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early-head-start-partner-opens-second-location-fosters-community-engagementEarly Head Start Partner Opens Second Location, Fosters Community EngagementLouisiana
Monday, Nov 28, 2016

​​The Boys Town Louisiana Early Head Start Program is now helping children and families in the heart of the Desire Neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana, thanks to its community partner – Kids of Excellence.

Kids of Excellence Child Development Center opened a second location in the Desire Neighborhood, which allows for the center and its partners to directly engage with families, as well as collaborate with community nonprofits.

"The Kids of Excellence second location benefits children and families of the Early Head Start Program as our new facility is located in a prime location that fosters direct engagement with our students, families and community," said Kristi Givens, Owner, Kids of Excellence.

The facility is located in a community square that is also home to a Daughters of Charity Health Clinic, Abundance of Desire Community Center, and is adjacent from Delgado Community College.  "Our combined services will provide educational programs and leadership development opportunities that will benefit our students, families, and the community," said Givens.

Boys Town Louisiana began a partnership with Kids of Excellence Child Development Center in early 2015 as part of the federal Early Head Start initiative. This initiative provided $8.2 million in additional funding to increase education quality and expand capacity at preschools for children 3 and under in New Orleans. Boys Town was one of four organizations chosen to administer the Early Head Start Program. 

Through their partnership, Boys Town and Kids of Excellence not only prepare youngsters for school to ensure a seamless transition, but also help maintain a healthy household for children in their care by offering Boys Town support services, including In-Home Family Services, Care Coordination Services and Common Sense Parenting® classes.

"We are really excited to be partnering with Kids of Excellence and for their new location," said Renaca Hick-Haskins, Director, Boys Town Early Head Start Program. "The new facility is very conducive to our program needs and with its location near other nonprofits and a community college, we can provide a one-stop-shop for the needs of the entire family."

Since starting the Early Head Start program, both Boys Town and Kids of Excellence have received very positive feedback and goals are being met. ​

louisianas-second-bowl-a-palooza-event-brings-awareness-to-foster-careLouisiana's Second Bowl-A-Palooza Event Brings Awareness to Foster Care Louisiana
Left to Right: Boys Town Louisiana Board Members Barbara Waiters, Cliff Buller and Anne Doussan.
Tuesday, Jun 14, 2016

​​Boys Town Louisiana laced-up their bowling shoes and had some fun in honor of National Foster Care Awareness Month at their Second Annual Bowl-A-Palooza event on Sunday, May 15, 2016.

The event was held at New Orleans’ Rock ‘n’ Bowl and treated guests to a fun afternoon of bowling, food and musical entertainment from Tank and the Banagas and DJ Raj Smoove. Hosted by New Orleans’ own MC Wild Wayne, Boys Town brought awareness to their many programs helping at-risk youth in the area.

In addition to bowling, the event also featured a silent auction and door prizes. “Our second annual Bowl-a-Palooza event was a smashing success,” said Darrell Johnson, Boys Town Louisiana Development Director. “We ‘knocked down pins’, to raise funds for at-risk youth and their families, plenty of delicious foods, amazing musical entertainment and silent auction items were on-hand for all to enjoy.”

More than 150 people came out to join the fun, raising more than $20,000. Funds will go towards supporting Boys Town Louisiana’s Family Home Program, as well as to support young people who are aging-out of the foster care system and not yet equipped with the life skills to live independently.

“A big thanks to the Bowl-A-Palooza committee members, Boys Town Louisiana Board Members, Whole Foods, and the House of Blues, for making this event a great success,” said Johnson. “We look forward with continuing on with this event for years to come.”

helping-people-makes-me-happy-from-foster-kid-to-guide-for-others'Helping people makes me happy:' From foster kid, to guide for othersLouisiana
Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune
Monday, May 2, 2016

This article ​is written by Diana Samuels of The Times-Picayune . It was posted on April 16, 2016.


As a teenager, Sonya Brown ran away from Boys Town. As an adult, she came back.

Brown, a 29-year-old Harvey resident, works as a community engagement connector for Boys Town in New Orleans, advocating on behalf of young people in the foster care system.
Brown, whose mother was diagnosed schizophrenic and whose father was an alcoholic, was put in the Louisiana foster care system at the age of 6. Separated from her six siblings, she spent time in seven different foster homes and 10 different schools. She was expelled three times, and ran away frequently. At 17 she was arrested for running away from a group home, and spent four days in an adult correctional facility.

Today, she's a licensed master social worker with bachelor's and master's degrees from Southern University at New Orleans. In addition to working directly with young people, she's become involved with political policy at the state and federal levels, including speaking on a U.S. House of Representatives panel about the need to improve the juvenile justice system for incarcerated girls.

WHY: "I grew up in foster care from age 6 to 18. My perspectives are shaped by going to court, dealing with social workers, having people who took a personal interest in my life. If I hadn't had all of these supportive individuals, then I wouldn't have achieved anything. I feel like I'm obligated to be there for young people that may not have that support that I had. That drives me."

