Adulthood in Limbo

Foster Care College Students struggle to find success between the cracks.

Transitioning out of foster care and attending college is a difficult move that some must make.

When a foster child turns 18 in the state of California, he or she suddenly goes from being part of “the system,” to being on his or her own unless they are enrolled in extended foster care. This transition can be rough, and many of these youths may not be prepared.

Foster children have an option of enrolling into extended foster care once they reach 18 years old. Under California Law AB 12, they can stay in foster care until the age of 21. The law was written to help improve outcomes for those in the system. The Alliance for Children’s Rights, a free legal services organization for abused and neglected children in Los Angeles, says that about 2,000 people are enrolled in extended foster care.

Isabel Castillo, 20, is a Santa Monica College student majoring in communications. When Castillo was 17-years-old, she was placed into foster care. When she was moved into a group home, she was returning home to Los Angeles from Tijuana, Mexico.

“At 17, I was here in the US, I had my DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). My mom was like, ‘Your brother is in Tijuana, can you go help him?” said Castillo. While coming back to the states after helping her brother, she tried to request political asylum. When asked to show documentation, she presented her DACA. “I got arrested. I was in the heilera (the Spanish term for icebox that many detainees use to describe holding cells because of their cold conditions) for four days and three nights. And then after that, they transported me to a foster home,” said Castillo. She was assigned to a group home with 12 or 13 other girls who were also undocumented.

Castillo was in the group home until her mother proved that she was fit to take care of her.

Once Castillo started at SMC, she applied for the Chafee Grant but was denied because the grant program could not find her complete file. The grant is for people who are or were in foster care, and who have financial need. Applicants can qualify for up to $5,000 a year for job training or college. “My file is there, but my file is blank. And that happens to a lot of foster youth. Their files are blank, or they have misplaced information,” said Castillo.

According to SMC’s demographic data from 2015, 384 students identified as current or former foster children. Debra Locke, a coordinator of the Guardian Scholars program, said the last report was given by the financial aid office at the end of spring semester 2016 was approximately 836 students who have self-identified as foster kids. “Of that number, though, I would say approximately 25 percent or so are probably incorrect because maybe they checked the wrong box or they didn’t understand what the question was. But that still gives us a good five to six hundred students who have self-identified as being wards of the court,” said Locke.

Many former and current foster youth may not self-identify as being a ward of the court, or even tell people their situations — fearing embarrassment, exclusion, and judgment. “You’re putting yourself on a radar and it’s really scary,” said Castillo.

The Guardian Scholars program helps current and former foster kids who are attending SMC succeed in school. The program requires students to be currently enrolled in at least nine units, and be between the ages of 17 and 24.

“We offer counseling, we do book assistance, we do meal assistance — and having that basic need of eating while you’re on campus was a necessity for our foster youth. So, when we did the grant, we made sure we had that line item dedicated specifically for meal assistance. Likewise, with transportation assistance as well. We also reimburse their health fees, their ID and AS membership cards,” said Locke when describing all the different ways the program helps its students.

The program also has an in-house, part-time mental health counselor who meets with students, as well as an academic counselor who can help review their educational plans, help with career decisions, and help the students stay on track for graduation.

The Guardian Scholars also helps with another student need. “Housing has been a huge issue. So, we do have resources to try and help students get placed into transitional housing, or even placed into temporary shelters, or temporary housing until they can get placed into more permanent positions. The big issue for us is the housing component because a lot of the students find themselves homeless,” said Locke.

Half of the people who have aged out of foster care are unemployed and living in economic hardship. Half of individuals who leave the system will become homeless in their first two years of exiting.

The Guardian Scholars program has served 101 students during the current semester.

“Our foster youth are really a special community of students that we have on this campus. I don’t think that people really understand and see the perseverance, the dedication, the drive, and the want to succeed for these students. Even in the face of not having somewhere to live, not necessarily eating every day, not having all the basic needs that most of our students on this campus have they’re still here and they’re still smiling,” said Locke.