Pairing NJ’s foster youth with others who’ve gone through the system
New Jersey youth in foster care now have the option of being guided by someone who's been through the system themselves.
The New Jersey Department of Children and Families has announced the launch of a pilot program that connects youth residing in foster care with trained professional staff that have their own lived experience.
"It's really someone who's walked in their shoes," said Daniela Guarda, assistant director in DCF's Office of Family Preservation and Reunification.
The peer-to-peer mentoring program was envisioned by the DCF Youth Council, which then adapted the "credible messenger" model from a group in New York to develop the EnlightenMENT program here in the Garden State.
New Jersey's credible messengers come from three contracted service providers — Children's Aid and Family Services, Children's Home Society, and Oaks Integrated Care, Inc.
Through the program, youth can connect with the peer navigators themselves, or may be referred by their caregivers, caseworkers, or other support individuals.
According to Guarda, each peer navigator can support 10 youth residing in foster care. A provider agency can serve up to 50 young people at any given time.
"It's difficult to understand everything that is happening, where to turn what to do, and how to advocate for yourself, when you're in the foster care system," said Jordan Ivey, a Youth Council member who's now a peer navigator for the program. "It can feel pretty scary. But now that we have this program created by youth for youth, they will have one of us on their side, someone that they truly connect with, and can actually relate to what they are going through."
The program is running in nine counties for now. It's open to youth ages 14 to 21 in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Essex, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union counties.
The hope is that this test run will produce impacts that result in a statewide rollout of the program, Guarda said.
According to DCF, it's expected that most youth who participate in the program would be involved for about a year. The frequency and duration are flexible depending on the needs of the youth.
At the end of 2022, New Jersey had 2,982 individuals under the age of 21 in out-of-home placement, according to a monthly report from the DCF commissioner. That number has dropped by several thousand over the last two decades.