PATH: "I actually lived in a Boys Town home for a while. After I aged out of foster care at 18, I went on to college and just thought, 'Hmm, Boys Town would be a cool place to work.' Some of the people who were employed by Boys Town still work here. They had some stories about things I did when I was in Boys Town. I was unruly."

FEAR: "I was very afraid entering into adulthood. You're sitting at a table and everyone is telling you, 'OK, you're going to be 18 in a few months, so where are you going to live and what are you going to do?' That's a very real fear and I connect with the young people that I work with because every single one of them aging out of foster care is going to experience that same thing. I always think about how I felt in that moment."

ALTERNATIVE: "I love music. I love live music. And I still write music, that's one of my hobbies. It's a good way to connect to the young people that I work with. I listen to every type of music; I'm so eclectic. When I'm developing a relationship with a young person, a lot of time music comes into play. Like we're in the car and we're listening to music. They think I'm old, and they're like, 'You listen to this?'"

MEMORY: "My most treasured possession is a picture of me in 3rd grade. That was the point when I got to my foster mom. That was the year I moved in with her. That's the only picture I have of me as a little kid. I don't have any baby pictures. I have it framed. It's on a little stand in my office at home."

HAPPINESS: "Helping people makes me happy. I like to see people smiling and I like to feel as if I've done something to make them smile."

UNHAPPINESS: "What pisses me off is people who are not compassionate toward others. People who are rude and not thoughtful. People who don't recognize that other people go through things and are insensitive to other people's needs."

FAMILY: "I am most proud of being a mother. I have two daughters and they are just growing up to be so amazing. I'd like to say that I take credit for them doing the right thing, but I don't think it's anything that I'm doing. I think they're naturally little givers and they're just growing up to be genuinely good. I'm so proud of that."

HEROES: "My heroes would be the social worker who kind of walked me into college, my family attorney who sticks by me, and my foster mom who is my mom. To me, these people had no incentive to continue to keep me involved in their lives, but they chose to out of love."

SUPERHEROES: "I love 'Wonder Woman.' I can't wait till that movie comes out. I don't know, there's just something about a woman who's glamorous and strong who saves the day."

SHOUT-OUT: From Bonnie DeSalle, who is working with Brown on Project 18, a new program to support foster care youth as they transition into adulthood. "Because she experienced the foster care system herself, that gives her another view that most people who work on behalf of foster care kids don't have. This is somebody that really loves what she's doing and is there for the right reasons, wanting to give back to these young people."

•     Support Boys Town
•     Learn more about foster parenting in Louisiana
•    Help young people successfully transition from the foster care system with Project 18.

boys-town-louisiana-receives-patriotic-employer-awardBoys Town Louisiana Receives Patriotic Employer AwardLouisiana
Tuesday, Apr 26, 2016

Boys Town ​Louisiana’s Family-Home Program Director, Shawnta Gardener, was presented with a “Patriotic Employer” plaque by the Office of the Secretary of Defense on Wednesday, April 20th.

The recognition is in favor of Boys Town Louisiana's contribution to national security, and protecting liberty and freedom by supporting employee participation in America’s National Guard and Reserve Force.

Boys Town Louisiana is thankful for and proud to support our employees.

boys-town-louisiana-receives-grant-from-forekids-foundationBoys Town Louisiana Receives Grant from fore!Kids FoundationLouisiana
Tuesday, Mar 1, 2016

Boys Town ​Louisiana was excited to receive a $10,000 donation from the fore!Kids Foundation on Thursday, Feb 25, 2016. The funds will go directly to our Care Coordination Services program, which is an intensive case management program that helps youth who are preparing to leave foster care because they are turning 18 to transition into independent living.

fore!Kids Foundation’s Charity Development Manager, M. Paul Fischer II, said he “is proud to promote the partnerships that  the fore!Kids Foundation and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans has with the great organizations that do so much for the children in our community.”

Thank you for supporting needed programs for boys and girls in our community!

oscar-j-tolmas-charitable-trust-gives-grant-for-new-programOscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust Gives Grant for New ProgramLouisiana
Wednesday, Jan 13, 2016

Boys Town Louisiana, an organization committed to saving children and healing families, announced today that it has been awarded a $15,000 grant from the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust. The grant will be used to fund a Boys Town Louisiana start-up program designed to aid young people, transitioning out of foster care, in their development into productive adults. The initiative will be called the Oscar J. Tolmas Youth Project.

“We’re so thankful to the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust for their support of our new program,” said Boys Town Louisiana Executive Director, Dr. Dennis Dillion. “Each year in Louisiana, almost half of the 500 youth over 16 who exit foster care age out. They are considered adults and must learn to live on their own. This program will give these kids the guidance they need to become successful adults and members of our vibrant community.” 

The Oscar J. Tolmas Youth Project will provide a support system for young people in New Orleans who are aging out of the foster care system. Through the project, they gain new skills for independent living, secure safe, affordable housing, and explore job opportunities through a network of local employers. They get encouragement and advice through highly trained youth counselors.

