Improving College Prospects for Foster Care Youth

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Each year an estimated 30,000 kids age out of the foster care system with few prospects and little support. A new report focuses on ways colleges can improve the chances of foster children who are leaving the system and entering higher education. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

ED GORDON, host:

Each year, an estimated 30,000 kids age out of the foster care system, with few prospects and little support. A new report focuses on ways colleges can improve the chances of foster children who are leaving the system and entering higher education. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

Lee Claynod(ph) grew up in Lafayette, Indiana. His abusive, mentally-ill father kidnapped him as a toddler, and grew increasingly erratic as Lee got older. Lee was beaten frequently, and even chained to his bed at times. Once, a worried aunt and uncle took him out of that environment for about a year.

Mr. LEE CLAYNOD: I got to go to school as a normal child, you know, clean clothes, and I knew what was right. I knew what was normal. And then, when I was with my father, you know, my shoes duct taped, clothes that didn't fit right, you know, not being clean, and being in school and being treated poorly.

JONES: Finally, Lee told a local pastor what was happening. At 13, the state stepped in and placed him in foster care. The odds were against Lee even graduating, after ten different foster homes, and six high schools over the next four years. But then, Lee was placed with supportive foster parents.

CLAYNOD: I had no idea that I could go to a university. I mean, I didn't have the math, I didn't have the physics or the science, and my foster parents said, you know, you can do it.

JONES: Today, Lee Claynod is a 27-year-old Purdue University graduate, but most foster care youth aren't as lucky. Too often, the system focuses on preparing them to care for themselves at age 18, even though many parents don't think their children could be independent at that age.

Dr. TOM WOLANIN (Senior Associate, Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington): I think it needs to be viewed as part of the professional responsibility of social workers, Juvenile Justice System, and foster parents that foster youth need to perform at high levels in education.

JONES: Tom Wolanin is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington. He wrote the new report. His research found that unstable living arrangements, mental health problems, and shaky academic records leave foster care youth unprepared for higher education. Teachers and counselors aren't likely to view them as college prospects, either.

The report recommends some tangible, if costly, strategies for changing that attitude. For example, support for higher education and training should be extended to age 24. Post-secondary schools need to create more student aid programs for foster care youth. Wolanin says some common sense approaches could make a big difference.

DR. WOLANIN: I think one very concrete step would be if everybody who was involved with foster youth; the courts, social workers, foster parents, and the rest, did not make appointments for those kids that interrupted their school day.

JONES: There have been positive policy changes in the past decade. In 1999, Federal laws extended services for foster care youth until age 21. A 2003 law provides up to $5,000 for college or vocational training, but Dr. Wolanin says that because some states can't provide matching funds or staff to dispense the grants, only about half of eligible youth ever get them. But as more research, like the new study, appears, those numbers may rise.

Mr. PETER PACOR(ph) (Senior Director of Research Services, KC Family Programs): In the last three years of so, we're really starting to see some of the tide turning in America, and we're going to start to see some of these foster care reforms take hold.

JONES: Peter Pacor is Senior Director of Research Services at KC Family Programs in Seattle. He says many states are realizing that stable placements, more mental health services, and mentoring can make college a reality for more ex-foster care youth, like Lee Claynod. Rachel Jones, NPR News.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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