College student Stacey Kline was depressed and out of money, ignoring phone calls and staring at an empty refrigerator when she got a much-needed knock on her apartment door a month ago.
It was Lynda Naylor, a student services administrator at Wayne County Community College. Naylor and her husband stocked Kline’s apartment in Detroit with groceries and gave the 22-year-old money for the bus.
“She was the first person to believe in me,” says Kline, a victim of sexual abuse who was kicked out of a foster care home at age 14. She survived by selling drugs, working multiple jobs, living at friends’ houses and bouncing around countless high schools. “They’re like the family I never had.”
Kline is one of the 450 teenagers who each year “age out” of Michigan’s foster system when they turn 18. These teens are legal adults with neither an adoptive nor a blood-relation family to support them, financially or emotionally.
Kline hopes to beat the odds that face ex-foster children by graduating with an associate’s degree in counseling in June. She acknowledges she would have quit school if not for help from Naylor — who bought food and bus fare for Kline with her own money — and others. That makes Kline’s story important for state officials determined to see more foster youth with college degrees.
Social workers, college representatives and key advocates met last week at a special summit in Albion to hear from Kline, other foster alumni and experts. The state wants to remove the barriers that prevent 90 percent of college-age foster kids from going to college.
The numbers are sobering.
Young adults aging out of the foster system are less likely to be employed than their peer, and they are less likely to be able to afford rent or utilities. They’re more likely to be homeless, have mental health problems and be incarcerated.
Seventy percent want to go to college, but just 20 percent go and only 5 percent graduate.
“They need the support of a caring adult,” says Marianne Udow, director of Michigan’s Department of Human Services. “They need a permanent connection, somebody to guide them, somebody to help them make those basic decisions. Someone they can call when their car breaks down and they don’t know what to do.”
In a report to the state Legislature advocating more help for teens aging out of the foster system, a 45-member task force highlights higher education. One proposal would waive tuition for former foster children enrolled in Michigan’s public universities and community colleges. Another goal is providing year-round housing stipends so students can tap other financial aid to help cover food, books, transportation and child care.
Udow says the challenge is more complex than just providing free tuition.
Where do ex-foster children go when dorms close for winter, spring and summer breaks? Who helps high-schoolers navigate the befuddling form to apply for federal financial aid for college?
Maurice Webb, a 21-year-old student who expects to graduate from Ferris State University in December with a bachelor’s in social work, aged out of the foster system at 19, a year into college.
He’s getting by with help from a special voucher of up to $5,000 a year for foster children. But since leaving the system, he’s dealt with the pressures of college nearly on his own.
One easy change, Webb says, would be telling colleges which students come from foster care. Having an on-campus counselor or mentor — even other former foster kids in college — to guide students through paperwork and other daily decisions would be helpful, Webb says.
“We’re not looking for handouts,” he says. “We’re not looking for someone to walk us down the street. We’re looking for the opportunity … so we can walk into our destiny place. College is that place.”
Naylor says it’s not just about kids leaving the system and being told to get a job or go to school with no skill sets. They may think of themselves as “throwaways” and have low self-esteem. Having an advocate at college can be the difference between success and failure.
“We all need some help,” says Naylor, noting that many grown adults still get support from their parents and families.
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan, a longtime advocate for foster children, says a serious problem is how often kids are moved from home to home and, therefore, school to school. Switching schools can bring incorrect placements and credits along with the typical uncertainty of a new school, new classes and new faces.
Kline estimates that she attended at least six schools after turning 14.
The state wants to have education planners help foster children think about college, and hopes to upgrade a statewide database to reduce delays in transferring school records when those students change K-12 schools. Officials also are looking at ways to create a support system for foster youth who enroll in college.
A big concern — and a familiar one for the foster care system — is money. Michigan’s budget deficit is forcing state departments to cut spending, so there may not be support for new or expanded programs.
Udow, however, says policymakers and lawmakers must find additional resources now or watch as foster children left to fend for themselves end up in prison or on public assistance.
“We end up paying, and we end up paying much more down the road,” she says.
— Associated Press
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