Connecting young people in foster care with a mentor who will stick by them

An interview with Tracy Jenkins, co-executive director of Fair Futures

Center for Fair Futures Co-Executive Director Tracy Jenkins

Center for Fair Futures Co-Executive Director Tracy Jenkins (Image courtesy of Center for Fair Futures)

The more than 6,700 young people in New York City's foster care system, almost all of them Black or Hispanic, are at a disadvantage when it comes to aging out of the system and finding success in education and/or employment. A 2022 report found that only 25% of them finished high school in four years versus 77% for New York City high schoolers overall, while earlier research has found that a large percentage of foster-care alumni are unable to obtain or maintain jobs. 

The disparities are understandable given the discontinuity of loving care and education/career mentorship foster-care youth may experience, especially if they are being shuttled from home to home during their formative adolescent and early adult years. Addressing that discontinuity was the idea behind Fair Futures, a youth-led advocacy movement and coalition of more than 100 organizations and foundations that pairs foster-care youth with long-term one-on-one coaches and other specialists to help them identify and then work toward educational and career goals, including postsecondary degrees and/or meaningful post-high-school work, plus stable housing and social services. In FY2023, the program received its largest annual baseline yet from the city, $30.7 million, to make sure that, starting in middle school, all young people in the city's foster-care system would have access to the program through age 26. Currently, the program serves nearly 4,000 young people – and has launched offshoots in the city's juvenile justice system as well as in Buffalo. To a large extent, the program has universalized a mentoring process that once varied from agency to agency, both in terms of its operational model and its ability to track outcomes.

Ten months ago, the Center for Fair Futures, which runs the program, named as its co-executive director Tracy Jenkins, a Brooklyn native and social worker who, prior, put in 14 years at the JCCA (Jewish Child Care Association), the final ones overseeing a range of academic and youth development programs. The other co-ED is Katie Napolitano.

In an hour-long conversation, Jenkins talked to New York Nonprofit Media about exactly how Fair Futures works to create a long-term, intimate bond with foster-care youth, what the program has accomplished so far and hopes to accomplish going forward, and how she balances her busy job with raising two kids. 

This interview has  been edited for length and clarity.

Tracy, thank you for taking some time out today. Can you start by walking me through what Fair Futures does for a foster-care young person from start to finish?

Sure. There are 25 foster-care agencies in the city, and once young people in the foster-care system are in middle school, they're connected with specialists who are located at those agencies but who are paid, trained and supported by FF. So the specialist will work with the middle-schooler on an array of things, but at the core, they're advocating for the student within the Department of Education, making sure they have everything they need. Eighth grade in particular is so pivotal because they're going into high school, and with that comes a lot of academic, social and emotional challenges, including tests they have to take. The high school application process in New York City is already such a beast. So a specialist works with them one-on-one, but also communicates with people at their school, because they need the advocacy. African-American and Hispanic young people face suspension more than their peers. We want to make sure there's equity within the system.

So once they're in high school, they're connected with a career-development specialist, but the one-on-one FF coach is the glue that really holds it all together and really listens to their wishes and goals. And the coach can stay with them until they're 26. The coach coordinates with key adults in the young person's life, like case planners and managers, and they're there to give them ongoing emotional support and help them with goal-setting. We also connect the young people to tutoring. But what distinguishes us from other mentoring programs is that the coach is really warm, caring and nonjudgmental and lets the young person lead. Every little milestone is celebrated.

And as the young person prepares to transition out of foster care at age 21, we start with the housing piece, which is a real beast in New York City. Applications for housing assistance are one of the most complicated things I've ever seen. So the young people work with a FF housing specialist so that they can not only obtain but maintain housing.

Also, our career development specialists help you figure out your path. We want our young people to be reporters like you and executive directors like me, and they can only get there if they get support with their resumes. We don't want them to just work in jobs that young people in foster care are pushed toward, like being a cashier. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but we want them to go to college if that's what they want and then to go into things like architecture and IT.

