By Elise Cutini, Chief Executive Officer, Pivotal
An abridged version of this op-ed appeared in the Mercury News.
Nearly a decade ago, the AB12 Extended Foster Care Program was put into effect in California. The goal of the program, which allows eligible youth to stay in foster care until age 21, was to provide these young people with the tools necessary to be self-sufficient and socially connected. This was a huge step in the right direction, but 10 years later, two questions remain: has it been effective, and what gaps still exist?
According to the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood (CalYOUTH) Study, Extended Foster Care has been beneficial in a range of ways, including positive outcomes in education, increased financial and food security, and decreased levels of homelessness. Notably, a significant number of youth are now enrolled in college by age 23, showing that these young people now see continued education as a viable option -- something that didn’t ring true a decade ago.
The progress is promising. It seems to prove that if young people in foster care are given the tools they need to succeed -- the tools that so many other kids have access to -- we can make a positive impact. However, we are not nearly where we need to be.
Assistance can’t just begin at age 18. Our experience from working with thousands of foster youth has shown that pursuing post-secondary education often isn’t an option without support throughout the K-12 level. In Santa Clara County, for example, foster youth can transition through upwards of 10 school and home placements, and their educational records don’t always follow them. The Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) and Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) Education Services Unit joined forces to collaborate and prioritize educational needs so these students can graduate high school and be better prepared when it comes time to consider higher education.
“Let’s be realistic. Eighteen is far too young to figure out how to manage life on one’s own, especially when challenged with the obstacles so many foster youth face,” said Joann Vaars, Administrator of Educational Services, Foster & Homeless Youth at SCCOE. “These young adults need support at many different levels, as one area may have a domino effect on another. Community partners, child welfare systems, legal systems and school districts must all work together to ensure that youth have the support they need.”
Although there is an increase in youth enrolling in college and completing some level of coursework, the numbers of those attaining a degree are still far too low. The CalYOUTH study found that 64 percent of foster youth in California have enrolled or completed some college by age 23, but only 12.6 percent of females and 8 percent of males attain a degree.
A few factors contribute to the discrepancy in college enrollment and graduation levels. At a high level, there’s likely a major gap in students’ access to basic needs like housing, food or mental health services. Without the foundation of a core level of stability, how can we expect students to navigate something as complex as higher education?
Housing, for example, remains a major issue -- research shows that foster youth experience disproportionately higher rates of homelessness, ranging from 11 to 38 percent. Although foster youth can stay in the system until age 21, they are usually required to move into different housing at age 18. Since many of these students attend community college without on-campus housing, they must rely on public transportation to get to school, which can mean multiple bus rides and hours of commuting to get to class. For students juggling other responsibilities like parenting or work, this can make school no longer logistically attainable.
The lack of access to mental health services is also worth calling out. All foster youth have undergone some level of trauma, and many struggle with issues like imposter syndrome. Navigating complex systems on top of this can be unmanageable, especially without the help of a consistent mental health counselor. Unfortunately, despite this significant need, we lack the resources to properly support the volume of folks who need help.
We see this first-hand in the young adults from foster care we work with. One of our scholars, Aleta, is a great example of the impact that housing and mental health support can provide. Once she had a stable living situation and prioritized her mental health, Aleta was able to focus on her schoolwork and completed high school one year early with a 4.0 GPA! She went on to graduate from one of California’s top universities, University of California, San Diego, with a BA in Sociology.
As the cost of living in the Bay Area increases, the average age of independence rises as well. Many youth move back home after college, or stay on their parents’ health insurance until they turn 26. Imagine not having this foundation to fall back on when times get tough. Foster youth don’t have that safety net to rely on.
Pivotal is working hard to do right by young people in foster care by providing the support they need to graduate high school, go to college or complete a vocational program, and gain the necessary professional experience to succeed in an increasingly competitive workforce. And while we certainly lean on numbers to gauge success, we must remember that these youth are more than just data. Behind all of these numbers are real people with real stories.
Implementing Extended Foster Care was a necessary start, but we can't rest on our laurels as we look toward the next decade. At the top level, we need strategic systemic alignment with multiple paths and options available. Every foster youth is different -- some are parents, some have mental health challenges, some are balancing work and school -- so the system must reflect this and provide a variety of services and alternatives.
We need more programs like The Hub, Santa Clara County's youth-led community resource center for current and former foster youth ages 15-25. Not only has The Hub helped youth identify and easily access resources, but it’s also served as a community center that provides safety, belonging and empowerment. Another area we need to expand upon in the coming years is Education Opportunity Programs, which are designed to help low-income, first-generation college students succeed in college. While several community colleges have liaisons who advocate for foster youth and programs supporting their education, there are still some barriers to entry.
In addition to specialized units and expanded services, we need to continue advocating for foster youth. Community leaders like the John Burton Advocates for Youth have been instrumental in creating and implementing a higher education package for foster youth, putting California far ahead of other states. California also recently became the first state to pass a Universal Basic Income program, piloted right here in Santa Clara County, that provides a stipend to youth transitioning out of the foster care system.
While we’ve seen significant progress in bridging the gap for foster youth across education, employment, housing, food and financial security, and more, challenges undoubtedly still remain. This isn’t an easy problem to solve, but we can’t let the magnitude of the issue prevent us from working collectively toward more change.
As we look to the next 10 years and beyond, our community must come together -- organizations, stakeholders, and individuals alike must rally together behind these youth and give them access to their futures. No single organization or system can do this alone. In my perfect world, we would find a way to sit around the same table and connect this ecosystem, not for individual agencies to demonstrate that they are the answer, but for all of us to collectively listen to what our youth want and need and find a way to leverage our strengths and remove our weaknesses.
This work is not easy, but it is essential. We must remember that children are placed in foster care through no fault of their own. It’s our responsibility as a community to come together and provide the support needed to beat the odds unfairly stacked against them. We can -- and must -- do more.