The grant was made possible through the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust. 

“We are excited to honor Oscar’s memory and charitable interests with this donation to Boys Town Louisiana,” said Trustees Vincent Giardina and Lisa Romano.


About Oscar J. Tolmas

Oscar Judah Tolmas died December 2, 2013, at the age of 93. The New Orleans native served as a Naval Officer during World War II. Upon discharge, he pursued several career paths, including law, real estate development, and horse racing. He served for several years on the Louisiana State Racing Commission and as Chairman for four years in the early 90s. In 2013, he was honored by the Louisiana Bar Association as a 70-year member, having graduated in 1943 from Tulane University Law School.

valero-donates-40000Valero Donates $40,000 Louisiana
Monday, Dec 14, 2015

Boys Town Louisiana received $40,000 from the Valero Foundation thanks to proceeds from the 2015 Valero Texas Open Benefit for Children. The money donated will help more children through the organization’s Care Coordination Services. Care Coordination Services is an intensive case management program that helps youth who are preparing to leave foster care because they are turning 18 to transition into independent living.

This is the fourth year Boys Town Louisiana has received funding from the Valero Texas Open Benefit for Children.

“Valero Oil Refinery St. Charles has been an outstanding partner for Boys Town Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina,” said Dr. Dennis Dillon, Boys Town Louisiana Executive Director. “The culture of helping vulnerable youth and families is very active throughout the St. Charles refinery. We thank them for all they do and look forward to continuing our mutual efforts of helping far into the future.”

retro-reprom-fundraiser-takes-guests-down-memory-laneRetro Re-Prom Fundraiser Takes Guests Down Memory LaneLouisiana
Thursday, Dec 3, 2015

Most of us ​have daydreamed at some point about what it would be like to go back to high school. Recently, Boys Town Louisiana gave members of the local community a chance to pretend they could do just that, if only for a night.

Retro Re-Prom has been a well-loved fundraiser for the Louisiana site since its inception in 2011. As an adult prom, the event brings employees together with board members and donors to help further the Boys Town mission while dancing the night away in vintage-inspired attire.

This year, the team went all out in their planning, decorating down to the details. Held on Friday, November 6 at Il Mercato Hall, highlights of the night included a cocktail hour and hor d’oeuvres by local up-and-coming chef Joel Pondis.

“Everybody raved about the food!” said Darrell Johnson, Development Director and key planner for the event. Darrell also said the themed-cake, made by Royal Bakery, was perfect, with a jukebox made of frosting fondant and even a tiny decorative can of Aqua Net. A throwback playlist of crowd favorites was provided by DJ Rocky, a silent auction was held and local media outlets showed up to capture the excitement.

The speaker of the night was Ron Campbell, a previous Boys Town youth, who provided an inspiring account of the importance of Boys Town’s work in the world.

Each year, a group of prominent community members are nominated by the committee for the Boys Town homecoming court. Donations double as votes, giving donors the power to choose their king and queen. This year, the queen was Sonya Brown, a Boys Town alumna and current employee, along with Antwan Harris as the king, a local news anchor.

A good time was had by all, and the Boys Town mission gained more awareness and resources to continue doing good for children and families. Boys Town wishes to thank DJ Rocky, Il Mercato, John Dondis, Royal Bakery, the committee, and all members of the community who helped make this event the success it was!

action-report-school-uniform-drive-helps-record-amountAction Report: School Uniform Drive Helps Record AmountLouisiana
Friday, Oct 30, 2015

This story was originally released on October 27, 2015 by WWL TV.

James Lavigne is a busy baby at Sea Early Childhood Academy in New Orleans East.

"He's a 1-year-old active child who gets into everything, but he's sweet, he's really, really sweet," said his mother Ernisha Mackey.

But Mackey was thrilled when James' uniforms were donated through the Adopt a Family school uniform drive.

"I was like wow, uniforms," she said. "He didn't have a uniform, so he wasn't able to blend in with other students."

Boys Town manages Sea Academy's Early Headstart program, and they were urgently seeking help with uniforms.

"Sometimes we think it is just going about putting on a uniform, but when the kids come here and they have on their uniform, then it identifies them with OK, I go here, you know these are my peers," said Sea Academy administrator Niki Dajon.

"We tried to get the funding in the grant, but we had to cut it at the last minute," said Boys Town's Rashain Carriere.

This year's school uniform drive set a new record.

"It went really well," said the non profit Adopt A Family program founder Kevin Buckel. "The response from the first story was incredible. We raised enough funds to help over 1,000 students. However, I still have about 120 students waiting for uniforms, and I'm still getting calls every day."

And that's when Kevin made a second call to the Action Line, because he doesn't want any of the kids to have to go without uniforms. So he's putting out another call for donations.