Can you tell a few stories to bring the program to life?

A few of our young people who were coached within FF were so passionate about what the program did for them that, after college, they became FF coaches themselves. Another young lady who now has a coach and also interns with us—she was couch-surfing and really struggling to find permanent stable housing, but her coach, who is like a big sister to her, never gave up, answered her calls at four in the morning, and walked her through the process of securing a New York City housing voucher, then going with her to every appointment to look at apartments, sitting with her through the interview process. That young woman just moved into her own apartment in Brooklyn. And FF was also able to help her secure furniture. We have a lot of housing stories like that.

And education-wise, prior to FF, a lot of young people in foster care were going to high school but not necessarily the best ones—and now they are.

Can you explain what FF calls its baseline funding of $30.7 million?

That money comes directly from the city's ACS [Administration for Children's Services] via the City Council, and it goes to all 25 agencies to have the FF program model built in. "Baseline" means that that annual funding is secured for the next few years, so that we don't have to advocate anew for it every year.

You have a central staff of 15 and 500 coaches. How do you get the coaches and what qualifications do they need?

The coaches are hired by the individual agencies. Some of them have bachelor or master's degrees in social work, but you don't have to—but you have to have experience working with young people and know how to engage them. And we give those coaches lots of training and technical support. We run trainings almost every day.

As for housing, a big issue recently has been city agencies being too understaffed to process housing applications in a timely manner, creating a backlog, and also not being as technically streamlined about the process as it could be. Are you seeing that?

One-hundred percent. There needs to be better collaboration among all the city agencies. Currently, once you fill out an application, the waitlist is three to five years. That's not sustainable for young people who are aging out of foster care. They end up in shelters and other places not up to standards.

Please tell us about expanding the FF program to Buffalo.

It's a smaller city, obviously, so we have four coaches there. We replicated everything we do here in New York City but tailored it to Buffalo's different population and administrative landscape. But it's going well. The staff there is actually coming to New York City next week for training and to attend our holiday party.

And your juvenile justice offshoot?

We've expanded the FF model to young people who are impacted by the juvenile justice system in New York City. We work with 10 provider agencies involved in programs called Close to Home and MAPP. We launched this program in April and so far have 125 young people paired with coaches.

By "impacted by the juvenile justice system," do you mean incarcerated?

Yes and no. MAPP is a preventive mentoring program for young people who've had some involvement with the juvenile justice system. And Close to Home serves young people who reside  in limited secure, or low-incarceration, facilities that are not Rikers.

Can you talk a little bit about the emotional needs of young people in the foster-care system and how FF addresses that?

A lot of the coaching model is about forming trusting relationships with young people who have not always had people stick by them consistently. For young people in the system, the trauma of being removed from their initial home in the first place is followed by the additional trauma of having so many people, like case managers, move in and out of their lives, or going from home to home. When anyone new comes in their life, they're very hesitant to open up and form a relationship with them. So it takes skill, trust and time for our coaches to be able to do that. We have a 90-day engagement period—that's the least amount of time it takes to engage a young person, in which you're mainly listening to their goals, aspirations and struggles. 

What percent of your coaches are of color?

I think it’s about 75% but I don’t have the exact figure. [Ed. Note: Later, reps for FF said they deliberately did not collect this data. Jenkins also noted that the coaches are not employed directly by FF.]

What has been your own trajectory bringing you to the head of FF?

I grew up in Clinton Hill in the eighties and nineties, before it was the new and expensive Clinton Hill. I went to A. Philip Randolph High School in Harlem, then Brooklyn College, then got my masters in social work from Fordham. My first job was working for ACS as a child protective specialist, investigating abuse and neglect cases. I was there for two years. It was one of the most impactful and hardest jobs I've ever had.


