Note: This op-ed piece was published in the Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) on January 11, 2015. View it here on the Gazette’s website.
Most people know the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowhere is this more relevant than how we respond to the national crisis of 30,000 youth nationally aging out of the foster care system each year.
These are children who were removed from their homes due to physical or sexual abuse, neglect or other family challenges. Through no fault of their own, they were unable to be safely reintegrated with their birth family or adopted by a new family.
On their 18th birthday, each of these young people will enter adulthood without any familial support or a place to call home. For that reason, they are up to six times more likely to experience unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, and unplanned pregnancies. Only 2 percent of them will graduate from an institution of higher education. This is truly a national crisis that affects us all, and government and communities bear the estimated cost of $5.7 billion per year.
But there’s some good news, and the source of the hope is in Pendleton County. The Sugar Grove Navy Information Operations Command base is closing this fall and the region is at risk of losing a major source of economic investment. Federal officials have been seeking a plan that can use the 122-acre property to deliver both public benefit and economic impact.
KVC Health Systems, a private, nonprofit leader in child welfare and behavioral health care, is leading a broadly supported initiative to transform the closing base into a specialized career college for youth aging out of foster care. If the proposal comes to fruition, the ensuing Sugar Grove College could become a national model for how to help a vulnerable population while creating jobs in the region, with an emphasis on employing military veterans.
KVC is the largest private foster family recruiting (or child placing) agency in the state of West Virginia, and has partnered with public child welfare agencies from Kansas to Washington, D.C., to achieve dramatic improvements such as reducing the time children are in foster care, increasing adoptions, encouraging relatives to care for children and keeping siblings together. These results flow out of KVC’s core values such as, “What would you want for your child?” and “Excellence is not an act; it’s a habit.”
The goal of Sugar Grove College would be to help youth transition from foster care to a successful, self-sufficient adulthood. This will be achieved by providing vocational training in high-demand fields alongside supportive services customized to their unique needs, like behavioral health care and mentoring. Initial programs offered will take advantage of the property’s infrastructure and include fire sciences/firefighting, medical coding, computer information systems, construction technology, and building and property maintenance.
A wide range of leaders have expressed their support for KVC’s proposal including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, the Pendleton County Economic and Community Development Authority, the Pendleton County Commission, child welfare leaders, youth formerly in foster care and potential employers of graduates from the career college.
While the closing of the Sugar Grove Naval facility brings uncertainty, West Virginia has an unprecedented opportunity to show national leadership in the areas of education, health care and child welfare. Creating Sugar Grove College not only helps thousands of youth from West Virginia and other parts of the country; it also affirms our deeply held conviction that it is better to help youth create a safe, healthy future rather than pay the cost of failing to help them succeed. In the words of the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”