"We're asking people to sponsor a child for $50," Buckel said. "With that, each child will get three uniforms, and we send a thank you note from the parent or child back to the donor with an actual cash register receipt."

as-a-youth-and-an-adult-malik-maintains-bond-with-boys-town-louisianaAs a Youth and an Adult, Malik Maintains Bond with Boys Town Louisiana Louisiana
Friday, Oct 16, 2015

When Malik aged out of the Boys Town Louisiana Family Home Program®, the 18-year-old didn’t have a family to turn to for guidance and support. So he reached out to the one place he knew he could count on for help as he transitioned into adulthood – Boys Town.  

Malik was 16 when he was referred to Boys Town Louisiana in 2013. Like most teens who enter the Family Home Program, he faced challenges at home and school that required Boys Town’s unique services and care.

During his year and a half stay, Malik thrived and mastered the skills that helped him find success in his Boys Town home and at school. But as he was getting ready to leave the program, he grew anxious about being on his own and using what he had learned in an adult world.

“He just wasn’t quite sure how to use the skills he learned at Boys Town and apply them after he left,” said Sonya Brown, Community Engagement Coordinator at Boys Town Louisiana. “That’s where Boys Town’s Care Coordination Program came in to work with him. We helped him learn to put the Boys Town skills to use at work and school.”

Malik had a number of concerns, including finding a place to live, getting a good job, finishing his GED and applying for college.

“We sat down with Malik to draw up a plan for him to follow,” Brown said.

The first issues they tackled were housing and employment.

“He was about to lose the housing he had,” Brown said. “So we worked with him to take the steps necessary to secure the housing long-term. He was working when he left Boys Town, but needed something else that was more secure. He ended up getting a job that meets his needs well.”

Brown also worked with Malik on budgeting.

“Malik worked with us to better understand and identify needs versus wants,” Brown said. “He’s learning that he doesn’t need to buy a basketball if his cupboards are empty or if he needs bus tokens to get back and forth from work or school.”

When he left Boys Town, Malik was still working on completing his GED. It was another area where Brown was able to provide guidance so the teen could reach his goal.

“Once he got it, we attended his graduation and gave him graduation gifts,” she said. “He was very excited. We even helped him get a haircut for his graduation. It was a great day for Malik.”

With his GED, and with Brown’s help, Malik was able to apply for colleges, scholarships and financial assistance.

“He was accepted to Tulane University and started taking some classes this past summer,” Brown said. “He started his first full year of college this fall and is studying homeland security.”

Boys Town understands how difficult it can be for young adults to make the move to independent living once they leave the Family Home Program. That’s why Boys Town continues to provide assistance and support for youth like Malik as they take on the new responsibilities of adulthood.

“Malik is one of those kids who did not achieve permanency through the traditional routes of finding a forever family or being adopted,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, this happens to many kids who are in care, especially older girls and boys. The neat thing about Malik is he did find permanency through the support of Boys Town and other organizations in the community. He knows that he can come to Boys Town if he has an issue or problem.”

early-head-start-program-grows-with-federal-fundingEarly Head Start Program Grows with Federal Funding Louisiana
Thursday, Oct 1, 2015

Last year, it was announced that Boys Town Louisiana was one of four organizations chosen to receive federal funding to improve the quality of its pre-school education. Today, the program is well underway, and according to those involved, is off to a great start.

Boys Town Louisiana is enthusiastic about the opportunity to offer comprehensive services to families and children at a younger age, birth to three. They report that their Early Head Start program will soon be fully enrolled, serving 88 students. These children will attend one of three partner sites: Wilcox Academy, Sentino Early Academy, and Kids of Excellence. Locations were chosen based on a variety of factors, taking into account the areas of greatest need within the city.

Already, the money has been used to improve the facilities, install a new playground, and to ensure that each location has the highest quality curriculum available. Rashain Carriere, Director of Program Operations at Boys Town Louisiana, says: “We’re actually using a research-based curriculum. All of our staff has been trained in that curriculum so we’re able to have really good conversations with parents if they have questions.”

Renaca Hicks-Haskin, Director of the Head Start Program at Boys Town Louisiana, adds that they are also continuing to offer additional services to the families, which include teenage moms, pregnant women, homeless families, and children with disabilities. She says that the team is dedicated to “ensuring that the needs of children are met while enhancing the involvement of families to ultimately support them to become self-sufficient.”

With the help of the money and the leadership at Boys Town Louisiana, the reach of this program is only growing. Currently, Common Sense Parenting® classes are offered seven times a year to the parents and families involved, and Renaca also reports that they are “continually partnering with other organizations as we identify the unique needs that parents and children have who are enrolled in our program and within communities.”

Boys Town again wishes to express gratitude for the federal funding received, and for the team at Boys Town Louisiana who have continued to prove their dedication to our mission. We will keep you posted on this important project which is sure to be a continued success.

former-shelter-kid-returns-to-boys-town-louisiana-as-advocate-ally-of-youthFormer Shelter Kid Returns to Boys Town Louisiana as Advocate, Ally of Youth Louisiana
Monday, Sep 28, 2015

As a child, Sonya Brown remembers spending many nights in emergency rooms.