Mostly all of the cases I investigated were of Black and brown families. Being a Black woman, that was difficult, because a lot of the cases people were calling in had background issues, like families not having proper food in their home. If you look at generational and systemic trauma, what parents carry down to children, you realize that other interventions could've been put in place instead of calling cases in on people. The current commissioner of ACS, Jess Dannhauser, has been tremendous in pinpointing this issue and educating schools to look deeper into why they're making calls to ACS, and whether something else could be done. So the fact that I was a Black woman having to do these investigations on people who look like me and grew up like me—

It sounds like you saw just how clearly the problems were not parent- or family-specific, but about systemic disparities. 

Correct. Then I worked for JCCA for 14 years, starting as an entry-level social worker and, in the last four years, as vice president of leadership education and achievement pathways, overseeing all their academic and youth development programs.

What did you learn there that is most useful to you now?

I realized the value of the support I received there, having really good supervisors who guided and pushed me. I really saw how, specifically, Black women need support and coaching, the tools and resources to be able to advance. So now I love to develop people in general, but I have a real passion for developing Black women within the child welfare community and helping them grow—giving them the tools they need to break those ceilings.

Okay, great. So is it accurate to say that a major thing FF has done is take all these different agencies' disparate mentorship programs for young people in foster care and bound them into one coherent program?

Yes. Of course every agency has their own HR department, training department, and case managers, but they're not doing their own individual mentoring alongside ours.

What is a typical day like for you?

After a lifetime in New York City, I've lived in Westchester the past year with my husband and two kids ages eight and 12. I get up on average around six and get the kids ready and off to school, then I'm either working from home starting at 7:30 or, if I have a lot of in-person meetings, I'm coming into the city, to our office downtown, and get there by nine. Most of my day is meetings related to my support and implementation of the FF model. But I'm also strategically planning for the Center for Fair Futures in terms of funding, HR and IT.

Do you take breaks to eat or walk and clear your head?

I'm getting better at that. Westchester is beautiful so I can walk and do work calls at the same time. I would be walking while doing this call if I were working from home today. But I say I'm getting better at it because, particularly as Black women in these positions, we always want to make sure that we're putting our best foot forward and going above and beyond. 

Can you talk more about being a Black woman in a position like this? What is most challenging? Do you encounter either overt or subtle bias?

Yes, in the sense that there's not a lot of people who look like me in positions like this, so it's hard sometimes for people to interact with someone who's different [from what they're used to or expecting]. But in terms of work-life balance, I also have to make sure I'm making time for my children and my husband. There's always something lagging or lacking, so I've had to be easy on myself and give myself a lot of grace.

When does your workday end?

The first wrap is when my kids come home in the evening. Then I'm a mother making dinner and helping with the homework and talking with them about their day, or having fun with them watching TV. I've had to learn how to do that, and it's been a soul-cleanser. When they go to bed, I often go back to work.

What's been most challenging about the new job so far?

Transitioning from JCCA, a large agency where we had directors for HR, comms and development. Now I play all those roles. I'm HR, I'm IT and I'm operations and finance, even though I have a co-executive director. It's such a learning experience for me.

What's been most joyous about the job so far?

Being able to innovative ways to fill gaps in the system, whether it's access to culturally appropriate mental health services, or services for young people graduating from high school who don't know what they want to do and need a year to figure that out, or the ones who want to be entrepreneurs but don't know financial management. I love supporting different programs in those areas and I'm very proud of the programs I've started in the past ten months.

What are your goals for the program over the next three years?

I'd love to see the FF model help every young person in New York City who is in the foster care or the juvenile justice system—to see every one of them with a coach and a specialist. I'd also love to see the FF model expanded outside of foster care and juvenile justice. What would that look like for young people not in those systems? What would it look like in schools at the Children's Center? With families receiving preventive services? And I'd like to expand FF to other cities and states as well.

Tim Murphy is a New York City based journalist and regular contributor to New York Nonprofit Media. 

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