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GREENSBORO, N.C. – The Guilford County Department of Social Services (DSS) reports a sharp 27 percent increase in the number of young adults—primarily males—whom need the services of a program known as Adult Guardianship, or "adult foster care."

In Adult Guardianship, DSS receives appointment by a clerk of court as the guardian of an individual, whose assets and care thereby become the responsibility of DSS.

"Adult guardianship used to be a program for the elderly. When you got old, if you didn't have family to care for you, then the Department of Social Services would become your guardian," explained Guilford Co. DSS Assistant director Steve Hayes.

"What we're seeing now is that there are many more young people who need guardianship, and it's coming because of mental health reform," Hayes said.

Guilford Co. DSS social worker and adult guardian Mitch McGee explained since the launch of the nationwide mental health reform in 2008, mental health care has taken a more than $4 billion federal and state funding cut. Therefore, public mental health agencies—including several in the Piedmont Triad—have had to condense available services.

But, mental health reform is not the only factor McGee believes is fueling the number of young adults who are unwanted or unable to be cared for by their families. He said all too frequently, he sees his own cases attributed to economic or family troubles.

"Sometimes, there's no family close by. Sometimes, DSS has become the guardian because of possible exploitation or neglect by the family. DSS is supposed to be the guardian of last resort—that means, if there's no family or a close friend that's ready and willing to do that role."

As one of only seven social workers in Guilford County's Adult Guardianship, McGee has been fulfilling such a role for 50 of the 246 individuals currently in the program as "wards" of the county. Though McGee is humble in admitting his job's accomplishments, Adult Guardianship wards Johnny Hughes and Anthony Steele are quick to credit McGee with helping better their lives.

McGee says Hughes is mentally challenged and has been in and out of foster care since he was a child. Steele is admittedly a former drug user who says he committed crimes—including car theft—until he was injured in a serious accident that eventually landed him in the Adult Guardianship program.

Of the program, Steele said, "It really did (save my life) 'cause I was going down. Going down. And I was going down real bad. It's a god thing, the guardianship. But you gotta be strong. You gotta be strong. You can't just say oh well and drop your head. You've just got to pick your head up and go ahead on."

Hayes said he does not believe there is currently a feasible federal or state solution to the increasing number of young adults needing Adult Guardianship. But, he offered the community a suggestion.

He said, "I'll tell you something you can do as an individual. You can become a friend and supporter of a young person who is mentally ill or of a family, who is caring for a young person, who may just need a break."

He added, "You know what I really think the solution is, is if we believe that every citizen has a right to live in their community and to receive the services that they need in their community. Then, this is something that needs a community response."

Financially restricted by an annual federal block grant of approximately $358,314 (which includes client transportation and social workers' salaries), Adult Guardianship has little extra money with which to purchase new clothing and supplies for the program clients.

Hayes advised Triad families who wish to help to contribute cash or check donations to:

Silver Bells c/o Welfare Reform Liaison Project

2601 Greengate Drive

Greensboro, NC 27406

Call Guilford Co. DSS at 336-641-3007 for more information about this program and other opportunities by which individuals can volunteer to assist social workers.

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