It wasn’t because she and her siblings were sick or prone to accidents. It was because they needed a place to sleep.

Sonya’s family was homeless and seeking refuge in any type of shelter was routine. Sadly, homelessness wasn’t their only misfortune. Sonya’s mother was schizophrenic; her father was an absent alcoholic.

The family was so adrift and their daily life so chaotic that Sonya and her siblings eventually wound up in foster care.

But Sonya’s life as a foster child proved just as problematic.

“I would leave my foster home for days and not return,” admitted Sonya. “My foster mom got overwhelmed and requested that I be removed.”

At 16, Sonya landed in a Boys Town Louisiana emergency shelter. There, staff members assessed her situation and worked to find a permanent placement. But despite having a warm bed, food and security at the shelter, Sonya, the self-proclaimed “know-it-all rebel,” still ran away.

For months, she couch-surfed from the home of one relative or friend to another. She hung out at bars, smoked weed and only occasionally went to school.

“I was in a really bad situation. I ended up living with a guy who had a couple of other young ladies living with him. The situation didn’t seem right, and I thought it could turn into something worse,” Sonya said.

Scared and tired of her rootless existence, Sonya reached out to her social worker, who was able to arrange the teen’s return to Boys Town Louisiana’s emergency shelter. This time, Sonya intended to stay.

“When I got there, I really did want to follow the rules. I just really needed stability, and I found comfort there. I could sleep in my own bed without worrying about something happening, and I felt content. I knew what Boys Town was and had a better understanding of the rules,” Sonya said.

But just as she was settling into a healthy routine, she was uprooted again. For reasons never explained to her, Sonya’s social worker transferred her to a group home two hours outside of New Orleans.

Sonya said that group home was a lot like living on the streets. Kids broke windows and ruled the roost. There was no sense of family, and staff members didn’t seem to care that the kids acted out or why. Unlike Boys Town, no one was teaching skills or showing concern. So, as she had done many times, Sonya ran away.

Sonya returned to New Orleans and fortunately found a stable home and returned to school. And while she never returned to Boys Town, she never forgot the compassion and generosity she experienced there.

“They were very caring; no one tried to hurt me,” Sonya said. “I’ve seen the other side of group homes, and even though it was a shelter, Boys Town staff treated me as if I was part of something bigger.”

After graduating high school, Sonya earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in social work. In 2014, she saw a job opening at Boys Town Louisiana and eagerly jumped at the chance to come “home.”

“I’m one of those people who’s a rebel, and I can’t work for something I don’t believe in,” Sonya explained. “I’ve seen in different organizations people who don’t generally care about the young people they work with. When I go into a Boys Town Family Home and see the youth, I know they are being cared for.”

Sonya was hired as a Community Engagement Coordinator, a position in which she promotes and educates the public about Boys Town services and other local programs that are available to help children and families. She also spends time with youth who live in the Boys Town shelter and Family Homes, bonding with them through their shared experiences.

“When they learn I was in the shelter, it makes them more hopeful because they see someone who’s gone through what they’ve gone through,” she said.

Sonya doesn’t shy away from sharing her life story with the youth because she knows her story is their story. She represents a real, flesh-and-blood example of what’s possible when you’re willing to see past your current circumstances, set goals for your life and never give up.

Having gone full circle in her life, Sonya is now helping young people find their own path to healing.

when-louisiana-lost-its-foster-childrenWhen Louisiana Lost its Foster ChildrenLouisiana
Copyright PBS
Tuesday, Sep 8, 2015

This article ​is written by Laura Santhanam. It was published on August 29, 2015 at

Two days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, Herman Clayton packed his two kids and four foster children into a van and fled New Orleans, heading north to Shreveport. Seventeen hours later, Sonia Cooper, a child welfare worker, filled two vans with 15 children, nine of them foster kids, and drove west toward Houston.

State workers had lost track of an estimated 25 percent of the foster children living in those storm-damaged areas.

The following morning at daybreak, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Winds exceeding 125-miles-an-hour destroyed trees, roofs and structures. Levees failed, and floodwater rose to rooftops. The storm devastated the Gulf region, killing 1,833 people and forcing more than 1.5 million to evacuate — displacing 400,000 from New Orleans alone. It also shook the Louisiana’s foster care system to its core, revealing fundamental weaknesses in its disaster plan.

In Louisiana, about 2,000 foster children lived in the path of the hurricane. And two weeks after the storm, state workers had lost track of an estimated 25 percent of these children. A month after Katrina, 158 remained unaccounted for, state officials said, according to this NPR report.

This was in part due to the fact that shelters were overwhelmed, and many of the staff who handled foster care cases were displaced, said Susan Sonnier, secretary for the state’s Department of Children and Family Services. But it also stemmed from problems in communication and monitoring. At the time of the storm, Sonnier directed Louisiana’s Children’s Cabinet and the Juvenile Justice Commission.

“It is the core mission of the department to ensure that children are safe,” Sonnier said. “What we learned in Katrina is it’s very hard to do that if you don’t know where they are.”

