Solution Series: Changing the Story: A Symposium

Hundreds Join Fedcap to Brainstorm Solutions to Crisis of Disconnected Youth

Hundreds of people joined Fedcap, Rutgers University’s School of Social Work ( and The Moore Center ( on Friday to brainstorm solutions to the national crisis of disconnected youth. Click here to watch the video.

Millions of 16-24-year-olds aren’t in school or viable employment. Many have spent time in child welfare and/or juvenile justice, many lack family or other stable adults to support them, and they face unemployment at least double the rate facing the general population. This disconnection costs the country millions of dollars in social services, and an incalculable amount in lost human potential.

“When we look beyond the statistics to the rates of homelessness and joblessness and the pervasive sense of hopelessness that can be the daily reality for far too many, we begin to understand the depth of the problem,” said Christine McMahon, President & CEO of Fedcap. “This problem won’t be solved by any one agency or department or system acting alone. It requires innovative and effective partnerships. Today we ask each of you to embrace the challenge, understanding that we are searching for accessible solutions to specific problems that, once identified and understood, can be solved!”

More than 400 social workers and other child-welfare experts attended Friday’s symposium, Changing the Story for Disconnected Youth, in person at Rutgers in New Jersey, and many others logged on to join remotely from across the country and as far away as the United Kingdom and New Zealand. A panel of four people who had been in foster care shared their experiences and insights, and the event contained many lessons for those who work with or on behalf of disconnected youth.

“This is the most important discussion in New Jersey right now,” said Allison Blake, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. She challenged the social workers and other child-welfare experts in attendance to invite youth to the table and listen to what they say. “It’s rare that we invite them to participate in policy review, be part of the development of a training curriculum. We have to practice authentic engagement and not just pay lip service.”

“Social work schools can play a crucial role in improving the life chances of these disconnected youth by partnering with clinicians, administrators, policymakers and the youth themselves,” said Kathleen J. Pottick, Acting Dean of the Rutgers School of Social Work. “We need to accelerate research efforts to find strategies that work – and that work quickly, to avoid another generation of disconnected youth.”

“The enormous response to our invitation to this event clearly shows the scope of this problem and the widespread desire to tackle it,” said Andy Germak, Executive Director of the Rutgers School of Social Work’s Institute for Families. “Now we must identify the most effective ways to put that willingness to work.”

The panel of former foster youth included three college students and a Washington, DC, Family Court judge who grew up in New Jersey.

“Child welfare took us when I was six,” said the Hon. S. Pamela Gray, Magistrate Judge in the Family Court of the District of Columbia. “My younger sister and I clung together through move after move. They moved us in trash bags. I really began to feel like I was trash. Self-hatred turned into acting out. Nobody cared about me and I didn’t care about anyone.

“Foster children are an asset, as peer mentors, adult mentors,” Judge Gray said. “I know what can happen if someone takes an interest. My tenth-grade home economics teacher saw that there was something there, some potential in me.”

“The system definitely made you realize that you were not a regular youth,” said Tony Conover, a senior at Rutgers. “I’ve had a lot of case workers. I can name two who made me feel like I was more than just a case file.”

“Ask me how I’m doing, ask me about me, not just about my case file,” agreed Jaleesa Suell, a senior at The George Washington University, describing how she wished she had been treated. She added that foster youth needed greater access to mental health resources after they emancipate.

“I’ve been in more homes than my age,” said Antoine Wood, a student at the University of the District of Columbia who is still in foster care. “As I go to age out, I’m terrified about the financial piece.”

Moderator William Waldman, Executive in Residence at the Rutgers School of Social Work and previously Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services and a member of three gubernatorial cabinets, commended the panelists for “paying it forward.” To his fellow social workers he added: “We should never engage in the soft bigotry of lowered expectations when serving disconnected youth.”

Paul Boynton, President & CEO of The Moore Center, closed the symposium with a challenge: “Now it rests on each of us to turn these bold solutions into actions.”