Getting Into Trouble

Last year, approximately 2300 young adults aged out of the city’s foster care system, according to a recent report conducted by New York City Children’s Services. Many in this population will enter the world alone without a high school diploma.

In a recent Midwest Study, 58 percent of young adults in foster care obtained a high school degree by the age of 19 year compared to 87 percent of the general population. By the age of 21, 25 percent of the same foster care youths did not have a high school degree compared to 11 percent of the general population.

For Donte Johnson and Carrie Wright these numbers are a reality. Both of these former foster children dropped out high school before aging out of care. “I know if I would have had a steady place to call home, I would be alright,” stated Johnson when asked about his past. “You can go to school. You can do your work but at the end of the day, where are you going to sleep at?”

According to the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, Johnson and Wright are not alone.  The organization published statistics from a recent Northwest alumni study in its December 2008 fact sheet. The study found 65 percent of 479 former foster care youths in Washington and Oregon transitioned between seven or more schools from elementary school through high school.

Besides instability, physical or sexual abuse may also prevent youth in care from graduating. The Northwest Alumni study contained in the 2008 NWG fact sheet also showed former foster youth in care had twice the rate of documented mental health issues compared to the general population. Though he has not been diagnosed with any mental health issues, Donte Johnson’s past could have easily damaged him.

After being forced into foster care, Johnson was placed into an abusive household. With any connections at his house, he found acceptance in a gang and was arrested for allegedly participating in two robberies. Johnson is now free and attempting to rebuild his life. In order to make this transition a reality, he became a youth member at The Door.  Founded in 1972, the non-profit organization offers tutoring and GED programs to young adults inside and outside of foster care. Over the last 30 years, the organization has assisted over 11,000 young adults yearly.

Many programs like The Door are funded in response to the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999. Commonly known as the Chafee Act, the law was strongly advocated by former Rhode Island Senator John H. Chafee before his death in 1999. It doubled federal funding for independent living programs from 70 to 140 million dollars in order to help prepare youth in foster care for adulthood.

Despite the Act, recent studies show youth in care are still at a major educational and economic disadvantage compared to the general population. A study conducted and published by the University of Chicago in 2005 reported 37 percent of foster care youth over the age of 19 were unemployed or not in school. Additionally, 90 percent of employed foster youth 19 years and older also earned less than $10,000 a year compared to 79 percent of their non-foster care counterparts.

Columbia University Law School Professor Jane Spinak believes America owes young adults like Wright and Johnson more than they receive. In her opinion, youth who age out of foster care are often held to unreal expectations of independence. “The irony is that most people that go college come home,” said Spinak. “Young people who age out of foster care are expected to age out between 18 and 21 and somehow take care of themselves. It can’t happen.”                                                          

Regardless of this stark reality, both Wright and Johnson have big dreams. Wright desires to become an actress while Johnson plans to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology and plans to build a career in music. These goals may seem far-fetched, but Columbia Law Professor Jane Spinak believes young adults in foster care should not be counted out. “Surveys have show that they are very optimistic about their futures,” stated Spinak. “I think it’s very important for the public to understand that. These are not kids who have given up so we shouldn’t give up on them.”