In 2019, Underdog Dreams partnered with Move Live Learn to conduct an 8-week (24-session) course for children living in group homes, designed to improve physical activity levels, healthy eating, practical life skills, social emotional skills, and understanding of how to make choices that enhance wellness. 

Background

Florida is one of few states that have fully privatized their states welfare systems. 16 years after fully implemented statewide privatization, Florida’s child welfare system is still plagued with large caseloads, child death, poor physical and mental health, and dismal educational outcomes.

 

With lead agencies (CBC) contracting out services and managing more than 500 subcontractors, services as well as the converging systems involved (courts, schools, etc.) are often siloed. Additionally, foster parents, child welfare professionals, judges, teachers, mental health providers and mentors are often inadequately prepared to provide evidenced based interventions needed to improve outcomes and promote resiliency among foster youth and families.​

 

Even when families receive services, those services might not address the parental issues and social determinants of health that led to child welfare intervention well enough to improve the environment in which children are being raised and nurtured.

The idea to form the team came from Underdog Dreams Founder, Derrick Stephens, LCSW, MBA. Having been through the foster care system in his youth, he was uniquely able to bridge the lived experience with those of us wanting to make a change to the current foster care system approach and outcomes.

Derrick knew that the best approach would be to form a multidisciplinary team to adequately tackle this Wicked Problem from multiple dimensions. Therefore, he recruited a team clinicians equipped for working with youth experiencing trauma. This included Slyving Bourdeau, LCSW, a clinical social worker, Asha Davis, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and telemedicine practitioner; Annette Bell, MD, a family medicine physician with emergency room expertise; and Catherine Drew, PhD, a psychologist already utilizing the use of telehealth to reach those with less mental health accessibility.

The team applied for Clinical Scholars, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and was awarded $525,000 over 3 years to identify, implement, and confirm how engagement and intervention in the lives of foster youth can improve real-life, long-term quality of life outcomes for them. Additional funding has been provided by various organizations including Foster Care Month Celebration and Fundraiser and Microsoft Hackathon “Best Pitch”

 

The Problem

More than 400,000 children are living in foster care in the United States with another 7.5 million being involved in reports to child protective services. As of July 2019, 23,374 children and youth were residing in Florida’s foster care system. Foster care includes all children who have been removed from their homes due to neglect, drug abuse and many other contributing factors.

Approximately 7% of Florida's foster youth will also age out of foster care. Research has shown that those who leave care without being linked to forever families have a higher likelihood than youth in the general population to experience homelessness, unemployment and incarceration as adults. 

Trauma-exposed children and youth are at higher risk for experiencing a constellation of difficulties across the life span, including externalizing or acting-out behavior problems, emotional and behavior regulation challenges, attachment disorders, and a range of mental health issues which both encompass and transcend our current understanding of posttraumatic stress reactions.

 

Studies have shown that more than 90% of foster youth in the child welfare system experience trauma compared to 70% of children and youth nationally. Trauma exposed children and youth are at higher risk for experiencing a host of difficulties throughout life. Kaiser Permanente’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study found a strong relationship between exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood and multiple health risk factors later in life.

 

In 2016, the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) for the state of Florida Department of Children and Families found that the state was not in substantial conformity with meeting the educational, physical and mental health needs of children being served in Florida.

Evidence Based Strategies & Programs our team has implemented:

 

Partnerships and Programs

In 2016, Underdog Dreams partnered with First Star Academy of Central Florida, our agencies engaged youth ages 15-17 participating in an intensive residential summer academic program held at the University of Central Florida. Interventions included psychosocial education, life skill training, and experiential learning. Youth engagement ranged from classes focused on understanding signs and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to a trip to North Carolina to explore the roots of structural inequality. Students also participated in the development of a video to pitch concepts on how the Microsoft HoloLens can innovate the Child Welfare system and improve long-term outcomes.

 

Youth in foster care are at significantly elevated risk for a host of emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical health problems as compared to their peers. One risk factor for poor outcomes is lack of access to consistent and prevention-focused services, as healthcare in the foster system is often siloed and crisis-oriented. Programs that provide these young people with skills and strategies to improve their health and wellbeing can mitigate the risk of chronic physical and mental illness.

In 2019, Underdog Dreams partnered with Move Live Learn to conduct an 8-week (24- session) course for children living in group foster care housing, designed to improve physical activity levels, healthy eating behaviors, practical life skills, social emotional skills, and understanding of how to make choices that enhance wellness. With IRB approval for this research study, we performed assessments before and after the program to evaluate the hypothesis that these sessions will improve the participants’ health status. The objective of this research was to evaluate the hypothesis that an evidence-based program —consisting of 24 sessions designed to improve physical activity levels and perceptions of physical activity, functional life skills (i.e., communication, nutrition education), and social emotional learning skills (i.e., coping strategies, decision making)— will improve the sense of community and health status of youth living in a residential foster care setting.

Future Vision and Initiatives

 

Underdog Dreams intends to continue building on lessons learned over the past years while working with youth and families with lived and living experience. We will continue to make strides in;

  • Establishing corporate partnerships to develop and launch innovative applications to enhance foster youth educational outcomes and close the achievement gap.

  • Launching Podcast Fall 2021 to center foster youth by providing content, education, and opportunities that will motivate youth to amplify their voices and prepare them to navigate their unique foster care journey.

  • Innovating evidence based practices and leveraging technology to enhance continuity of care and outcomes for the youth and families we serve.

  • Expand telemedicine, cognitive testing and behavioral health services to youth and families. 

  • Expand Underdog Dreams 8-week Foster Youth Fitness Curriculum to larger coverage areas. 

However, drawing from the voices of the youth we recognize the importance of incorporating emerging trends that have presented themselves as pressing priorities such as;

  • Access to Covid-19  education and vaccination 

  • Enhanced life skill  and social emotional health training

  • Transitioning to adulthood

  • Access to technology such as virtual reality, Wi-Fi and cell phones in a post covid-19 world.

What We've Done So Far...

  • Formalized memorandum of understanding (MOU) with community partners; First Star Central Florida Academy (FSCFA), University of Central Florida (UCF) and Community Based Care of Central Florida (CBCCF).

  • Hosted Foster Care Month Celebration & Fundraiser Event at Topgolf Orlando which highlighted the $42,000 sponsorship of underdog DREAMS to FSCFA. 

  • Facilitated four (4) Poverty Simulations with UCF College of Education and Human Performance and City Year Orlando. 

  • Presented at the National Council on Family Relations Conference, UCF Urban Education Leadership Summit, Florida Public Health Association Conference (Most Innovative award) and Valencia College. 

  • Facilitated experiential learning trips to Washington, DC, North Carolina and Puerto Rico with FSCFA foster youth. Activities ranged from educating Florida representatives to Congress, attending structural inequality workshops, and completing community service projects. 

  • Created and facilitated the underdog DREAMS Job Readiness & Leadership Boot Camp, a preparatory program for CBC Central Florida foster youth who were embarking on a summer employment opportunity. 

  • Used technology to partner with remote professionals such as those at CRD Associates, 120 Design Studio and Armstrong, Fleming & Moore to deliver innovative and engaging curriculum to youth. 

  • Formalized MOU with Move Live Learn to conduct a research study, underdog DREAMS: A physical activity program focused on life skills and social emotional health for deserving youth in foster care. 

  • Spoke to attendees at the 2019 National County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) Annual Conference as part of the Exhibitor TED Talks