In my recently published book, Succeeding as a Foster Child: A Roadmap to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Success, I wrote about the impressive opportunities that the foster care system provides.
Yes, you read that correctly; I used opportunity and foster care in the same sentence.
As I discuss in my book, being a foster child is an opportunity for a better life—a life of countless possibilities and abundant resources that may only be accessible to a child because of foster care. However, according to my research, there are specific actions that must be taken to improve the foster care system and to make certain that foster children have the opportunity to flourish.
There are three strategic approaches that must be used if we want to maximize the foster care system. First, we must fix the current exit strategy. Second, we must make sure that foster children understand their education benefits. Lastly, we must change the default and preferred policy of reunification to one that favors the best interest of the child.
In 2013, I conducted a study, Exiting Foster Care: A Case Study of Former Foster Children Enrolled in Higher Education in Kansas.
Ten themes emerged from the study regarding factors of success for these former foster children. One theme repeatedly occurred--the lack of a proper and formal exit strategy.
This critical transition plan, which includes education, housing, health care, and employment strategies, is meant to be a guide for foster youth as they age out of their foster care settings and face their uncertain future. Many of the participants in the study felt their exit strategy failed to clearly articulate their benefits and how to use them. In fact, even though these study participants were using their education benefits at the time of the study, they perceived that their peers in foster care did not attend college for this reason.
They simply did not have their benefits adequately explained to them.
These benefits are key to the success of former foster children, and it is unacceptable that they are not fully explained and promoted to foster children at such a pivotal juncture in their lives.
In order for a foster child to fully utilize his or her benefits, the timing of the exit strategy is crucial. Oftentimes the information given to a foster child is too little, too late. One participant informed me that she was still trying to figure out how to correctly use her benefits as a junior in college.
Another participant informed me that she felt other foster children would have worked harder in high school had they only known the education benefits existed.
Adding more proof that the system needs improved, a participant informed me that she did not meet with her foster agency coordinator regarding her exit plan until late into her senior year. I asked specific questions, such as, “When you were preparing to exit the foster care system, did your agency coordinators meet with you consistently to discuss with you a phase plan? For example, did they discuss that you need to start looking at
colleges? Did they meet with you again to see if you looked at colleges?
Did they meet with you regularly to make sure you received the guidance you needed to get into college?”
The participant responded with, “No. Not my whole senior year. If they did, only once or twice.”
Without this critical transition plan in place in a timely manner, these children will struggle.
They just don’t have the life experience to figure it out on their own.
The foster care system is clearly missing the importance of communication regarding foster child exit plans and benefits. Simply making foster children aware of the vast resources at their disposal will give them a bright future for which they can plan.
As I discuss in my book, children in foster care have the opportunity to receive education benefits for college, life skills training, support services, and so much more.
These education benefits can help ease the financial burden that so often comes with a college education. Researchers from CNN conducted a study in 2013 that found student loan debt of 2012 college graduates averaged $29,400. Foster children can avoid that overwhelming debt altogether if they understand their education benefits, which include tuition fee waivers and the Education and Training Voucher (ETV), the latter of which has the potential to completely pay for a foster child’s education.
The ETV program is a federally funded and state-administered program where a foster child is eligible to receive up to $5,000 in financial assistance per year to help reach their goals.
This is in addition to the tuition fee waivers that individual states offer, in some cases completely waiving tuition for a state supported institution.
There are also federal grants and scholarships for which a foster child may be eligible.
These invaluable resources, however, are only useful if a foster child is made aware of them.