FEATURE — Fall 2009

(Photo: Andres Alonso)

Unwavering Support

As executive director of the Achieving Independence Center, alumna Evelyn Jones Busby works with youth aging out of foster care, offering them the guidance and resources necessary to make a promising transition.

by Kristin Tennant

“You can’t change your past, but you can shape your future.”

This is one of Evelyn Jones Busby’s favorite messages of hope—one she says is particularly important for young people in the foster care system to grasp. Luckily for the youth she works with at the Achieving Independence Center, Busby backs up the message with resources needed to create brighter futures.

As executive director, Busby, MSW ’89, leads the one-stop center in Philadelphia, which houses services youth in foster care need to make the transition from in-home care to self-sufficiency. Each year in the United States, more than 20,000 young people age out of the foster care system and then have to navigate the world, mostly alone. Youth aging out of Philadelphia’s system are not alone, though. The Achieving Independence Center provides staff, mentors, and programs to assist them with life skills, housing, résumés and job searches, relationships, technology training, and college applications.

A program of the Department of Human Services (DHS), the center opened in December 2002. Busby joined the organization in March 2003. Though young, the center is growing rapidly in both size and reputation. It served 1,300 young people in fiscal years 2008 and 2009, some in their final years of foster care and others recently on their own.

“They feel a sense of belonging here,” Busby says. “They feel included and valued. It’s often the first place they’ve ever felt is their own. I always say it’s a sanctuary.”

The Achieving Independence Center served some 1,300 young people in fiscal years 2008 and 2009. (Photo: Andres Alonso)

The need for such a center stemmed from multiple state class action lawsuits initiated by children’s rights advocacy organizations in the 1990s. Triggered by a landmark New York lawsuit filed in 1973, but not settled until 1999, the multiple lawsuits were efforts to protect and improve child welfare systems. At the time, youth were growing up in foster care and discharged at 18 without their needs being met. National statistics were grim: Within six months of leaving foster care, 65 percent of those young people were homeless, and 50 percent hadn’t earned a high school diploma.

“They were just sent out of the system, and left to fend for themselves,” Busby says.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the “Chafee law,” which put in place the federal rights of youth transitioning out of foster care. At the time, Philadelphia had developed a basic independent living program to help these young people, but it was limited to a 90-day period. Youth received weekly life skills lessons and were sent to different points throughout the city for one-time meetings with various organizations. In 2002, Philadelphia was the first city to design and implement its “one-stop shop,” a model founded by Alba Martinez, then-DHS commissioner.

“Because we’re a center and we’re open six days a week, we’re able to nurture connections and provide consistency for these youth,” Busby says. “It’s not just a quick-fix. We have become their extended family. Here, someone is always available to listen.”

Different childhoods, similar needs
When compared to the experiences of these youth, Busby’s own childhood was the quintessential opposite. She was one of 14 siblings who grew up on a family-owned farm in Mississippi. Her parents were hard-working and loving, directing care and concern well beyond their family to others in the community.

“The core foundation of who I am goes back to what was instilled in me as a child,” Busby says. “We had very strong family values and ties. My parents were always volunteering and helping others.”

All 14 of the Jones siblings completed college, and are now working as everything from doctors and dentists to teachers, preachers, and lawyers.

“My dad was a very strong influence on me,” she says. “I loved watching how he interacted with people—I wanted to walk like him and talk like him and be like him. He was a farmer, but he also worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 34 years, and he was well-known for several counties. He always said, ‘You bring integrity to the job, the job doesn’t give you integrity.’”

At the Achieving Independence Center, youth aging out of foster care receive assistance with such things as technology training and résumé writing and job searches. Above, James Stough (left), a youth instructor, works on typing skills with a student. (Photo: Andres Alonso)

In college, while earning her undergraduate degree in psychology and journalism, Busby met her husband. After graduating, she tried working in the publishing world for a while, decided it wasn’t for her, and then had her three children. When she was ready to go back to work, Busby switched careers, taking a job in a child welfare organization.

“I really hit my stride,” she says. “By the time I came to Washington University for my MSW, I felt as if I had really found my home.”

Busby has focused her work on families and children ever since, saying that they hold extreme value in a society that generally undervalues them. She also believes there are “commonalities in everyone.”

“It doesn’t matter where you grow up—rural or urban—or how many siblings you have,” she says. “We all still want the same things. We want to belong. We long for consistency. We want to know we are accepted.

“Foster kids have faced so many broken promises that they begin to shut down. At the center, we’ve been able to put love and trust into a business. We offer total acceptance, for who they are and where they are. They can count on that from us, day after day, year after year.”

“Foster kids have faced so many broken promises that they begin to shut down. At the center, we’ve been able to put love and trust into a business.
We offer total acceptance, for who they are and where they are.”

More than physical needs must be met
In addition to direct interactions with young people at the center, Busby devotes much of her energy to developing evidence-based behavioral health and child welfare practices that can be replicated in other communities. The center is compiling some of the first real data of its kind around foster youth.

As the center continues to grow and gain recognition (as it has from many organizations, including the Jim Casey Foundation), more cities are emulating the program, including New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Pittsburgh.

Looking ahead, Busby’s goals for improving the model are two-fold: She would like to see more resources and energy directed to helping existing families stay intact, and she would like to develop better emotional wellness support for young people in foster care.

“Emotional wellness is the missing link in the chain of support,” Busby says. “These young people have experienced a lot of trauma, and it’s difficult for them to learn to accept themselves. They’re working through thought processes that are tied up in their legacy, and how they’re going to carry their past with them into the future.

“Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of stigma in our society around any kind of counseling,” Busby continues. “These young people have enough baggage. They don’t want people thinking they’re ‘crazy’ too, as they put it. Ironically, we take care of our physical selves all the time, but there are still so many myths around caring for our inner being.”

Busby’s own “inner being” is consistently both challenged and fed by her work.

“There are days when you hear stories [at the center] that make you want to scoop up all those kids and take them home, but you just can’t do that,” she says. “If you want to make a difference in the long-run, you have to stay focused on the solutions.”

Busby adds that changing lives is the greatest reward. “We can help them see themselves in a different light, in the face of so much trauma and rejection.”

Kristin Tennant is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.