Leaving home

Meanwhile, the families of foster children who evacuated faced a number of additional challenges: among them, paying for food and shelter, accessing critical medication and getting their children back to school.

At the time of the hurricane, Sonia Cooper was program administrator of Raintree Children and Family Services, a small, non-profit foster care agency. As such, she was responsible for 57 children in residential and in-home foster care. But in the days immediately following the storm, a handful of those children remained unaccounted for.

Every day on the road, starting at 6 a.m., she and her staff began making calls. When they weren’t caring for the children who were with them, they were trying to find the others. They dialed every phone number on their list of foster parents and biological families. But the storm had knocked out cell towers in New Orleans. Most calls were met with busy signals. When they were able to connect, calls often dropped.

“We didn’t know where everybody was. We didn’t know if everybody was safe,” Cooper said.

At the same time, they were trying to care for the girls in their custody. These girls had already experienced trauma through abuse or neglect or families who couldn’t meet their needs. The storm was another layer of trauma.

Cooper vividly remembers the children’s terror during the 24-hour drive to Houston — a drive that normally takes a third of that time to complete. They’d packed enough water, sandwiches and snacks for eight hours. And when they checked into a Houston hotel, they saw on television familiar places underwater. They wondered aloud if their family members were alive.

“We wanted to be in touch with what was going on, but we were traumatizing ourselves,” Cooper recalled, adding that she still has nightmares about those early days.

No plans in place

Within days, they ran out of necessary antidepressant and antipsychotic medications for the girls. They spent an entire day inside a Houston hospital’s emergency room to refill that medication, but were unsuccessful. It would take more than a month before they could access the drugs.

Because medical care for foster children is paid for by in-state Medicaid, accessing prescription drugs was complicated, since Cooper and the girls had evacuated out of state, to Texas. This was a problem for anyone who received Medicaid coverage in Louisiana and then crossed state lines. On Sept. 16, 2005, the federal government issued a waiver that allowed states to temporarily cover Medicaid recipients that Katrina displaced.

They ran out of clothes for the girls and relied on donations from local churches. And when it became obvious that the evacuation would last far longer than three days, they were met with a new problem: how to enroll the girls in school. School records had been left in the group home.

“We just don’t know if we’re really better off today than we were …” — Tanya Weinberg, Save the Children

“You had no plans in place. Nobody took the time to say, ‘If something happens, this is where you need to go, what you need to do to take care of yourself,’” Cooper said.

Two hundred miles away in San Antonio, Texas, Clayton faced his own set of obstacles. For nearly two decades, Clayton and his wife, Yvonne, had worked as family teachers with Boys Town Louisiana, a nonprofit child welfare agency. They cooked meals and gave hugs like parents but conducted group therapy and problem-solving sessions like counselors. Together, they served as mother and father figures for as many as 300 children.

Now they were on the road with 39 of those kids.

Within two weeks, they had stayed at a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana, a campground in Marshall, Texas, another hotel in Dallas, Texas, and a converted convent in San Antonio. Even with the support of Boys Town, he and other staff struggled to find housing for everyone.

The kids were scared. Many didn’t know if their families were safe. Among them, fights broke out. Some tried to run away.

“You couldn’t say, ‘No, I’m going back home’ because there wasn’t nothing to go to,” Clayton said.

Meanwhile, Boys Town Louisiana staff in Baton Rouge checked off names on a whiteboard as they found children’s biological family members and coworkers alive, said Dennis Dillon, who had been executive director of Boys Town Louisiana for about one year when Katrina hit. They also monitored direct deposits of paychecks to see if people survived.

“There were some people who never claimed those checks,” Dillon said. “We don’t know. We didn’t get 100 percent.”

‘They showed me what family really was’

Dedera Johnson was 12 when she entered foster care with the Claytons and 17 when the storm hit.

Her childhood home was unstable. Johnson’s parents were both crack addicts; her grandmother raised her until she died in 1999. Relatives told her she’d be pregnant by the ninth grade and never finish high school. She got into fights, ran away and eventually found herself in front of a juvenile court judge.

In 2001, she was placed in the Claytons’ white, two-story group house on the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Dryades Street. It sat under oak trees about a dozen blocks from the banks of the Mississippi River. Faded purple and green beads dangled from nearby tree limbs and powerlines, reminders that the house was on a Mardi Gras parade route.

With the Claytons, Johnson and the girls learned table manners and job etiquette, attended Celebration Church in Metairie and ate special meals at Ryan’s steakhouse restaurant. Yvonne coaxed the children to eat their broccoli by telling them it would make their eyes prettier.

And Johnson no longer worried about coming home to an eviction notice or going to bed hungry.

“They showed me more love than I got anywhere ever. They showed me what family really was… At the end of the day, that’s what really matters,” Johnson said.

Johnson was on a home visit with her siblings when she heard about the hurricane brewing in the Gulf. Her mother was in jail. And during her visit, the phone rang. It was Clayton. Did Johnson want to evacuate with him or stay with her family, he wanted to know.

