Lexie Can You ImagineLeaving for college is a rite of passage for many American high school graduates, an exciting time marked by one last summer spent celebrating with high school friends; shopping excursions with parents to purchase just the right “stuff” for dorm rooms; as well as some normal anxiety and giddy excitement about what the future will shortly bring.  Imagine for a moment how different this is for a lot of American foster youth – 23,000 of whom age out of foster care every year.  Many foster youth who plan to attend college spend their summer after high school graduation either planning their move from a foster home if they haven’t already aged-out of care; transitioning from a group home; or couch-surfing because they no longer have a place to stay. A few lucky ones have the comfort of knowing that they remain welcome at their foster homes through out their college careers just like any other “normal kid.”

In Connecticut, foster youth have the option of remaining in care until they are 23 years old as long as they attend post-secondary school full-time and maintain a 2.0 GPA. (DCF Policy 36-94. No public link available.) Despite this protection, foster youth preparing for college may worry about many things that their non-foster peers have no experience with – like how they are going to budget for everything they need to begin the school year (sometimes with little to no adult support and guidance) within the $150 budget DCF provides them. Who, if anyone, will attend Parents Weekend? Where will they will stay during the times that dorms are closed over summer and during school breaks, as well as the very adult anxiety about fulfilling their contracts with DCF?  That is what it is like for the far too few college-bound youth in foster care. That is what it was like for Lexie. (see DCF Policy and Regulations)

Lexie entered the Connecticut foster care system at age 15. This extremely bright Political Science and Women’s Studies major experienced at least 20 moves between shelters, group homes, and foster homes before she graduated from high school. Many of her moves were made primarily because she insisted on being educated in her home school district and DCF struggled to find her long-term placements within the district. Laws at that time limited her to two options:  be housed within her district or become homeless to qualify for services in her school district.  School was her oasis, a source of comfort and support as well as the only source of constancy and consistency in her life. She was not giving that up without a fight. And truth is she shouldn’t have had to choose between a safe and stable home and her school.  No child should.

West Hartford Public Schools administrators worked hard to keep Lexie within their district.  Showing maturity far beyond her years, Lexie asserts, “West Hartford believed in me. It made all the difference that they were willing to fight for my right to remain in my school. It made me believe in me.” Since Lexie’s graduation, CT education policies have been reformed and many more children in foster care are educated in their home school districts when placed in DCF care.  (See info on the Education Stability Act enacted in 2011.)

For a foster youth, moving into a college dorm can be a challenging transition. Lexie took college classes much more seriously than did her dorm mates.  She had to. She did not have a family and a home to fall back on, somewhere to go if college did not work out. In her eyes this was her opportunity to make something of herself.  Lexie describes her first semester as a “shock, like I didn’t know how to deal, like a complete culture shock.  My first year was very bad. No one [in my dorm] had been in foster care.  I had no one to call.”  Having roommates who grew up in typical middle class families was challenging. “How do I explain the circumstances of my life?  How do I answer the question ‘Where am I from?’ How do I explain that I feel different?  No one can understand how I am different.  Kids asked lots of questions so sometimes I found myself lying to protect myself.”

According to Casey Family Programs: “About 7 to 13 percent of students from foster care enroll in higher education. Only about 2 percent obtain bachelor’s or advanced degrees, in contrast to 24 percent of adults in the general population.” These dismal statistics mean that students like Lexie are rare.  Unless colleges make special efforts to connect foster youth with other foster youth on their campuses, (and some do provide these supports) many of these youth will remain unaware that there are other foster youth who could become their natural support systems. And for many of them, this means they will drop out before graduating with any kind of degree finding the college culture too difficult to navigate and the classwork too challenging. Lexie knows firsthand how spending much of her adolescence in group homes affected her.  “Social skills don’t come easily when you don’t live in a family.”

Lexie describes her second year at college as another challenging year especially around dorm life. During that year she experienced a loss that was really difficult for her. Her two dogs from her bio family died.  In addition, she changed roommates twice.  And she tried to work out living back at home (during holidays and school breaks) with her parents which  made her feel more like the other college kids.  Despite the fact that living at home did not work out, Lexie does not regret having tried one last time to live with her parents.

