Win the Future for Foster Kids

Nova Newcomer

...why do we want a society that requires vulnerable people to be superheroes to make it out? I don't believe in superheroes, but I do believe in the power of education.

The future for youths in foster care in Oregon is bleak. According to a 2006 study of former youths in foster care from Oregon and Washington cited by the Oregonian, one in five will become homeless, one in six received welfare and one in three lived at or near the poverty level. College graduates on the other hand, have lower unemployment and poverty rates, contribute more to tax revenues and are less likely to depend on social safety-net programs.

House Bill 3471, co-sponsored by Rep. Michael Dembrow (D) and Rep. Matt Wingard (R), would create tuition waivers at state and community colleges for young people who have aged out of the foster care system with no permanent family.

Representative Julie Parrish makes the case that in these tight budget times that we can't afford HB 3471. Indeed we are struggling to set priorities this session with so many worthwhile and effective programs on the chopping block. But one thing is sure, we can't afford more homeless, hopeless kids in our state. I don't think Rep. Julie Parrish "hates kids" as she says people will say about her because of her opposition to the bill. She has an amazing story of self-sufficiency — pulling herself out of homelessness. And yet, why do we want a society that requires vulnerable people to be superheroes to make it out? I don't believe in superheroes, but I do believe in the power of education.

What if these vulnerable kids had a promise that college was waiting for them? Granted there are about 300 kids in community college, university or post-secondary school this year (400 teens have aged out of the foster care system each year since 2006) under the current funding system which includes a number of grants available to foster care kids. But even so, do statistics tell us that the current system is working for this population? At some point, we will need to decide if we are going to invest in our kids or if we are simply going to manage the outcome of little investment. With outcomes already so dismal for this population, it might be time to follow what 16 other states have done — provide college tuition waivers for foster care kids with no permanent family.

We can subject kids in foster care to the same market forces which are forcing many college students today to gamble on loans to pay for a future that is not assured. Or we can say to foster care kids, your lives have been gambled with enough already. We want you to know that your state wants a future for you and we are so strong in our commitment to you that we are going to make it a sure thing. If a youth coming out of the foster care system in Oregon wants to work hard to earn a degree (something that statistics show is difficult for this population), I say we gamble on rewarding their ambition in the face of such great odds.

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    How about doing something that would do a lot more to help foster children and save money: Curb Oregon’s obscenely high rate of tearing apart families and throwing children into foster care.

    Oregon takes away children at a rate more than 70 percent above the national average, even when poverty rates are factored in. Not only does that do enormous harm to the children needlessly taken, it also overloads the system, leaving workers less time to find children in real danger – which almost always is the real reason for the horror stories that make headlines.

    There are far better, far safer options, and they also happen to cost less than tearing apart families.

    That study the Oregonian cited also concluded that even if foster care were made perfect the rotten outcomes for former foster children would improve by only 22.2 percentage points. That’s worth doing, and so is providing the college aid. But we’ll never really fix this problem until my fellow liberals stop abandoning everything they claim to believe about civil liberties and due process whenever someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears.

    Richard Wexler Executive Director National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

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      Sorry, but your commentary is rather irrelevant to the issue of foster kids vis-á-vis college tuition waivers.

      It is analogous to saying we should be focusing on birth control as a way to address the needs of homeless people that actually exist.

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    The best thing to do for most Foster Children is to provide them training in a trade before they are 18. If a foster child is a good candidate for college they will be eligible for grants and/or scholarships any way. More free college tuition for poor college candidates will not solve the problem. A teenager with a trade skill is better for the economy and for his or her future.

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      While having the option for viable trade skill education should be available to all young people, so too should college education for those with the academic ability for it.

      Why you think that foster kids should be walled off from college and handed trade skill education instead, which is truly 19th century thinking writ large is baffling

      That you claim that foster kids are better served with trade-skill education is simply (and fundamentally) a crap argument.

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      Community College is where training in "trades" now takes place in the U.S. for the most part.

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    I don't understand. Given that these students, presumably, have no assets and no income - why isn't student aid sufficient?

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        Thanks, Pamela. The numbers are a critical addition to this discussion.

        Does your math include Stafford Loans?

        In any case, your point about giving these kids priority - and making sure that they don't get delayed simply for being unusual cases - is a very, very good point.

        Having not read the bill, I'm glad to hear that what we're talking about is filling in the gap when federal and state aid (and loans, presumably?) don't go far enough.

        (It's a sad commentary on the state of our higher-ed financing system that federal grants + state grants + federal loans + institutional need-based aid + work-study + calculated parental contributon does not equal total cost of attendance. It used to be that way at most schools. Leaving substantial financing gaps - for all kids, but especially foster kids - is not acceptable policy.)

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    Nova, I would be interested to know how the stats you cite in your first paragraph compare to those for kids who come from below poverty level (set artificially low) families in general.

    Also, you appear to say that 3 of 4 foster kids who age out of the system now go to community college or 4 year college. I'm guessing that's entry rather than completion, and if you showed that foster kids don't finish tertiary ed they start for financial reasons it might influence me. But still I'm virtually certain that 3/4 is much higher than the proportion who say "age out" of the Portland Public Schools generally, given the huge PPS drop-out rate.

    I'm not necessarily against this, but in the current fiscal climate this problem doesn't seem as severe this problem compared to other cuts faced in the human services budget, and that push come to shove I'd rather see this money go to some of those.

    This seems to me to be part of a bigger problem about access to higher ed. that in Oregon involves the starving of tuition support for decades and has national dimensions too.

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    The problem with homelessness does not start when the children "graduate" from foster care, it begins way before in childhood, so to focus on education in college is too late, they are not motivated, expect to fail, and avoid the trauma of failing. Instead, we need to empower foster parents to keep these kids in a stable environment and ensure stability of school life - that is what creates opportunities for success. Only then can we talk about college and encouraging our kids in foster care to actually complete their college education.

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      I posit it isn't an either or, but a both and situation. My understating of what Nova's article is about closing the hole for those foster kids who are motivated, trying to improve their situation through higher education.

      I don't disagree that more needs to be done form early childhood onward for all kids in the areas you mention. I challenge the premise that this is a zero sum matter.

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