Empire Health, Catholic Charities team up to keep Spokane kids out of foster care

From The Spokesman-Review by Rachel Alexander

It’s no secret that kids placed in Washington’s foster care system often struggle later in life.

Statewide, fewer than half of children in foster care graduate from high school. Former foster children are more likely to end up in jail or homeless, and their rates of college attendance are in the single digits.

“There’s a lot of research now to support this fact that kids who go through foster care tend to end up with lifelong consequences,” said Nadine Van Stone, the vice president of crisis response and shelters at Catholic Charities.

After years of work, Empire Health Foundation believes it’s found a solution: keep those kids from entering foster care in the first place.

The foundation is partnering with Catholic Charities to open a new program called Rising Strong, which will offer support to parents in danger of losing their kids to the foster care system. It’s an all-encompassing program designed to help parents kick drug or alcohol addiction, which are the main contributors to losing custody.

“We also believe in the power of families to help each other,” said Mike Yeaton, chief strategy officer for Empire. “Often these parents, they don’t want to stay in an addictive life.”

A pilot program, focusing on 20 families, will start in October at the former site of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary convent. Families will live together on-site and have access to mental health care, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, work training, GED programs and more.

“The foster care entry rate in Spokane County has been significantly above the state average,” Yeaton said.

The system itself is overtaxed, and social services to keep families out of it are lacking, he said.

“If you can help those parents to restore their family functioning, that’s the best way to help those things,” he said.

Rising Strong is modeled on a similar program in Los Angeles called Exodus, which has a 90 percent success rate in keeping families together.

The goal is to eventually serve 50 families in one of the permanent supportive housing units Catholic Charities is building on the former convent site, Van Stone said. Families would live in an apartment on-site and receive ongoing support for roughly 12 to 18 months, though the length will depend on individual needs.

It’s estimated to cost about $1 million a year, which would be about $20,000 per family served. That’s significantly cheaper than the cost of court visits, arrests and other costs associated with keeping a child in foster care for a year, Yeaton said.

Funding has come from Providence Health Care and Premera Blue Cross, which announced a two-year, $175,000 grant this week. The team is looking into state and federal grants as well.

Empire has partnered with Washington State University to collect data on the pilot program and demonstrate its effectiveness, both in terms of family outcomes and cost savings.

Families will receive peer support and can come back to Rising Strong for services if they need them, Yeaton said.

“You are there for those families in the future too,” he said. “It’ll be a sustained involvement in these families’ lives.”