In rural Athens County, professionals give children in the foster care system an opportunity to succeed as they transition from childhood to adulthood.
Throughout 2018, Athens County Child Services reported 166 children in its care. As of this month, Athens County Child Services reported 100 children in its care.
“Permanency is our priority and ultimate goal for children,” Robin Webb, a public information officer and community event coordinator at Athens County Children Services, said in an email. “In 2018, 43 percent of our custody cases were reunited with their birth families, 20 percent were placed in the custody of a relative, and 27 percent were adopted.”
Athens County Child Services works with the birth family of the child, the court and other partners toward reuniting the child with the biological family. If the court determines the child can safely return home, Athens County Child Services helps the family through that transition process.
Athens County Child Services is sometimes granted permanent custody when the child’s home is no longer a safe option. The agency then works with the child to determine if they should live with a relative or an adoptive family.
During that process, a program like Southeastern Ohio Youth Mentoring helps those children by giving them a mentor that forges a relationship lasting from age 5 to 17.
"There is no strict criteria for a child to be in this program. The caretaker sees a need for another role model in the child's life. Some children have risk factors like abuse, housing, or food insecurity,” Jim Salzman, the executive director at Southeastern Ohio Youth Mentoring Program, said.
Grandparents, single parents or disabled caretakers have enrolled their children in the program in the past. Mentors and mentees begin to strengthen their relationship by making a coat of arms of the mentee's morals and personality. The mentor makes their own coat of arms to guide the mentee's endeavors.
"People have developed these relationships over decades and have been invited to life events like weddings," Salzman said.
The community-based mentorship program hosts activities for mentors and mentees throughout the summer including trips to the Athens Community Pool, Copperheads baseball games and trips to see the Appalachian Hell Betties. Backpacks and school supplies are donated by the Athens Elks for an annual back-to-school party.
"There is currently 12 kids in the Community Mentoring program, with a waitlist of 20 more kids," Salzman said.
The Youth in Leadership Program hosts activities that teach healthy living in partnership with the Ohio State Extension Program. The program runs events throughout the year for mentors and mentees to solidify their relationship.
"For the 2017-2018 school year, there was 24 kids being mentored in the in the Youth in Leadership mentoring program. In the 2018-2019 school year, there is 15 kids in the Youth and leadership mentoring program,” Salzman said.
Once kids in the foster system turn 18, an independent living case worker in Athens County meets with them to help them establish residency or transition to a university or job.
If they choose to attend a university, the Ohio Reach program steps in to help them acclimate to campus and their new level of independence. The program also helps colleges to establish methods to help these students.
"Each program is unique, but they all offer one-time emergency funds to be used for things like books or housing payments," William Murray, Ohio Reach Coordinator, said.
Since its inception 12 years ago, Ohio University, Bowling Green State University, Ohio State Newark, Wright State, Hocking College, Kent State, Franklin University and St. Clair Community College joined the Ohio Reach program.
"The average number of students in these programs is 10, though Columbus State Community College currently has 24," said Murray.
The Reach program at OU has hosted gatherings during family weekend to help former foster care students who want an alternative experience.