About 450 foster children age out of the system each year in Missouri. They can remain in foster care until the age of 21.

Ann Bockman, a field support manager with the Missouri Children’s Division, said the state noticed that when some of these young people left the state’s care, they were struggling, often ending up homeless or in prison.

“We wanted to change the way we did business – to help these youth become more successful,” she said.

Brandi Geohagen is a statewide unit supervisor. She agrees.

“We just wanted to be able to have these youth better equipped to be independent and not to fall victim to coming back into the system as adults,” said Geohagen.

In 2020, four Missouri Children’s Division workers won a state government challenge by proposing a plan to help prepare older foster children in southeast Missouri for the real world. That plan has been put into action.

The unit is called ROYALS. It stands for Regional Older Youth Advancement of Life Skills.

Rene Brinkman, the older youth unit manager for Missouri, helped to get the effort off the ground.

“After we won the Show Me Challenge in 2020, we knew that increased investment in our youth’s social, emotional, and physical well-being would contribute to increased success in education, employment, housing, permanency, and stability,” said Brinkman.

Brinkman said Missouri is increasing positive outcomes for these young people.

“It really was to be more intentional about preparing youth for self-sufficiency and independence,” said Brinkman.

State workers help each foster child to develop goals and work on life skills, such as money management, parenting support, transportation, stable housing, and job experience.

Children’s Division employees work intensely with each one of these children. Visits could range from two to four visits each month. Some children need additional visits.

“We currently have 71% of our youth that are employed,” Brinkman said. “We have 91% of our youth that have bank accounts and we have 96% of our youth have an original copy of their birth certificate and social security card. Eighty-nine percent of our youth have a driver’s license or permit and 86% of our youth have been able to identify at least one supportive adult in their life.”

The effort has worked well in southeast Missouri – to the point that the state decided to take it to the next level. There is now at least one ROYALS worker in every region of the state.

“The state of Missouri really bought into that along with us. And so, we were given support to expand the ROYALS statewide. So at this time, there is at least one ROYALS worker in every region of the state- and that started in September of 2021. Our hope is really that we will continue to expand the program based on the need of each individual region,” said Brinkman.

Brinkman’s vision would be for every Missouri foster child to have a ROYALS worker assigned to them before they enter adulthood.

“I think part of that is building their confidence and we do that by celebrating pretty much every achievement no matter how small,” she said. “Each time we celebrate a goal with them, it helps them realize that they are capable of doing this.”

According to Bockman, one of the blessings of this work is having the permanent connection with these young people.

“When they don’t have anyone else to call, they call us. And we continue to guide and direct them in the right direction and help them figure out what to do next. It’s really rewarding and blessing to know that you made a difference and can continue to be a support for them forever,” said Bockman.

Brinkman shared some of the feedback received from some ROYALS children.

“You give us help that we didn’t even realize we needed,” said one child.

“The ROYALS unit has given me more hope for my future inspiration to follow my dreams and the support that I need to reach my goals,” said another child.

Geohagen said this work means a lot to her.

“I learned really quick that these older youth just need a champion – someone to be on their team, someone to be their cheerleader, and someone to be a resource connector. And so, that motivated me to come to this unit. That’s what we do. We’re the cheerleader, we’re the champion,” said Geohagen.

The ROYALS unit is one way Missouri is working to change the way it does business for the state’s foster children. Gov. Mike Parson’s state budget proposal requested the addition of 100 Children’s Division workers to focus on preventative work. The goal is to help keep families together instead of separating them. The Missouri Legislature passed a proposed state budget that endorses this plan.

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