By some accounts, Real Change vendor Jen Tibbits is an unusual case. In foster care from 3 until she aged out at 18, she is one of the few truly long-term cases. During that time, she lived in dozens of homes across the state.
“Name a city in western Washington,” she says, “and I’ve lived there.”
This particular experience is rare; of the thousands of kids who enter foster care each year, most are in for two years or less, either because they’ve been reunified with their family of origin or because they’ve been adopted. About a quarter are in for over 30 months.
But by other numbers, Tibbits is squarely in the majority. Most foster kids are moved numerous times just in their first year; over a lifetime in the system, they may attend more schools than they can count. Tibbits also didn’t graduate high school – which, before last year, was the norm in Washington. Just 36 percent of foster care students received a diploma in 2012. And finally, Tibbits became homeless, which, statistically, could have been predicted.
As a person who’d experienced housing instability and multiple placements, she was twice as likely as one of her non-foster care peers to wind up without a place to live.
In Washington state, thousands of children enter foster care each year – either because the courts remove them from, or because they are surrendered by, their parents or families. There are about 10,000 currently in foster care at a given time. They may stay with relatives or strangers, and their stays range from a few months to multiple years. Thanks to a shortage of qualified foster homes and a high burnout rate among foster parents, many are moved more times than anyone in the system would like to see.
This can be traumatic and it can have a lasting impact.
Foster care children do not always go on to become homeless adults, but the gaps in services often do increase the likelihood that a foster care student will become a homeless adult, particularly directly after they exit the system. A survey of Seattle’s homeless residents found that they were almost twice as likely as the general population to have been in foster care at some point.
And yet improving access to caring, nurturing foster care homes and extended services is rarely mentioned as a potential measure for homelessness prevention. When we talk about the problem of increasing homelessness among adults, we don’t always think to ask how they got there.
Intersections of marginalization
It’s also impossible to ignore the ways in which the foster care system overlaps with other areas of marginalization. Children who end up in foster care are, most often, already on the fringes. They come from families that struggle with poverty, addiction and violence. Black and Brown kids are disproportionately represented.
In some states, children of specific groups are more likely to be taken away from their parents than White kids; in South Dakota, for example, Native students are 11 times more likely than White students to be removed from their homes. Once they’re taken, they may be subjected to violence, abuse or neglect.
A quarter of foster care students live with a disability, compared to 10 percent of the general population. They tend to be put in lower-performing schools, but also are at a higher risk of learning disabilities and other cognitive issues.
Any one of these barriers puts a child at risk of homelessness in adulthood – combined, they compound on one another.
Here in Washington, that means that students who are already at risk of dropping out – Indigenous students, those in special education and those from unstable backgrounds – are even more likely to bail on their education if they’re also in foster care.
But not if the advocates and activists of nonprofit organizations around the state have anything to say about it.
Foster youth advocate for themselves in Olympia
Mockingbird Society seeks improvements in state’s foster care system to help youth aging out
Treehouse raises the graduation rate for Washington youth in foster care
Dropping the dropout rate
It’s easy to find the bright line between the foster care system and a higher rate of homelessness – but between those two points, there’s much more to the story. Specifically, low high school graduation rates and dramatically lower rates of post-secondary education.
The role that education plays in future economic success is evident in decades of numbers. High school dropouts are twice as likely to live in poverty in adulthood – and a Bachelor’s degree can increase someone’s lifetime earnings by 75 percent.
Unfortunately for many foster care students, just getting through high school remains an elusive dream, due in large part to one of the hallmarks of the system.
Frequent school moves are “one of the greatest challenges” that foster students face, says Peggy Carlson, a foster care program supervisor for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
“Triggered by initial placement in foster care and subsequent placement changes, school moves significantly undermine their academic success,” she explains, adding that “nationally, less than 3 percent graduate from college.”
Research has found that every single school move can cost a student months of progress; most foster care students change schools at least three times in the first years of high school.
OSPI has led a concerted effort in the last ten years to reduce and smooth these transitions. The Foster Care Program, which “supports students in foster care by encouraging innovative practices that reduce educational disruptions, strengthen school stability and improve academic performance,” provides liaisons for families, educators and students.
No such person was there for Tibbits when she was in school, though. Two decades ago, frequent school moves meant that no single teacher had the time or ability to focus on her academic success. She was more of a burden than anything else.
“I got stuck in a corner with times tables most of the time,” Tibbits says, because teachers weren’t sure what to do with her. She was in and out of the classroom so much that it was just too difficult to try to keep her education consistent.
The last straw came when, after receiving years of specialized education, including two years at the Ryther School, which works specifically with students with mental and physiological needs, she was placed in a traditional high school.
“I had so much trouble with math, they sat me at a table with shapes,” she said. “I was like, ‘I may have trouble keeping up with the other kids, but I’m way past this.’”
It wasn’t long after that before she just quit going. She is not alone.