“I didn’t want them to leave me,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be with Mr. Herman and Mrs. Yvonne because I knew they would comfort me.”

Within the hour, Herman picked her up in an agency van. There were eight more vans just like theirs, filled with more than three dozen teenagers, connected by walkie talkies and all on their way to Shreveport. They prayed in a circle before driving away.

During the trip, she recalls hand games and bingo in the car, but also trying desperately to reach her biological family back home. She tried to call her sister, but no one picked up.

“They’re gone,” Johnson told Clayton, as she held the phone, tears streaming down her face.

Are we better off today?

That summer, people from the Gulf learned to send text messages. That’s because phone systems were overwhelmed, and messages took up less bandwidth. Power outages and flooding wiped out communication for more than 3 million phone lines, along with dozens of 911 emergency call centers, the Federal Communications Commission reported. One-fifth of cell phone towers in the hardest-hit areas remained damaged a week after the storm.

“In the beginning, that was truly the crisis,” said Sonnier with the Department for Children and Family Services. People were desperate to hear from missing family members. Even Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco had trouble putting a phone call through to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, she said.

But foster parents had their own set of challenges. They didn’t know how to report the status of their child’s safety or location to the state. Who would even answer the phone? Many of the state’s workers had evacuated. Those who stayed behind were helping the people who were stranded on rooftops and running shelters and aid, Sonnier said. They were overwhelmed.

On the day Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped Louisiana set up a hotline for foster care parents and providers. But few, especially in the early days, knew about the service.

“There really weren’t” formal evacuation plans in place for children in foster care, Sonnier said. “That’s why it was such a huge lesson learned.”

In the decade since, new policies have been implemented to improve the foster system’s emergency plan.

All child care workers and foster parents must submit an evacuation plan, with emergency contact information, to the state. If the storm disrupts their evacuation location, foster parents are required to inform the state of new plans. Disaster response and emergency preparedness is now a part of foster parent training, and child welfare workers train each year to maintain awareness and address staff turnover, a common problem nationwide among child welfare workers because of the job’s potential for intense stress.

In 2006, it became federal law that all states maintain written disaster plans for children in the foster care system. Today, that’s more than 400,000 children nationwide.

But the degree to which these plans are effectively enforced is unclear. Save the Children, a children’s advocacy group, recently reported that “there does not appear to be an updated evaluation to show impact.”

“We just don’t know if we’re really better off today than we were, and that’s really concerning,”said Tanya Weinberg, a Save the Children spokesperson. “These are almost like forgotten children, and they don’t have a powerful political voice in this country. Let’s not wait until a Katrina hits your state to take action.”

The foster children lost to the state in the days after the storm were among more than 5,000 children reported missing after Hurricane Katrina.

“We weren’t prepared for the disaster to deal with displaced children,” said Robert Lowery with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Today, we believe we are much better prepared.”

An act of Congress resulted in a national emergency family registry database to collect information about children and families to reunite them if needed after a disaster. However, inclusion is voluntary. If you don’t submit your information to the database, you can’t benefit from it.

Another major problem at the time: the helpers needed help. Often, their own homes were flooded; their own family members missing, said Gerald Mallon, executive director at the National Center for Child Welfare Excellence at Hunter College.

Denise Goodman spent nearly four years rebuilding Louisiana’s foster care system after the storm. For 30 years, Goodman has fixed broken child welfare agencies nationwide as a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Normally, states called upon her when they faced a lawsuit, a child’s death or a budget crisis, Goodman said. This was different.

“This was the first time I had worked in a jurisdiction where a natural disaster caused the problem,” she said. “This wasn’t a manmade thing. It got people around the country to think about what would be their disaster plan for their children’s welfare system. What would happen if we had an earthquake in California? How would we make sure we find all our kids and families and respond to it?”

Accepting change

In Houston, Cooper’s resources were running low, and there was pressure to return to Louisiana. In late September, they drove more than 200 miles to the small Louisiana town of Natchitoches where they lived until December.

But the evacuation and instability had already taken its toll. The girls were often agitated, Cooper said. One suffered a mental breakdown. When the foster girls finally returned to New Orleans, Cooper herself wasn’t ready to return. She stayed behind with her own children.

“I cried for days. At that point, we were all family.”

As for Johnson, nearly one month after the storm, she finally made contact with her oldest sister. She had evacuated to Baltimore, Maryland with her fiance. Her other sister was in Atlanta; her brother, in Texas. They were safe.

Despite her homesickness and separation from her siblings, Johnson excelled in school in Nebraska. There, she graduated high school a year early.

But during her final year in high school, the Claytons returned to New Orleans for work and encouraged her to stay in Nebraska to finish school. She lived in group housing with two other New Orleanians who had also evacuated.

In May 2006, Boys Town flew the Claytons and her sister to watch her accept her diploma in Omaha. She was the first in her family to complete high school.

“That was one of the biggest accomplishments I ever had,” she said.

