Making a Difference With Youth Mentors


Published: April 18, 2004 in the New York Times

TAQUIOYA CAUSEY is 16 years old and has lived in at least 12 foster homes. She said that she couldn’t remember her father’s voice, and that her mother, a substance abuser, abandoned Taquioya and her older brother Kevin in Westbury six years ago.

In such circumstances, it would surprise no one if Taquioya were a troubled teenager, with problems at home and at school. Instead, she is an honor student at St Brigid’s, a Roman Catholic high school in Westbury, dividing her time between basketball practices three nights a week and working to keep a high grade point average.

Taquioya rarely talks to her mother and is not close to her foster mother, with whom she has lived for the last three years. But after years of feeling abandoned by adults, there is a person Taquioya does feel close to: her mentor, Laura Bonacasa.

Ms. Bonacasa, 43, a hair stylist and mother of two daughters 18 and 20, was introduced toTaquioya through the Nassau County Department of Social Services’ mentoring program. ”We clicked,”Taquioya said of Ms. Bonacasa. ”I talked to her about everything from home, basketball, guys, friends.” They meet once a week for pizza or ice cream.

The mentoring program has matched 23 foster care children with mentors. Each pairing is expected to get together for at least two hours a week. Most volunteers far exceed that limit, said Karen Garber, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services.

Ms. Bonacasa said about Taquioya: ”I am not her teacher, caseworker, foster mother or therapist. I am there to help and listen.”

Taquioya said many of her friends in foster homes mistrusted adults and were skeptical of mentors. ”A lot of people think it’s like parents, people who just want to run your life,” she said. But the mentoring program, she said, brings the hope of finally having an adult to rely on. ”My other friends, they don’t see things the way I see it,” Taquioya said.

The commissioner of social services, Bob Sherman, said the mentoring program grew out of a perception that many foster care youths benefit from a one-on-one relationship separate from their foster families. ”Our foster parents do an excellent job, but until permanency is established for that child, our children really have a need for a nurturing relationship,” Mr. Sherman said.

Prospective foster parents are screened for compatibility and are expected to have a caring, nurturing attitude toward youths placed with them, but the fact remains that foster parents are paid to take children into their homes. The average Department of Social Services payment for care of a teenage foster child is $626 a month, and for special-needs children can go as high as $1,500, Ms. Garber said.

More than 430 youths between 14 and 21 are in foster care in Nassau County, Ms. Garber said, adding that while they are always looking for more mentors, the hard part is finding compatible pairs. Jean Cohen, executive director of the Mentoring Partnership of Long Island, a private nonprofit agency that recruits and trains mentors for the Department of Social Services, said there were more than 5,800 youths in mentoring programs of various kinds on Long Island.

John Driscoll, a youth counselor with the Department of Social Services, volunteers in its mentoring program. He is trying to help Robert Viana, a 16-year-old in foster care, find a suitable foster home on Long Island.

Ms. Garber said that Robert, originally from Massapequa, had been in foster care group homes since he was 8. His two older brothers were adopted by a foster family, but Robert was rejected for adoption by the same family because the family found him defiant. He was placed in successive group homes on Long Island and the New York area. Still his aggressive behavior continued. Finally, five months ago he was transferred to a group foster care center for adolescents in Delaware.

Mr. Driscoll said that at the beginning of their relationship 18 months ago, Robert, who has attention deficit disorder, was aggressive and rude to teachers and peers. Mr. Driscoll tried to help Robert organize his thoughts by playing checkers with him and trading Pokémon cards. He also taught Robert some automobile and bicycle repair. Soon, Mr. Driscoll said, he noticed Robert’s self-esteem start to improve. Robert, who has just made the honor roll, continues to speak to Mr. Driscoll every week.

”He says, ‘I love you, I wish you were my dad,”’ Mr. Driscoll said.

”He is trying to help me become a better person,” Robert said. ”He hangs out with me. He understands my feelings.”

When Robert can manage his behavior, Nassau County will be able to place him in a local foster home, Ms. Garber said.

Diana Schifilliti, Robert’s caseworker, said: ”Basically the one thing Robert has wanted is a family. What I have seen is that his mentor is his family.”