Building America’s Future for Foster Youth

Two weeks ago during a transformative evening hosted by the Casey Family Programs, leaders from local, state and federal agencies, philanthropies and non-profit organizations convened to discuss ways in which we could partner to improve the lives of our nation’s 408,000 foster youth.

We learned from Casey leaders – and from one another — about the progress that’s been made, barriers to be tackled and creative ideas and solutions to explore to realize the promise of the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on September 11, 2011.

 National Foster Youth and Policy Council Meeting

A panel of students at the National Foster Youth and Policy Council. The students shared their stories of how they've overcome enormous barriers to graduate from college, earn advanced professional degrees and enter the workforce.

Sheila Evans Tranumn, Chair of Casey’s Board of Trustees, spoke about our role and responsibility “to build communities of hope,” to nurture the development of these children throughout our nation. She noted that since 2006, the foster youth population has declined by 19%, giving credit to the extraordinary efforts of child welfare agencies, parents, relatives and supporting organizations working together to increase opportunity and success for these children.

Casey’s President and CEO William Bell highlighted the communities of Salem, Ore., Richmond, Va., and Boulder County, Colo., which have joined forces in extraordinary ways with waivers resulting from the Act, to change the lives of foster youth with promising results, leading the way to systemic reform of the child welfare system.

Going forward, it’s clear to me that the federal government can share responsibility with states and local communities to provide these children the stable support of their educational, social and economic needs. If we do that, our nation will reap a return on our investment in these children far greater than we can imagine today. Casey Family Programs has compiled hundreds of studies over the years to show that this is possible.

A few days later in a meeting with UCLA’s Chancellor Gene Block, I mentioned the compelling insights of former foster youth who told their heart-wrenching stories at the Casey Family Programs’ evening, how they had overcome adversity and worked their way to their college commencements, all wanting to give back and contribute to the vision of helping more foster youth like them succeed.

To my surprise and delight, Chancellor Block handed me two papers that described (1) UCLA’s Guardian Scholars Program for college students emancipated from the foster youth system when they turned 18, and (2) the First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Summer Academy, a five-week residential immersion program for 24 foster youth in the 9th grade.

Chancellor Block noted with pride that more than 250 foster youth now attend UCLA, carrying the evidence forward that they made it through the university’s rigorous, highly competitive application process. I can personally appreciate this achievement as a former community college president, having transferred many students to UCLA over the years, and hearing the joyous shouts of those who made the cut and sharing the disappointments and tears of those who didn’t.

Even more surprising, on a plane on May 25th, I sat next to Dr. Silas Abrego, Acting Vice President for Student Affairs at California State University-Fullerton at whose commencement I spoke. He told me about the Guardian Scholars Program at CSU-Fullerton which supports 140 former foster youth now earning their undergraduate and graduate degrees. He said: “What is very rewarding is to see these young people wearing their caps and gowns at graduation, knowing they have overcome many challenges to earn their degrees. The Fullerton program offers students full scholarships and a supportive learning community dedicated to their success.”

As you can see, the achievements of these foster youth and institutions of higher education that are providing them with appropriate academic and support services are impressive and inspiring.  It is also a message to our nation: we can and we must help more foster youth succeed.

In the U.S. Department of Education, we can point to innovative models in California, North Carolina, New York, Oregon, Mississippi, Colorado, Virginia and other states that are reforming the foster care system and building systemic partnerships between K-12 schools, colleges and universities, employers, community-based organizations, and the state and federal governments working together on behalf of these children and young adults.

It’s obvious to me that we can do so much more together if we share responsibility to give every foster child in America the opportunity to succeed. I’d like to look back in my lifetime and say that we brought 408,000 down to zero, because every child should have a family committed to their success in college and career. We want that for our own families and ourselves.  We need to make it happen for every child in America.  And I know we can.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.