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For foster care kids, college degrees are elusive

Teresa Wiltz, on

Published in News & Features

"It was so frustrating and overwhelming," said Barries, who takes early morning classes before she goes to her full-time job in the information technology department of a foster home agency.

It is now widely accepted that young brains aren't fully developed until around age 25, and that youth need a longer transition into adulthood because they don't fully understand the consequences of their actions.

Meanwhile, the number of youth in foster care continues to rise, fueled in part by the increase in parental substance abuse, according to a report released in November by the Children's Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Administration for Children and Families.

"We've got to do so much more to lengthen the runway" to successfully launch foster youth, said Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth, a California nonprofit.

Generally speaking, foster youth age out of the system at 18, with no backup services to ease them into adulthood. That can make for an abrupt transition. But thanks to a 2008 federal law, states can extend foster care benefits to youth up to age 21 and receive federal funding for it. So far, 21 states have expanded benefits.

The support is separate from targeted efforts to help foster kids get through college, but it can play a huge role in their college prospects.

"Who's that supportive adult who's going to help them when they're stressed out or they run out of money and don't have food?" said Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, which supports youth aging out of foster care. "That can make or break their educational journey,"

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No adult told Barries she was eligible to live on campus, rent free, so she signed a lease on a place off campus, and then had to work extra hours to pay the rent, which made it almost impossible to keep up at school.

"My social worker was so focused on making sure my independent living skills were up to par and that I had a job," she said. "Going to college wasn't on her list of things to help me with."


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