For years, the child welfare system in America has focused on the most urgent needs of the children it served, making sure they’re safe, with enough food to eat and clean clothes to wear, while striving to achieve permanent placement.
Although those are crucial first steps, they are not enough and never have been. We need to think about the well-being of these children more broadly and give them the tools they’ll need to succeed in life. But for most, education, the best path out of poverty, will prove elusive.
Each year, more than 250,000 children in the United States enter the foster care system. While many will eventually be reunited with their families or adopted, about 10 percent will “age out” when they reach 18 or 21, depending on the state they live in, and suddenly be on their own.
More often than not, they’ll enter adulthood without the tools to live independently. As a result, one in four will be incarcerated within two years. One in five will become homeless. Only half will graduate from high school by the age of 18 and less than 3 percent will graduate from college. And too many of them will move from the child welfare system to the criminal justice system.
The New York Foundling, along with a number of other organizations across the country, is working to develop programs to improve these statistics.
One such program, Road to Success, provides tutors, specially trained by The Foundling, to work with students, many of whom have struggled with trauma or abandonment issues. They meet weekly in the foster home or somewhere nearby, lowering the chances of “no shows,” and the tutors often become one of the most stable and important relationships in these children’s lives.
And these interventions are working. Among children in our care, the high school graduation rate has increased from 34 percent to 55 percent. Students in grades seven to 11 were promoted to the next grade 91 percent of the time. The number of high school graduates enrolling in four-year colleges has quadrupled. Eighty-eight percent have continued working with their tutors after aging out of foster care.
When one 11th grader, who had good grades and attendance, began cutting school and was on the verge of dropping out, she caught the attention of one of The Foundling’s education specialists. The student explained: “I can’t pass the standardized tests,” and said she thought she would be better off getting a GED. Ultimately convinced to go back to school and try the tutoring program, she passed all her tests within four months. She has now finished her first semester of college.
Certainly, we’re not alone. Here in New York and around the country, programs like the SLAM Justice Scholars program of Graham Windham, First Star Academies, Center for Foster Success at Western Michigan University and the College Readiness Program of United Friends of the Children in Los Angeles, are making tremendous strides. What all these organizations have in common are a few basic guiding principles:
- Youth must be connected with a caring adult who will be a consistent presence in their lives. These young people’s lives are characterized by displacement and a lack of permanency — a tutor or mentor may be the most stable relationship they have.
- Services must be provided on a long-term basis. Foster youth face issues that have plagued them for years and can arise and cause set-backs at any time. This relationship is about more than passing the next exam, it’s about preparing young people for their future.
- Most students will need an array of services that continue even after they begin college. Of course they will need continued tutoring, but they will also need basic skills building in such things as budgeting and cooking.
While there is a long road ahead, these programs are beginning to show a path forward. In New York, for example, the city has just allocated funds for 200 aging-out students to have dormitory housing at a city university campus for the next four years, facilitating their transition and enabling The Foundling to continue to provide academic and life-skills support necessary for integrating into college life.
It’s important that those of us in the child welfare field continue to expand our thinking and our funding of such innovative programs. The investment we make in these young people today will pay tremendous dividends for all of us in the future.
Bill Baccaglini is president and CEO of The New York Foundling, one of the oldest and largest organizations in New York serving at-risk youth and their families.
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