The detrimental effect of a childhood spent absent of the day-to-day rituals found with one's kin can have a lasting impact both on the child --- and the society that child encounters later in life.
The Arizona foster care system cares for nearly 15,000 children today and those numbers are always growing, according to nonprofit advocates. But for two Valley women they know first-hand the impacts of a childhood spent in a foster care system oftentimes resulting in both cognitive and behavioral disabilities.
Trauma, in all its forms, has everlasting impacts, advocates contend.
“Advocacy 31nine’s mission is to advocate for the educational success of all children impacted by foster care in Arizona and to reduce the school to prison pipeline,” said Jenny Mullins, co-founder of Advocacy 31nine. “According to the Department of Child Safety’s most recent numbers, there are 14,929 children in foster care in Arizona. All of these children have experienced early childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Children in foster care are some of the most vulnerable children in our community.”
Advocacy 31nine was born out of what Ms. Mullins describes as a necessity for those the most at-risk and in need of champions --- foster children in Maricopa County.
“31nine was started in 2018 by two passionate, social justice-seeking parents of children with mental and behavioral health needs, Nicole Marshall and myself,” she recalled of the organizations’ humble beginnings. “Nicole is the foster/adoptive parent of seven children and five of these children have special needs.”
A chance encounter in a parking lot in 2018 renewed a friendship and led to a statewide advocacy group helping thousands of children without parental advocates get the vital support they need, Ms. Mullins says.
“We were friends in high school and then reconnected in 2018 when Nicole was looking for help as she navigated the complex system of special education,” she recalled. “After a grueling special education meeting where I fought to get Nicole’s children the help they needed, we stood in the school’s parking lot and talked about the need for a nonprofit that would provide this type of support.”
--- Jenny Mullins
Ms. Mullins says trauma can be overcome with a compassionate support system that can be found through advocacy for the children a part of the Maricopa County foster care system.
“This seed of an idea has grown into a nonprofit that is serving students in foster care throughout the state of Arizona,” she said. “They have a growing team of special education advocates and trainers who help education foster parents and school staff on the importance of trauma-informed care in schools.”
Advocacy 31nine proponents seek to provide public education entities the tools to help educators effectively children who are dealing with behavioral and cognitive scenarios who are also a part of the foster care system in Maricopa County.
“According to a recent study by Stanford University Medical Center, children who have experienced trauma are 32 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning and behavioral problems,” Ms. Mullins said of the, at times, dire situations.
“This is a direct result of the trauma they have experienced. However, these mental health needs are often unaddressable at school, which leads to an increase in the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Stopping that pipeline's flow is a keystone of the pursuit at Advocacy 31nine, Ms. Mullins explains.
“This school-to-prison pipeline has many causes and contributing factors,” she said.
“Often, teachers aren’t trained to respond to the unique needs of children with disabilities or who have experienced trauma. They inappropriately punish behavior instead of helping a child’s brain move from a ‘fight-or-flight’ state into a more regulated state.”
This kind of discipline cycle, Ms. Mullins points out, creates an environment of conflict in educational settings.
“This punitive response only further escalates the situation and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “Often children with disabilities or a history of trauma are labeled as a ‘problem child.’”
But these “problem children” are sometimes coping with difficult circumstances absent of a traditional family model --- one where blood relation exists within the nuclear family model --- exacerbates the issue, Ms. Mullins explains.
“This impacts how the school treats the child and punishes behavior that is a result of a ‘fight-or-flight’ response and not willful disobedience,” she points out. “Unfortunately, this leads to suspension or expulsion that prevents children from learning at school. This further reduces the likelihood of academic success. These suspensions lead to children getting into further trouble at home and in the community since they are not at school during the day. This leads to time spent in prison for many children."
For Ms. Mullins, her focus at Agency 31nine is on education.
“Caregivers of children in foster care are often at a loss to know how to support the mental health needs that their child has at home and at school,” she pointed out of the day-to-day mission.
“There are supports and services available in the school system and in the state’s behavioral health system. However, caregivers can be unsure of how to access these supports. They often feel anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, and unsure of how to advocate for their child. They often don’t understand how to access resources at school through the special education process since it can be confusing and overwhelming. They can also feel intimidated by the school staff, especially if their child has faced a suspension or expulsion.”
--- Jenny Mullins
And, that’s where Advocacy 31nine comes into the picture, but make no mistake, Ms. Mullins contends, the endeavor comes with hard costs.
“We have been able to train nearly 1,000 caregivers and school staff on trauma-informed practices that they can use to support students in foster care, leading to greater educational outcomes and reducing the school-to-prison pipeline,” Ms. Mullins said.
To help fuel that mission is a grant program from The Charro Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Scottsdale Charros. For 59 years the Scottsdale Charros have been in constant pursuit of improving the lives of Scottsdale residents while preserving the community’s ties to its western heritage.
This year’s grant cycle, the Scottsdale Charros provided a $2,500 grant to help cover the hard costs of educational programs provided by Advocacy 31nine.
“The remarkable part of Advocacy 31nine’s mission is how they advocate on behalf of children in the foster care system,” said Scottsdale Charros Executive Director Dennis Robbins. “Last year they were able to unlock over $1 million in state funds that provide resources at schools such as academic support, evaluations, speech therapy, behavioral support, counseling, social skills groups, and occupational therapy.”
When it comes to supporting children in need, the Scottsdale Charros are all in, according to Mr. Robbins.
“Advocacy 31nine’s mission is to advocate for the educational success of children impacted by foster care in Arizona and to reduce the school to prison pipeline,” he said. “It is difficult being a child in this tumultuous society that we live in. It is even more difficult if you are a child in the foster care system.”
Mr. Robbins says he and his fellow Charros agree a temporary or group home situation can be a very challenging situation for any child.
“The Charros want to support kids in our community, especially the most vulnerable kids,” he explained. “We think it is important to fund programs that directly help children, but organizations that can advocate for a large, vulnerable group of children is very important for long-term improvements to the foster care system.”
--- Dennis Robbins
In all, Ms. Mullins points out, with the help of grant dollars --- and putting those dollars toward measurable outcomes --- Advocacy 31nine has been able to help approve additional funding to help foster children with special needs.
“Since our launch in 2018, we have been able to unlock more than $3 million in state funds for children in foster care,” she said.
“A total of 100% of these funds went directly to providing resources at schools such as academic support, evaluations, speech therapy, behavioral support, counseling, social skills groups, and occupational therapy. Once these funds are unlocked for a child, they will stay available throughout their school career compounding these results into the hundreds of millions over the next five to 10 years.”
Go to advocacy31nine.org.