Nationally, only about half of foster care students graduate from high school by the age of 18. But in Washington, advocates are working hard to buck the trend.
In 2012, Treehouse, a Washington state nonprofit that focuses on the needs of foster kids, announced a bold goal: They would double the high school graduation rate.
“We have been working our hearts out,” says Janis Avery, the CEO of Treehouse. But, she says, the ambitious project, called Graduation Success, worked. In 2017, the extended graduation rate for King County foster care students was 89 percent – seven points higher than the general student body.
This push to get kids through school garnered national attention. An NPR report in 2017 noted that Treehouse’s work was bucking the national trend.
The approach is multi-pronged but, in general, it centers around meeting the needs of the students individually. Tutoring, mentorship and relationship-building are paramount. And rather than assuming that everything can be fixed within one system, they’re looking to plug the gaps.
“Foster care is not a panacea; it really is a short-term interim solution,” Avery says, acknowledging that the system itself is imperfect. Instead of trying to rebuild it, she and many others are trying to find opportunities for service.
“We think it is extremely important that the community wrap itself around these young people so that they have the resources they need for the long-term.”
Fixing the system by plugging the gaps
That community approach requires two major components: Cash and legislative action. Avery acknowledges that it’s “a stretch” for public dollars, especially as Seattle and Washington in general are grappling with record levels of poverty.
“I think the community and the legislature have both been very responsive,” Avery explains.
Carlson, from OSPI, backs her up.
“Washington continues to pass groundbreaking legislation on behalf of these kids,” she says, citing one that “defines the process for best interest determinations for students in foster care, using student-centered factors to determine school placement.”
As it stands, state law mandates that “students placed into out-of-home care must remain enrolled in the school that they were attending at the time they entered out-of-home care.” However, that doesn’t always work out, in part because it’s previously been relatively easy to move students for minor reasons. That bill aims to clarify how and why to keep students in their school of origin whenever possible.
Another bill that Carlson cites, SB 6274, “recognizes that these youth need not only financial aid, but also structured support.” The bill, which was signed into law in 2017, made Washington the first state to back apprenticeships for foster youth, creating greater access to jobs and training.
“With early outreach and intervention, this wraparound, cross-system collaboration provides continuity during postsecondary transitions,” Carlson says.
Clay Scott thinks it’s a great step – but it wouldn’t be without the direct input of foster care students themselves.
Scott is the communications manager for the Mockingbird Society, an advocacy group that helps empower foster care students to speak up and take part in the legislative process and says that a student-centered, student-inclusive approach is what’s been missing.
“When this reform is happening, we need to make sure the people who are impacted are in the room,” he says. “We don’t want to make a program based on what we think will help.”
Each year, the Mockingbird Society hosts a youth leadership summit where young people come together to talk about different ideas and reflect on what areas might be ignored. They reflect a wide range of foster care kids from rural and urban areas, from the reservations to the rapidly-gentrifying Central District.
During the hearing process for SB 6274, a young Indigenous woman from Mockingbird came forward to testify that the apprenticeship bill was a major win – but without specific language including tribal foster care students, she wouldn’t be able to take advantage.
That language was added, Scott says, because she was there to point out what the legislators had missed.
Often, what’s missing from laws and regulations about foster care is exactly that – input from foster kids. For her part, Tibbits says that programs like Treehouse and additional counsel are exactly what she would have needed. A strong adult role model, as basic as it may seem, is often one of the things that foster kids just don’t have.
“Having to constantly change schools is detrimental,” she says. “What you really need is someone to stay with you, someone to mentor you. Not a caseworker, but someone just to ask how you’re doing.”
Avery agrees, which is why Treehouse is expanding its operation. With more locations throughout the state, their mentors and tutors can catch students as they move around. This, Avery hopes, will help Treehouse “provide middle-class opportunities,” like role models, to students who don’t have them.
“Our kids know that we’re going to show up at the same time every week, and that means the world to them,” says Treehouse Senior Education Specialist Alex Cornell, who grew up in foster care. “Everything else could be falling apart. That’s what we do at Treehouse: We show up when others don’t.”
Showing up is exacly what these organizations are trying to do, knowing full well that the deck is stacked against them.
As long as racial and systemic forces continue to push folks to the edges of society, the foster care system will continue to impact students who are already at risk. It will take a lot more than just a handful of new laws to fix it.
However, finding the potential gaps and fixing them can help folks – like Jen Tibbits and the tens of thousands of other foster care kids just like her – find their footing during and after graduation.
And it’s in all of our best interests to do so, says Avery. Regarding her work at Treehouse, she says, “we consider it homelessness prevention.”
“The foster care system doesn’t cause homelessness,” says Tibbits. Instead, she says, “In the foster care system, it’s impossible for anyone to help you become an adult.”
With the right interventions, maybe not.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer, policy consultant and interim editor at Real Change. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.
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