Anatomy of a Win for Foster Kids

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The first time I set foot in my present place of employment – Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, Vt. – was to interview for the executive director position in November 2002. During the 90-minute interview, several board members and staffers said such things as, “How important it is to get kids ready by age 18,” and “Age 18 comes up very fast, and kids don’t realize that.”

Puzzled, I finally interrupted and asked, “What is the sense of urgency around age 18?” One of the social workers answered, “Foster care ends at 18 in this state.”

I leaned back and said, “You know, I hope you hire me for this job, but even if you don’t, you have to change that law.”

I said that because I had previously worked in Connecticut, which funds foster care services up to age 23, and New York, which does the same up to age 21. I was stunned to discover that Vermont, a state far ahead of the rest of the country in so many areas – such as having the lowest high school dropout rate and the highest percentage of low-income children and families covered by health insurance – would have a backward-thinking policy in this area.

I got the job, and within a few months I began talking to fellow service provider executives around the state about changing the practice of cutting off foster youth at age 18. Everyone agreed that it was a failed policy, because there was no way foster youth were ready for independence by their 18th birthdays.

“I have an 18-year-old of my own who is an honor student in his high school,” was my frequent refrain, “and I doubt he would fare very well if I asked him to make it on his own right now.”

Another effective pitch was this: “How many students graduate at age 21 or 22 from the University of Vermont, one of the highest-rated public colleges in the nation, and go back to live with their families because they are not ready for independent living? But we ask foster youth who are 18, who maybe have a high school diploma, with few or no marketable job skills, to make it on their own? No wonder 36 percent of the adult prisoners in this state were once in foster care, and 25 percent of the homeless young adults we shelter were once in custody but aged out at 18.”

People would nod and say, “You’re right, you’re right.” I got some buzz going when I wrote an op-ed article about the issue in the Burlington Free Press in 2003.

Still, nothing changed. A year passed, then another. Foster kids were still being discharged at 18, the adult prison population continued to increase, and former foster youth still showed up at our shelter looking for a place to live.

People would tell me, “Forget it Mark, it’s not going to happen. There are too many competing needs in the state budget. Just get yourself used to the fact that while your arguments hold water, there just isn’t the political momentum or will to get this done.”

Frustrated, I sat down with a lobbyist who was on the board of another youth-serving nonprofit. “What you have to do,” she said, “is systematically go around to every coalition group in this state that has anything to do with adolescents, and convince them that this has to be one of their top priorities.”

That set off a series of steps:

• I created a list of groups and contacted each one, asking to meet with them to discuss this issue. All agreed, and I convinced another executive director to spend the next few months addressing them with me.

• Then I met with the speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives. She read the op-ed, then ran through a list of legislators I should meet with on the issue. So I started doing that, too.

• I met with an advocacy group, Voices for Vermont’s Children. Voices agreed to make the issue a top priority on its legislative agenda, and worked to get me speaking time before the right legislative committees.

After more than two years, it all came together a few months ago, when a bill was introduced extending the age for foster care services to 22. Then Gov. Jim Douglas (R) announced in his budget address that he was recommending funds for that proposal.

On June 6, Douglas signed the bill at Spectrum – in the very building in which I had been interviewed almost five years ago.