Fostering Homeless Youth
Lauri Burns grew up in New York as a victim of child abuse. At 14, she was committed to a mental institution where she was tied to a bed in a straightjacket and drugged. She spent 10 years bouncing between juvenile hall and foster homes, and by the age of 19, she had become a heroin addict and street prostitute.
That’s all ancient history.
Now 48, Burns is a corporate executive, a foster mother to 30 foster children and founder of The Teen Project, a nonprofit for homeless youth.
Her street outreach program in Orange County helps more than 200 kids a year and partners with shelters throughout the nation, including many locations in Marin County, San Francisco and the South Bay.
The author of Punished for Purpose: From Out of the Darkness Came a Powerful Healing Light (2010, Savannah Star), Burns spoke with us by phone from her home in Orange County.
She can be reached at 888-4TEENHOME or via her website at www.theteenproject.com/.
Q: You’re called the Teen Whisperer. Why?
A: I love teens. If I had 20 rooms, I’d fill them all with teenagers. And after having raised 30 of them, I’m pretty good. I always start with love and acceptance and agreed-upon rules via a contract and whatever happens from that point forward, we can blame it on the contract.
Q: Tell me about the contract.
A: Whenever a new teenager comes into the house, they have to sign a contract agreeing that they’ll be home by 9 every night and other simple rules. I put in consequences, so we don’t even have to discuss it. So when a child walks in at 9:30, I say, “Oh my God, I don’t believe you missed the 9 o’clock curfew!” Then, I’m empathetic. “Now you have to miss that party. I feel so bad.”
Q: And you get away with that?
A: Excuses are cute and sometimes funny, but they don’t change the contract. Besides, every contract I write has something in it for them.
Q: Such as?
A: If you come in at 9 every night, I’ll change your curfew to 10. I also pay them for grades. We start with $20 for an A, $15 for B, $5 for C and nothing for D or F. That’s how the world works. If we don’t do a good job, we don’t get a raise.
Teens like power and hate when we dictate. They are tuned into WIIFM (What’s in it for me?).
&pagebreaking&Q: How many kids do you have living with you?
A: Four. One is still in foster care; she’s16. One is 19 and just completed foster care. Her mom died of cancer and she lost a lot of school while taking care of her. I have an 18-year-old who was sold into sex trafficking; she was in a teen house, but she needs more nurturing. Plus, I have a girl who graduated out of foster care – she’s 25 – who’s going to school to become a doctor.
Q: It sounds like most of them have already exited the system.
A: There are 25,000 kids released out of foster care every year. Some states allow them to age out at 21. [In California, they exit at age 18.] California has passed AB12 [California Fostering Connections to Success Act, which makes federal funds available until youths turn 21], but it will not be in full force until 2013.
Foster kids are being dumped on the street with nowhere to go. Of all the kids exiting the system, only 3 percent go on to college. Three times that amount go to jail.
Q: Was your daughter ever jealous of all these others kids?
A: I got my first foster child when she was 15, and they fought about everything. If one got a Sprite and the other got a Dr Pepper, they’d have the biggest fight. I think she sometimes felt like she didn’t have enough of me, but that’s changed. She is 29, a social worker in New York and we have a great relationship.
Sara Solovitch is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.