NEW YORK — They had it all planned out. Christina Young and her roommate would share an Uber together and make sure they got to the graduation ceremony on time. They were graduating from John Jay College in Manhattan. It was the Big Day, the day they had been waiting for, working toward, and it had finally arrived.
Young remembers the buzz among her classmates and friends. As a foster youth who came tantalizingly close to dropping out of high school, the day held a special significance. But unlike her other classmates, Young’s mind was elsewhere.
Young remembers the front she put on that day. She didn’t want to let down the people who came to support her. Young joined in on group photographs and flashed her wide, infectious smile for the cameras. But on the inside she was anxious, consumed by one fear. As everyone else was wondering which graduation party they would be attending she was worried about whether she’d have a place to live.
Reaching this day was a milestone. Young is one of a fraction of foster youth that make it all the way through to college graduation with a bachelor’s degree. Only 50% of foster youth graduate high school by the time they turn 18. Those that do graduate often do not fare well in college. Only 20% go on to post-secondary education. The numbers vary, but experts say that 1 to 11% finish their degree.
As a foster youth over 21, Young had been part of a pilot program called the Dorm Project. It offered a solution to one of the biggest problems facing foster youth: stable housing. It allowed Young and a few dozen other students to live in their dorm rooms all year. When other students went home for break or holidays, Young could stay in her room without having to navigate the complicated foster care system and worry about finding a new temporary home to live in until the semester went back into session.
But when graduation day finally arrived, the room she had called home — the first room she had ever had all to herself — would be gone. She felt betrayed.
“I felt like I didn’t deserve that,” she said. “I was diligent about my education. I was a good student. I felt at that moment that the system kind of failed me. I figured if I did what I was supposed to do and thrived that they’d have my back.”
The day that was supposed to be a celebration was marked by anxiety.
“I was alone and I had to figure it out on my own,” she said.
Huge changes but …
The changes in New York’s foster care system have been staggering over the last 25 years, according to the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), the agency that oversees the foster care system in New York City. By the end of 2017 there were fewer than 9,000 children in the system. That is a fraction of the more than 50,000 children who were in the system 25 years ago.
An emphasis on prevention saw a 44% decline in the number of children coming into the foster care system between 2006 and 2016. The caseload for caseworkers assigned to foster youth lightened. The number of children leaving the system and achieving what is known as “permanency through kinship guardianship” — when a family member takes over as legal guardian of a foster child — and adoption steadily rose as well. ACS opened the Office of Training and Workforce Development, which developed a variety of programs that, among other goals, help foster youth find employment.
Young, now a foster care advocate, and other advocates worry that the average person is lulled into a false sense of complacency when they see the numbers improve as they have over the last several decades. There are a lot of little things she doesn’t want people to forget. The biggest misunderstanding that the average person has about foster youth, Young said, is that they’re taken care of and all their problems are squared away.
“Technically we are called the ward of the court; the government is supposed to be overseeing us and that everything will be OK,” she said. “That doesn’t mean the youth are getting the proper services they need and the resources that they actually deserve.”
Young wasn’t even formally introduced to her first foster mother. The day they met, she gathered her stuff up in a few garbage bags, was medically cleared, debriefed by her case worker and then dropped off in a cab in front of a stranger’s house.
“My social worker gave me a prep talk,” she remembers. “She told me, ‘They’re really nice, if you’re good and follow the rules you should be fine.’ I didn’t know how to feel.”
Most kids can put a request in for dinner. Maybe quesadillas, one of Young’s favorites for instance, or pasta. Not in a foster home. If you want to watch cartoons, too bad. You don’t have any say about what you watch on the television. Small but meaningful interactions between a parent and a child, the in-between moments, are denied to a foster child.
“You can’t ever weigh in. What you think doesn’t matter. You always feel like a guest,” she said.
Young didn’t see a movie at a theater until after she left the system because she had to choose between budgeting her small allowance for essentials and hanging out with her friends. So she often found herself getting bullied since she was never joining in after-school activities. Or she was jumping from school to school across the city. Parent-teacher nights were always rough. She’d have to come up with some excuse for why her real parents weren’t there.
Moving from borough to borough, always being the new face, took a toll on her.
“‘Oh, that’s my aunt, that’s my uncle.’ There was always a lie, a little tale to tell,” she said. “Or simply hope they wouldn’t notice.”
Stoic to survive
Foster kids grow up obsessed with not losing their temporary home. They don’t want to speak up or articulate their desires for fear of losing a place to sleep.
“You do what you gotta do to keep your bed,” she said. “It felt lonely. You don’t know who to turn to. You don’t feel supported at all. You feel if you do cry out for help you don’t have anyone to turn to, because it’s always this thing of you have to have somewhere to sleep, you have to preserve your placement, you have to preserve your bed.”
So, she said, foster kids always feel like they have to deal with whatever comes their way.
After a mad scramble she managed to find housing after graduation. The security deposit was a struggle but she has a home she calls her own.
Young now works as a program specialist at iFoster. She helps foster children like herself navigate the foster care system and transition out of it. She connects them to programs like the Dorm Project, which helped her successfully do what so many foster youth never get to do — graduate from college. She wants them to be self-sufficient when they leave the system — and that means encouraging bigger ambitions than just holding down a job. However, she sympathizes with that feeling. She remembers her goal used to be to get out of the system and work. She never considered pursuing higher education.
She remembered looking up how much college costs and thinking her foster parent would never pay the high price tag. She didn’t realize there were programs out there to help people like herself.
“The light at the end of the tunnel for me was just getting out,” she said.
She grew up feeling embarrassed about being a foster kid. But that all changed when she entered college. When she realized her status as a foster youth gave her access to grants, housing, laptops and other essential supplies for excelling at school, along with other support systems, her outlook changed.
“That made me feel empowered,” she said.
Now, the light at the end of the tunnel is law school.