Wheeling home to help transition from foster care

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WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) – Responding to a need in the community, Crittenton Services officials are preparing to open a transitional living residence in Wheeling for young women on the cusp of independence.


As final plans are made for the agency’s largest annual fundraising event, Paint the Town Pink, officials also are overseeing the renovation of a house adjacent to Crittenton’s main campus in Elm Grove for the new transitional living program.


“Wild in Pink” is the theme for the 11th annual Paint the Town Pink gala to be held at the Wheeling Artisan Center April 5.


While organizers are “wildly” excited about that event, they are even more enthused by the prospects of launching the new specialized program, designed for young women who are “aging out” of the foster care system.


Kathy Szafran, chief executive officer and president of Crittenton, said that when a child in residential care turns 18, he or she can choose to stay in the system voluntarily.


But, for a person who has had multiple foster care placements or has been in residential treatment, leaving might seem to make sense at that point.


However, with limited resources, scant support and little experience in managing their lives, many of these young adults discover that independence is fraught with difficulties.


In keeping with the Crittenton mission, the new program will assist young women who are pregnant or parenting as they make a transition to full independence. The supervised home will serve as a step closer to independent living for young mothers who are 17 years or older and are no longer eligible for traditional residential programs.


Likening the young women’s situation to baby birds leaving the nest, Szafran said, “They need to have a good place to land. We’re embracing that idea. We want to do something for girls in our program across the state that provides a warm, supportive transitional opportunity.”


She commented, “We are proud and excited to offer this next step in our continuum of services. These young women need someone to guide them and assist them so they can achieve and become self-sufficient. It is our mission.”


The transitional living program “will have transition coaches specially trained to work with them every day,” she said, adding, “This house will be staffed 24/7.”


Szafran said the program is the only one of its kind: fully licensed, trauma-informed, gender-responsive and specific for maternity or parenting young women. “We’re including the treatment models from ARC — Attachment, Regulation and Competency,” she explained.


The program will follow the evidence-based Transition to Independence Process model. Developmental services will allow the young women to grow toward greater self-sufficiency and achievement of their goals.


To stay in the program, young women will be required to work and/or attend vocational or educational training. “Education is the absolute key. Education is not a question in any of our programs,” Szafran remarked.


The participants will be able to continue seeing the same physicians and therapists who have treated them in the residential program. They also will have access to the behavioral health services that Crittenton provides through its Wellspring Family Services and access to Crittenton’s child care services, Cradles to Crayons.


In Crittenton’s present treatment programs, staff help teens prepare for independence by learning life skills such as budgeting, banking, meal preparation and finding and keeping a job. “We start in residential ... they get to practice ... so they have that soft place to land,” she said.


Through the new initiative, transition coaches will “continue to emphasize the importance (of such skills) as these young ladies transition to adulthood,” Szafran explained.


Young women may remain in transitional living for about a year. “It could be longer or it could be shorter,” depending upon circumstances, she said. Tailoring a stay of appropriate length is important because “we don’t want further dependence on the system,” she added.


As the young women acclimate to independence, “we’ll help them find apartments,” she said.


Noting that girls now in treatment at Crittenton are victims of abuse, neglect and sexual assault and may be battling drug addiction, depression and other challenges, Szafran commented, “It’s amazing — the resilience of these kids — when you look at what they’ve been through.”


The house, purchased by Crittenton Services last year, is undergoing extensive renovations, including installation of a fire sprinkler system, new electrical service, new plumbing, the addition of a second bathroom and creation of a family room. With help from a local designer, the house is being refurbished as “a lovely, beautiful place,” Szafran said.


The facility will be ready for occupancy “probably by late spring,” she said. The house will accommodate up to six young women (and their babies) at a time.


A service group from Kentucky, led by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, spent a recent weekend at the house, installing drywall and finishing a large space in the attic for use as a family-style room. Four men skilled in various trades and two nuns traveled to Wheeling for the project.


“They just did it out of the goodness of their hearts,” Szafran said. “We are overjoyed that the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth found our project worthy of their assistance.”


Social service officials see a desperate need for transitional living options in West Virginia. Currently, there are only 32 transitional living beds (including those allocated for young men) in the state, Szafran said.


Noting the ongoing nature of this need, Szafran cited the example of Lorrie Legursky, who is now a successful adult living in Beckley. As a teenager, she had to leave the Florence Crittenton Home in Wheeling immediately after giving birth to her daughter 32 years ago. At that time, the facility was not licensed to provide housing for babies. As a result, the 15-year-old and another young mother from Crittenton — and their babies — shared a tiny apartment in Wheeling while the parenting teens attended high school, Szafran said.


“We didn’t have this transitional living then. That would have been perfect for her (Legursky),” the Crittenton leader remarked.


Szafran reflected on “how important it is that we help them through these stages as it comes,” observing that former residents often want to reconnect and receive reassurance during transition in their lives.


“Every kid, every young adult, needs that support,” she said.


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