptive Family Services to provide a range of free webinars, in-person training, home correspondence classes and other help.

Meanwhile, Arkansas is among states that substantially grew its legion of foster homes, more than tripling them in five years, the report found.

With the aid of a $400,000 grant, the state gathered data that helped pinpoint areas of need. Arkansas also began working with The CALL, a nonprofit that mobilizes churches to recruit and train foster parents, then provide extra support to those who step forward.

The CALL has recruited nearly half of all foster parents in Arkansas. It has done so through its specific appeal to Christians in a state, much like South Carolina, where faith remains a cultural backbone. 

DSS has tried to target South Carolina's 5,000 churches as well, though with less intensity. Its recruitment plan calls for meeting with church leaders, putting pamphlets in their buildings and tracking referrals from them.

The large Seacoast Church, based in Mount Pleasant, made recruitment its own church-wide mission several years ago. The effort yielded more than two dozen new active foster families.

But only a handful wanted to take older children.

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Staff members at Callen-Lacey Center for Children in Moncks Corner take pictures of Akil Grant before he heads to Berkeley High School's graduation. Michael Pronzato/Staff

Intensive guidance critical 

Last summer, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ended a 17-year federal court case after proving it had made substantial improvements to its foster care system. Children's Rights, a national advocacy group that filed a similar lawsuit against South Carolina, had alleged that Tennessee was subjecting children to physical and emotional harm.

The state enacted a number of changes as a result, including a comprehensive effort to help youth who aged out of foster care. By greatly expanding its contract with Memphis-based Youth Villages, the state enabled almost half of its young adults to access the nonprofit's independent living program, which provides far more intensive help than was available from the state's overtaxed caseworkers.

Youth Village's counselors work with just eight to 10 young adults at a time, a caseload that allows them to meet each youth in person at least weekly and help them find housing, jobs, scholarships, health care, and more. They also work to rebuild bridges with biological families when possible.

"They are the pros at understanding these youth," said Brian Stephens, Tennessee's independent living director. "At 17, (foster children) are flat-out scared. Their outlook is just: Where am I going to live?"

Almost half of youth aging out of care in Tennessee now take part. A five-year study recently found that among the program's participants, homelessness dropped 22 percent and work earnings rose 17 percent, although other measures remained more stagnant.

Youth Villages depends heavily on private donors for support as it branches into a growing list of states, most of which surround South Carolina.

Tennessee uses about $900,000 a year in federal money that all states receive to provide independent living services and pitches in about $1.2 million in state money. Youth Villages spends another $3 million, at least, from funds donated by The Day Foundation, a nonprofit that helps emotionally and behaviorally troubled children.

"They have a monster amount of trauma and all to deal with," Stephens said."We want to make sure we're providing the level of support and planning they need." 

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Akil Grant stands with other graduates of Berkeley High School. Despite being 18, he plans to stay at the group home where he lives to maintain close connections with the staff and tap into resources available to him before going out on his own. Michael Pronzato/Staff

Contact Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563. Follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."