Changing the Story: Bold Solutions to Open Pathways for Youth to Education, Jobs & Lifelong Self-Sufficiency
More than 140 representatives of government agencies, nonprofits, academia and business joined Fedcap in New Hampshire on Thursday to address the many barriers that stand between foster care alumni and self-sufficiency.
“The two most important determinants of health are education and employment,” said Dr. Trinidad Tellez, Director of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health & Refugee Affairs/Health Profession Opportunity Project (OMHRA/HPOP).
And yet almost half of foster care alumni are unemployed at age 21, and while 70 percent say they want to go to college, fewer than 10 percent enroll and only 3 percent of them graduate. Rates of teen-age pregnancy, homelessness and incarceration are high. This situation costs American taxpayers billions of dollars in long-term support and entitlement programs; the human costs are tragic and incalculable.
Changing the Story: Bold Solutions to Open Pathways for Youth to Education, Jobs & Lifelong Self-Sufficiency ,a Fedcap Solution Series™ event, was produced in partnership with OMHRA/HPOP and support from the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth & Families (DCYF).
“We’re thrilled to have such a broad range of participants here today – from the child welfare system, providers, businesses, foundations,” said Fedcap President and CEO Christine McMahon. “I’m impressed by all work that OMHRA/HPOP is doing, and I can’t tell you in words how important Maggie Bishop’s leadership of DCYF has been.
Click here to read the New Hampshire Union Leader's coverage of this event.
“Youth in our systems have low academic expectations,” Ms. McMahon said. “Very few are told and believe they can go to college. This trauma really changes the way they feel and view the world around them and has an impact on their ability to lead productive lives.”
This crisis “is about all of us,” New Hampshire State Senator Molly Kelly told the crowd. “If we lose one youth, we all lose.”
“We can’t by ourselves change the lives of every child,” concurred DCYF Director Ms. Bishop. “Help us look at things from a new lens, from the community. No child should leave this system without a permanent family.”
In a moving keynote address, Maureen Beauregard, President and CEO of Families in Transition, a New Hampshire nonprofit that helps homeless individuals and families, related life after she and her four siblings were put into care when she was 6 years old.
“I stayed in [my first] foster home till I was 12 – six years filled with violence and chaos,” she said. “I never told people I was in foster care, I hid it. I said I wanted to go to college, my guidance counselor said you can’t do that. College was something I really, really wanted but, man, was I afraid.
“I often wonder why I made it and so many others didn’t. I want to extend my heart to my brothers and sisters in the child welfare system. You guys are fabulous, awesome, wonderful.”
Then she turned to address the providers in the room: “My story shows that kids are resilient, not bad, just hurt and scared. And there is a difference between surviving and living. You can be a spoke in the wheel that moves kids forward to self-sufficiency.”
“We are here today because the tragic outcomes for foster youth are not acceptable,” said Fedcap Chief Strategy Officer Lorrie Lutz as she opened a discussion among three foster care alumni who made it to college. Sharing their personal stories and discussing what helped and what didn’t, the panelists stressed the need for support which inspires youth in care to reach high and which continues into and all the way through college.
“There is a fundamental difference between kids going to college from home and from the foster care system. You bring all of your baggage with you and it’s a really heavy load,” said Mark Wheeler, who spent five years in care and is now taking a year off from the New England School of Communications.
“I didn’t know what a FAFSA was,” he said. “I didn’t know the difference between a scholarship and a grant. Once you’re in college it’s almost even rougher. The loneliness you can experience in college can be just short of crippling. There’s no one who’s going to care if I get an A or an F.”
“I quietly applied to a college all by myself,” said Lisa Temple, who lived in many foster homes between ages 4 and 18. “I never applied for a grant or a scholarship because I didn’t know they were out there. Ms. Temple got her undergraduate degree in social work at the University of New Hampshire and is now studying for a master’s in Early Childhood Education at Southern New Hampshire University.
“Other kids in college who are struggling call their parents every Sunday and get care packages. You’re just watching them and getting nothing,” she said. “My first summer during college, I had nowhere to live.”
Fatima Plummer was already a young mother when she enrolled in college. “I wanted to spend time with my daughter and get my education,” she said. “Even as an adult it was hard not to have the supports others had. You shouldn’t be discharged from the system when you go to college. You want to have somebody who calls you and says, ‘Give me an update.’”
The panelists stressed the critical importance of ongoing support from caregivers with genuine, continuing interest in each youth as an individual.
“I had a lot of bad experiences with foster parents. I don’t think I would ever believe one of them saying I love you,” said Ms. Temple.
“If you’re not in there to help someone, get out of it and find something else to do. If a foster parent is doing it only for the money, don’t be a foster parent,” said Ms. Plummer.
“We can tell when it’s real and we can tell when it’s fake,” was Mr. Wheeler’s message to youth-welfare workers. “If you’re willing to go the extra mile it can change a kid’s life. You’ve got to care and be invested in them. Their triumphs have to be your triumphs too. There’s no telling where it can lead.”
The panelists’ comments underscored their call for supporters who have been through foster care themselves. To youth still in care, Mr. Wheeler said: “Use all those terrible things you’ve experienced as motivation, as drive. We all have problems to deal with, it’s how we use them. Don’t let fear and doubt stop you from trying and don’t worry about failing. We learn our best lessons from failure.”
Lorraine Bartlett, DCYF Child Protection Administrator, praised the panelists as “champions of hope” as she presented a certificate to Associate Dean John Bunker of the University of New Hampshire College of Health and Human Services in recognition of its contributions and capacity-building in the field of child welfare.
In closing the event, Phyllis Willis, College Coordinator in Fedcap’s Washingtonians for Children™ division and a foster care alumna, challenged the attendees: “Now it rests on each of us to turn these bold ideas to actions that will improve the system and the lives of those it serves.”