Crossing over: LINC advocates help aging foster children, former juvenile offenders bloom as adults

Dillon Spradley

Dillon Spradley

He’d crossed so many rivers of pain,

foster teen Dillon Spradley wasn’t sure what he needed when LINC youth advocate Devon Robinson first appeared in the doorway of his guardian’s apartment.

If need be, “Miss Robinson” says about those face-to-face moments with older foster youth, “I can be grandma. I can be the crazy aunt . . . I want to get them talking to me.”

Who would she be now?

Her eyes fell on Spradley, then a 14-year-old who’d been separated from his mother upon her arrest when he was 12, who then fled his Kansas City Northland shelter and walked alone for a day on the shoulder of Interstate 35 in a wandering despair.

Spradley, now 21, remembers who he was then — too shy, expelled from school, unconfident, aimless.

His eyes went to Robinson’s notable hair, and Robinson knew it.

“I,” she declared grandly, “am your afro caseworker!”

The 14-year-old laughed: “What?”

There are so many small details in what LINC’s team of six youth advocates do to help hundreds of Missouri teens who are transitioning from foster care or from the state’s juvenile justice system into adulthood and independence.

And they are important details, like school supplies, tuition aid, life skills training, budgeting, driver’s education, job searching, help with utilities, housing . . .

But just as important is being precisely the person a teen needs in a moment in time.

That’s what Mark Hash, a LINC youth advocate, hoped to be when he rushed to a hospital rehabilitation wing after one of the court-involved teens on his caseload was crippled by a gunshot through his spine.

The boy was a quiet teenager who never opened up much about his thoughts or fears, Hash recalled. But he saw his advocate appear at his hospital bedside — and the teen said, “Hold my hand.”

LINC has been managing the transitions of teens aging out of foster care since 2007 and for teens from the juvenile justice system since 2011, and now helps some 680 youths during a year — many of whom have endured trauma and felt lost to the world.

Some results are tangible. In 2019 the program had 211 youths in school, 94 were employed and 63 received high school diplomas or equivalent degrees.

Other benefits are harder to measure, but help change lives, Hash said.

“We validate” the journeys the teens have traveled, Hash said. “Some of these kids haven’t had someone in their corner. It helps that they know someone sees what’s going on.”

The resilience of a child latches onto the comforting idea of a mentor, he said.

The “integrity of being present,” Hash said, “is more powerful than we know.”

National alarm

States began looking for better ways to help teens in the 1990s when concern grew nationwide that social services were struggling to prepare troubled youth for adulthood, said Steve Winburn, head of LINC’s youth transitions programming.

Federal legislation, named after longtime youth advocate U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, boosted the resources provided to the states.

Social service agencies were combatting alarming statistics. The 20,000 youths nationwide leaving foster care each year were at high risk of mental illness, including post traumatic stress disorder. They were unlikely to complete their education and showed high rates of unemployment, homelessness and dependence on public assistance.

LINC had partnered with Missouri’s Children’s Division on several initiatives over the years, and when the state in 2007 put out a bid for help in running the transitions programming, LINC took on the work.

The LINC advocates stepped in as allies to support the important work of the state caseworkers, Winburn said, helping them better serve so many children in need.

“We started with one kid,” Winburn said, “and grew from there.”

What kind of help does the transition program offer teens?

Spradley knows. He learned first-hand when Robinson plied him with a checklist of things they were going to tackle together.

It was daunting. He had some motivation difficulties at the start, he said.

Get a state ID, a driver’s learning permit, start driving lessons, prep for job searching, get a bank account, start saving, get a driver’s license . . .

Just their first project — get school right — was too much at first for a kid without a motivating force in his life.

“But Miss Robinson,” Spradley said, invoking the image of his tutor with a snap of his fingers and a firm taskmaster’s point, “she was that figure.”

Will I live through the night?

Spradley keeps some of the pain of his past to himself, but he was very close to his mother and an older brother and sister. And all of them were separated, after several days on the run, when police found them and arrested his mother when he was 12.

He wasn’t sure what he was doing when he fled the youth shelter where police took him that day. He had another relative’s house in mind, somewhere back near downtown. He had a water bottle but no food as he walked for hours southbound alongside the rushing interstate highway.

“I didn’t know if I would live through the night,” he said.

The relative turned him in and — though Spradley considered fleeing again — his long road to recovery began at the shelter, then in a good foster home. He was able to reunite with his mother when he was 16, but she died of cancer that year.

Robinson helped him through it, he said. “She was there for me the entire time I was grieving. She said, ‘You can call me, it doesn’t matter what time it is.’ “

For Robinson, the youth advocacy work “is a ministry to me.”

She got into it after age 40, knowing from years as a single mother what a helping hand can mean to a family.

“I’ve had so much help,” she said. “How could I not help?”

She finished her college degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and took on work as a substitute teacher at an alternative middle school in Kansas City Public Schools.

Some people were concerned, saying, “You’re working with the bad kids?” she said.

“But I loved the kids,” she said. “They’re just kids. That’s when I got hooked.”

She knew her checklist was a lot for Spradley to take in. He didn’t even know yet that she was also planning eventually to push him to give college a try.

“Our job is to help them be successful,” she said. “Get them to stretch. They may not think they can do college, but why not try? Let’s try. I will help you.”

Can’t watch the news

The work comes with emotional risks.

The youths from juvenile court that Hash helps often have to figure out how to deal with difficult home and neighborhood situations that led them into trouble in the first place.

The youth advocates are trying to help them transition from the structured life in the Division of Youth Services.

Their advocates teach them life skills and help them find safe housing, but the youths often re-encounter people tangled in substance abuse or other risky behaviors.

“Sometimes there have been generations of poor choices,” Hash said. “That can be hard to run alongside.”

The office that Hash shares with other youth advocates displays a pair of small memorials to two teenagers who were lost to Kansas City’s gun violence.

Robinson is pained by a teenage girl she helped who was killed.

“You do get attached to kids,” she said. “You get to the point you don’t want to watch the news.”

Spradley went from being a young teen who didn’t know if he would survive the night to a college student eyeing a degree in engineering. He’s going to Metropolitan Community Colleges-Penn Valley, with plans to continue at UMKC.

“I never thought I’d go to college,” he said. “I didn’t like school.”

But the LINC programming helped him find his confidence. He became president of the Kansas City area Youth Advisory Board and joined the state board. He was part of the crowd on Youth Advocacy Day at the Capitol in Jefferson City in 2017, meeting legislators and their staffs.

All these things finally seemed real to him in the spring of 2018 when he walked across the stage in East High School’s graduation ceremony at the UMKC Swinney Recreation Center.

He wished his mother could see him — feeling joy he had thought wasn’t possible.

“The day I got my diploma,” he said, “I knew no matter how hard life was, or how hard I made it seem, now that I was doing this, I can do anything if I commit to it and accomplish it.”

Keeping the light on

At some point, every one of the advocates’ cases gets discharged, Winburn said. The teenagers grow into their 20s and they age out of the program.

But like good parents, the advocates are still there, a phone call away, text or email, always happy to receive a visitor.

The LINC advocates can’t spend any more program dollars on their graduates, Winburn said, but they can pass on tips — a good car mechanic who will give them a deal, a great place to get furniture, or just some good advice.

They’re on their own, just like Winburn’s own children are on their own, he said.

“But they still call.”

By Joe Robertson, LINC writer

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