Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #3: Increasing Foster Youth Awareness of Education Opportunities

The Imprint is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Jameshia Shepherd, a graduate student at Michigan State University.

The Proposal

Shepherd proposes that Congress make two amendments to Title IV-E, the section of the Social Security Act that provides a federal-state entitlement for foster care services.

First, states would be required to ensure that starting at age 14, foster youth are meeting twice a year with an “educational and career expert.” Shepherd suggests that this be reviewed at permanency hearings by dependency court staff.

Second would be a change to the timing of the transition plan that is already required for youth who are likely to age out of foster care into adulthood. Currently, such a transition plan must be developed 90 days before a youth turns 18; Shepherd would require at least the educational component of the plan to begin within 365 days of aging out.

The Argument

Jameshia Shepherd, graduate student at Michigan State University

Shepherd made it clear to case workers and others connected to her life in foster care that she had ambitions that involved college. Despite this, she says, nobody ever made her aware of the many state and federal assistance programs that can help foster youth get into and pay for college.

This, she argues, is probably why a recent survey showed that 84 percent of college-aged foster youth reported wanting to go to college, but only 20 percent of those who graduated from high school attended college.

On the case planning issue, Shepherd argues that three months is not enough time “to properly set up a young adult for success. Furthermore, since accessing higher education would not be on the top of the priority list other items may take precedence causing higher education to not be fully explored.”

In Her Own Words

“Despite multiple systems and institutions knowing about my goals and aspirations to attend a university, no one provided me with resources. Due to the fact that I had no financial support or resources, I had to leave my dream school, Wayne State University, and return home to my community college where the tuition cost less. I felt discouraged and let down.

The following semester, I met with the community college financial aid of office, which is where I came across a brochure for foster youth that highlighted educational resources. After the years I spent in the foster care system and all the case planning meetings, I was in disbelief that I was unaware of the education resources that were available to me.”

The Imprint‘s Take

The disconnect between the educational aspirations and realities for foster youth are an ongoing pox on the collective houses of child welfare systems. Eighty-four percent of foster youth report wanting to go; about 20 percent go; less than 10 percent walk away with a bachelor’s degree.

Shepherd’s proposals are hardly a panacea for this problem. School stability, better transitional supports for youth who age out and overall improvement of community colleges are all costly things that must happen for foster youth.

But those are all issues related to the delivery of opportunities. Shepherd’s recommendations, sadly, point to the fact that we have not yet fully tackled the awareness of opportunities. What good is an array of academic supports and assistance for foster youth if they don’t know they are available?

Shepherd wanted to grow up to be President of the United States, and yet she recalls no case worker or mentor who tried to connect her to college. Surely, some systems or individual workers do a much better job of alerting foster youth to their academic opportunities than the one that shortchanged Shepherd. But we are just as sure there are plenty of systems that don’t.

Shepherd calls for the federal government to make states involve academic opportunities part of ongoing case planning by age 14, and require that they start planning an academic future one year before any child ages out into adulthood.

It’s a shame that she even has to ask.

Click here to read the full report, including all of the FYI proposals.

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