In an experimental move, Luzerne County Children and Youth is paying a Hazleton nonprofit $202,000 this year to recruit foster families and handle a new county mentoring program for older foster children.
This payment to Brandon’s Forever Home includes expenses for recruitment advertising and events, its contract says.
Recruitment must be stepped up because only 80 county families are willing to accept foster children, forcing many of the 450 county children currently removed from their homes to be housed outside their school districts or in other counties, said Children and Youth Director Joanne Van Saun.
“Our staff does some recruitment, but we don’t have the volume we need, which is why we decided to contract out and see if we can do better,” she said.
Attorney Lorine Ogurkis, a foster parent and Brandon’s Forever Home executive director, said the additional investment in recruitment is warranted.
“I see it as our responsibility as a community to keep our children home,” Ogurkis said. “It breaks my heart when kids are placed out of county because, in addition to their home, they also lose their school, friends, community, church and everything else that goes with it when they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Her charity, which employs two other staffers, helps foster children and parents by providing a food pantry, clothing and events that expose the children to new life skills and experiences.
Since the new contract took effect Jan. 1, the nonprofit has referred about 15 to 20 prospective foster families to the county agency, in part through a television advertisement and a series of recruitment initiatives, said Ogurkis. By contrast, Ogurkis estimated she and her husband had previously recruited 50 to 75 foster families since they became advocates several years ago.
Multiple sessions are usually needed to convince a family to agree to a referral because there are so many questions and misconceptions about the foster care process, said Ogurkis. She has added meetings targeting the Latino community and same-sex couples to help meet the demand.
County Children and Youth handles the formal application process and vetting of referred foster parents, she said.
The mentoring program was added by Children and Youth this year as part of increased focus on the needs of current and prior foster children ranging from ages 14 to 23, said Van Saun.
This older group often lacks trusted go-to adults who will take an interest in their lives and offer guidance and advice, Van Saun said.
“This is about making a connection and establishing a support system after they’re no longer involved in our agency,” Van Saun said.
Ogurkis said her nonprofit has matched around 30 youth to mentors so far and has two more adults willing to volunteer to date. Ten youth referred by county caseworkers are awaiting mentor assignments.
Van Saun said both programs will be evaluated at the end of the year to determine if agency funding should continue. The contract was publicly advertised, and 80 percent of the expense is funded by the state and federal governments, she said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.