Out of Care and Into the Fire: Foster Youth Need More Support on Path to Independence

Apurva Mehrotra

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the words “foster care” were synonymous with high profile cases of abuse and neglect and a city struggling amidst a crack epidemic that was tearing entire communities apart. Today, the foster care system is in a better place. But are the young people in the system any better off?

Unfortunately, outcomes for foster youth in New York are so poorly tracked that it is difficult to say. This in itself is telling. However, studies conducted in various parts of the country reveal abysmal outcomes for foster youth, particularly those who “age out,” exiting the system as independent adults without having been reunited with their parents or adopted by another family.

The poor outcomes for foster youth are why Community Service Society has joined with the Children’s Aid Society and organizations across the state to advocate on behalf of the roughly 20,000 children in the foster care system in the state of New
York. We want to ensure that when these young people age out, they will do so with the necessary skills to live promising, independent lives.

Our first goal is to make it easier for foster youth to attend and succeed in college.  In 2012, there were over 4,000 foster youth age 18 or older who either exited the system or remained in care. By piecing together data from various sources, we found that fewer than 1 in 4 college-age foster and former foster youth in New York attend college. Given the increasing need for some post-secondary education to get a decent paying job, it is imperative that more foster youth participate and succeed in higher education.

Young people we spoke with across the state identified two major reasons for the low rates of college enrollment among foster youth: 1.) a financial aid system that is too complex and fails to cover the cost of attending college and 2.) a lack of knowledge of
programs and services that can help students succeed once they are on campus.

Other states do better. Twenty-one have policies that completely cover tuition expenses for foster youth. In Texas and Florida, young people in care simply need to provide proper paperwork to the college they are attending to be exempt from paying tuition. This simplifies the financial aid process and makes it so young people can use other forms of aid for college-related expenses, such as housing, books, and transportation.

And states around the country are doing a better job of ensuring that foster youth have access to resources that will help them succeed once they are on campus. In California, at each of the over 100 community and technical colleges in the state, there is a foster care liaison who can guide students to appropriate resources. Other states have interactive websites that help foster youth navigate the application and
enrollment process while also providing contact information for resources at colleges.

In New York, foster youth are forced to cobble together financial aid from a variety of sources, which adds to their perception that the process of applying for college is too complex, that they can’t afford it, and that they may be better off preparing for aging out of the system by finding a job and saving money. On campus, foster youth are often unaware of programs that can assist them with the adjustment to college. A great caseworker or knowledgeable agency staff can make all the difference—but no system or standards ensure that every child in foster care has access to the help they need.

The Youth in Care Coalition will launch its campaign on May 13th in Albany in the hopes of beginning a serious discussion on how the state can make college graduation a realistic and obtainable goal for youth in foster care. New York can and should do more to ensure that some of the most vulnerable young people in the state can move out of foster care with the tools they need to succeed.

 

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