This past summer Lexie was one of 16 college students from across the United States participating in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program. (Link: http://www.ccainstitute.org/our-programs/foster-youth-internship.html). Through this internship, she spent the summer working in the office of Rep. Jim McDermott, of Washington State.  She worked on a policy report, which she presented to Congress this past July 30, working to ensure that changes are made to educational policies affecting children in foster care.  Lexie speaks with great passion and obvious pride of her experiences this past summer, “I’ve always been inclined towards politics. Back when President Bush came up with “No Child Left Behind” I wrote a letter to him.  This opportunity was a perfect fit for me. We learned from the best of the best.  We had unparalleled access to Congress. We lived at George Washington University where we were completely spoiled. We had life skills coaching and were exposed to art and culture. We each had a personal stylist work with us to choose appropriate clothing for working in a congressional office within the budgets we were granted.  We practiced interviewing skills through mock interviews with political leaders. We were afforded opportunities to network and were mentored by Senator Landrieu.”  Because of this experience, Lexie came to the attention of Congresswoman Rosa DeLaura through her internship with  Rep. McDermott. He spoke to Rep. DeLauro on Lexie’s behalf and  on her last day in Washington, DC, Rep DeLauro offered her an internship in her Connecticut office.

So here is where being in foster care and residing in group homes continues to impact this resourceful young lady.  She still does not have her driver’s license, an all too common issue for aging-out youth.  With no opportunity to obtain a license while residing in a group home during her last year in high school, Lexie still has not been able to obtain her license or raise the funds to purchase a vehicle.  Which means she needs to rely on others to provide her with transportation whenever public transportation is not an option.  Which means that someone has to give her a ride to her internship.  Another hurdle foster youth commonly face that most other youth their age may not.

This year is Lexie’s junior year at Quinnipiac University.  She is doing well.  She is busy and loves her internship.  She is ahead of schedule to graduate but will remain at school and on campus through May of 2015 when she will graduate with her class.  Her long term goal is to someday be Governor of Connecticut.

About DCF, Lexie says, “CT DCF is better than any other state’s foster care.”  And she feels she can say that after having spent this past summer with youth from other states. She says she tells her story not as a ‘woe is me’ tale but because, “I went through this and other kids go through this. I want everyone to remember the kids. I don’t want the spotlight on me when it should be on the children. I want to be sure I use my resources and gifts for the children still in DCF care.” Indeed, she is right about Connecticut. CT DCF spent over $4 million on financial assistance for 494 former foster children attending college in FY 2011, money well spent.  According to DCF’s Annual report Concerning At-Risk Children and Youth, April 2011: 81% of youth who decline continued DCF services are unemployed.  Researchers all agree that aging-out youth have high rates of homelessness, incarceration, and unintended pregnancy.  Encouraging higher education can mitigate the incidence of these difficulties.  And DCF does this.  But there is still a long road ahead for all child welfare agencies regarding policies and practices that impact adolescents. And the most challenging of these is the lack of foster families for this age group. The most powerful gift these youth can be offered is the gift of family – whether kin, adoptive, foster or continued connection to any other “family” in whatever form that that takes, these youth need relationships meant to last a lifetime. Because it is in relationship that healing takes place and in relationship where we all find our “safe place.”

Asked what Lexie would like other youth in foster care to know: “I am beating the odds. Kids – education is a lifeline.  Take advantage of that.  No others from other states have what Connecticut offers in terms of college.  Education is the key to get out of your situation. College education changes you as a person. It exposes you to culture. It’s invaluable.”

When asked if there is anything else she would like folks to know, Lexie looks out the window and quietly reflects, “I have everything in life but a family.  If someone had taken a chance and opened their home to me I imagine I would be even more successful than I am today. It would have made me a more well-rounded person and developed that part of my soul.”  She turns and makes eye contact, “I am not a unique case.  There are plenty of other “Lexies” out there.”

Take a chance. Consider fostering an older youth.