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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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(From left) Ashley Kruger, Tonika Green and Jennica Paz, outside the entrance to SDSU's Lee & Frank Goldberg Courtyard. (From left) Ashley Kruger, Tonika Green and Jennica Paz, outside the entrance to SDSU's Lee & Frank Goldberg Courtyard.

SDSU Team’s ‘Soul Work’ Aims to Address Pandemic’s Impact on Foster Youth

A Department of Education-funded project will train future helping professionals to promote wellness and resiliency.
By Michael Klitzing

For young people in the foster care system, school can be an empowering place. It’s a setting to build relationships, find a sense of belonging and gain access to mental health support services.

That place of refuge all but vanished with the COVID-19 shift to virtual learning. Even with in-person classes back, the impacts on foster youth are still rippling out.

“We know that during the pandemic, student mental health issues within the foster care system skyrocketed across the board with respect to depression, anxiety, suicidality, identity issues — but also access to resources,” said Jennica Paz, an assistant professor in school psychology at San Diego State University who has firsthand experience with the challenges faced by youth in the foster care system. “When they lost that face-to-face kind of support, I think that contributed to more isolation.”

Supported by a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), a team of SDSU faculty is launching Project HEAL, a program to train the next generation of helping professionals to help students rebuild their resilience and experience success. Tonika Green, professor in school psychology and associate vice president for campus community affairs, is principal investigator on the grant, alongside Paz (co-principal investigator) and Ashley Kruger (’10) (grant specialist), lecturer in school counseling.

The five-year project will create an interdisciplinary collaborative of graduate students studying to become school counselors, school psychologists, social workers and special educators.

California is home to approximately 50,000 foster youth with about 4,000 in San Diego County alone, Kruger said. Data show Black, Latinx and Indigenous youth are overrepresented within the system nationwide, and a mere 3% of foster youth go on to graduate from college.

“Many helping professionals are exiting out of the field due to the pandemic,” Green said. “These shortages result in limited access to essential services needed for students to succeed. Many still in the profession are working overtime with limited resources and limited funding, resulting in elevated stress levels and increased work demands.

“That's one of the reasons why HEAL is so important — we want qualified helping professionals back in the field providing critical services to youth in foster care.”
Added Kruger: “Foster youth have every obstacle in the world thrown at them and they can come out of this so strong and so successful that it blows my mind. We just have to keep pushing to ensure other people have the tools and the resources necessary to support them.”

New approach

This is the third training grant focused on supporting foster youth led by Green, an expert in improving outcomes for youth in foster care, in collaboration with Kruger. Their TLC and CARES initiatives trained more than 67 scholars.

Past projects focused on training professionals to understand the trauma faced by foster youth. Project HEAL is taking a different approach, promoting wellness and long-term resiliency in culturally responsive ways.

Another new wrinkle is adding future special educators into the mix — important because foster youth are referred into special education at disproportionate rates.

Students on the grant will meet monthly with the grant leaders for a deep dive into how young people move within the foster care system and how best to support them. They will also attend and present at professional conferences and gain fieldwork experience through community non-profit partners Voices for Children and San Diego Center for Children. Select students will have the opportunity to serve as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) through Voices for Children.

“This project aspires to educate people in the field who are working directly with children in foster care,” Kruger said. “And then the hope is through learning, they will then go and help educate the rest of the school staff who maybe have never had any training on how to support and work with this population.”

Soul Work

For the three faculty members on the project, it’s truly a labor of love. Green’s passion for impacting outcomes for foster youth was inspired by her late grandmother Evetis Duren, a devoted foster parent. The project’s logo is a magnolia flower, Duren’s favorite.

Kruger, who graduated from SDSU’s school counseling program, was a student of Green’s and later worked as an advocacy supervisor at Voices for Children and a school counselor where she supported hundreds of youth in the foster care system.

Paz, meanwhile, came through San Diego’s foster care system, noting that she is one of the less than 1% of foster youth who go on to earn a Ph.D.

“This is our soul work,” Paz said. “I think all of us are connected by this thread to want to work with youth in foster care. For me, it's always been wanting to support those who helped foster my own resilience. Working at SDSU and with Dr. Green has enabled me to continue this very important work in a very authentic way.”