Nearly a decade later, Johnson is back in New Orleans where she raises three children, works full-time as a security guard and is pursuing her bachelor’s degree. She’s engaged to be married, and plans to start her own business as a wedding and event planner.

But the 27-year-old regrets her decision to return to New Orleans. She thinks that if she had gone elsewhere or even joined the military, she would have had more opportunities. Instead, she was 18-years-old, enrolling in college and not ready for bills and boyfriends.

“I still don’t accept changes,” she says. “I like stability, and if I have to change, I really don’t do it well.”

A lesson learned?

It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina scattered thousands of foster care children across the country, and questions remain about how effectively states prepare their child welfare systems for disaster.

These plans involve complex bureaucratic agencies at the federal, state and local levels, all intended to protect society’s most vulnerable members — children who have already endured abuse, neglect and trauma and who live without their biological families.

How much accountability is built into this system? And how closely has the federal government monitored these disaster plans for foster children?

Hurricane Katrina forced Louisiana to address its fractured system of emergency preparedness and disaster response for children in foster care. What’s unclear is if the rest of the country has done the same.

speaking-engagement-series-gets-community-involved-with-boys-townSpeaking Engagement Series Gets Community Involved With Boys TownLouisiana
Monday, Aug 17, 2015

A new speaker series at Boys Town Louisiana is getting the New Orleans, Louisiana community involved with Boys Town.

“This series is a way of getting local individuals involved and vested in Boys Town’s mission,” said Darrell Johnson, Boys Town Louisiana Development Director, who came up with the idea to have the speaker series. “I thought it would be a good way to get the male Family-Teachers and young men in their homes together so that they could share a positive experience.”

Occurring monthly, Boys Town Louisiana has hosted a former foster child, local newscaster and a Lead Speaker for NOLA Dads, an agency that promotes positive ideas of fatherhood. Each session offers an educational experience and lends a hand in bringing together youth and staff to discuss topics such as career, life experiences and their dreams.

“The young men really embrace the experience and really enjoy the question and answer portion,” said Johnson.

Boys Town Louisiana will continue to host this event monthly until the end of the year. They already have a variety of speakers lined up, including a CPA and a gentleman who works for the NOLA Juvenile Probation Department.

mothers-tough-choice-gives-son-a-second-chanceMother's Tough Choice Gives Son a Second ChanceLouisiana
Monday, May 11, 2015

By the time he was 13, it was clear Miguel was headed down a path of self-destruction.

The youngster had already been in and out of several youth placements and detention centers, mainly because he couldn’t obey authority figures at home, in school and in the community. Several times, he was involved in fistfights and threatened to kill others. Arrests for theft and destruction of property also dotted his police record.

Miguel’s mother, Sonia, was at her wits end and losing all hope. She was deathly afraid she would soon lose her son to violence on the streets.

Raising Miguel and his siblings as a single mom caused turmoil at home. Miguel’s father had never been in his life, and when Sonia remarried, Miguel grew angrier and more aggressive. He didn’t want anything to do with his new stepfather, and the two often got into shouting matches and physical altercations.

At school, Miguel argued with staff members and was suspended a number of times for aggressive behavior, and for threatening teachers and other students. He had already been expelled from one school and was perilously close to getting kicked out again.

One day after a shouting match with his mother, Miguel stormed out of the house and didn’t come home or attend school for three days. His mother was at her breaking point. There was only one thing she could do to save her son: She contacted the state child welfare authorities and told them she couldn’t control Miguel anymore.

The state stepped in, sent Miguel to a temporary youth shelter and eventually placed him in Boys Town Louisiana’s Family Home Program SM.

Being in the Boys Town residential program wasn’t easy for Miguel, but there were promising signs. He got along well with the other boys in the home, and while he frequently argued with his Family-Teachers ®, the married couple who lived in the home and cared for the youth, they continued to focus on teaching Miguel new skills for expressing his emotions in healthier ways and accepting the decisions of adults.

After a few months of this consistent teaching and structure, Miguel began to buy into this approach. He was consistently using his new skills, in the home and at school. The transformation Miguel was experiencing was evident when he started asking his Family-Teachers for help when he felt frustrated, angry and upset.

Sonia also could see the changes, and was pleasantly surprised when Miguel began making visits home. Miguel listened to his mother and accepted his stepfather as a new authority figure in his life. He also got along with and enjoyed spending time with his brother and two sisters.

Returning to his Boys Town Family Home after one particular weekend visit, Miguel told his Family-Teachers he wanted to be reunited with his family and was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.

Miguel worked even harder on his attitude and behaviors. After a year at Boys Town Louisiana, he graduated from the eighth grade and was able to return home.

Thanks to Sonia’s courageous act of letting her son go so she could someday get him back, along with Boys Town’s effective intervention, Miguel has chosen a new road to follow – the road to being a better son, a better student and a better person.

The stories provided about the children and families in our care are real. In some cases, names may be changed and details altered to protect their privacy and therapeutic interests.


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