Did you know that only 3% of foster kids graduate college compared to the Florida rate of 76%? I had a chance today to attend the HANDY Organization Scholarship Breakfast for 17 foster kids who graduated college.
Breon Callins was one of the graduates. As a little boy, he and his brothers were removed from their home as their parents were being arrested. His mother, whom he had no idea suffered from epilepsy, started to convulse and foam at the mouth as she was being handcuffed in front of him. They spent the night in the police station and then moved from foster home to foster home, as many children do in the system. Often times, siblings are separated and only see each other in planned visits at a local fast food restaurant, playgrounds, or during the holidays if they are lucky.
Early in my career, I was a caseworker for the state. I removed kids; I placed kids in shelters because we didn’t have enough homes; I watched foster families lock food cabinets to control teenage boys from eating it all up before the next grocery trip; and I watched kids lie and cover for their parents’ misdeeds just to go home. Their names and little faces never leave me.
The complete decimation of their education
Approximately 400,000 students are in foster care in this nation at any given time. Every year about 20,000 of them are emancipated, or transition to independent living.
Florida currently has 25,534 kids in kinship or licensed foster care as of December, 2016. And, there were 135,728 children investigated for abuse, neglect or abandonment in 2016-17 alone. In Broward, approximately 2,300 kids are in care as of September 2016.
You can just imagine the effects of moving from home-to-home, school-to-school. The social-emotional impact alone has inspired hundreds of books, research studies and movies.
The complete decimation of their education journey gets a little less airtime.
Foster kids have the higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates, higher suspension and expulsion rates and lower grades/scores than almost any other group. And yes, over half of Florida’s foster kids are brown, and most are poor. They move on average twice a year, and with every move they lose about 4-6 months of academic growth. About 50% of foster kids graduate high school, let alone college.
The school responds
School systems have responded by making it easier for foster kids to remain in one school, regardless of their address. But getting them there between moves remains a challenge. And, better internal systems allow the academic journey of a foster student academic to be followed, being less disjointed.
But there is no replacement for stability in home life or community to a kid trying to learn. In a story published by the Atlantic, foster student Jimmy Wayne shared:
“I don’t even remember what I learned—no, let me rephrase that—I don’t remember what they tried to teach me—after fifth grade,” he told me recently. “It wasn’t until I had a stable home and was taken in by a loving family in tenth grade that I was able to hear anything, to learn anything. Before that, I wasn’t thinking about science, I was thinking about what I was going to eat that day or where I could get clothes.”
The HANDY family
But many kids are not as lucky as Jimmy to find a stable foster home, or return to family care. What happens to them? Where do they find their center of gravity?
So many people…foster families, case workers, school administrators, teachers and dozens of nonprofits try to do the right thing by these kids. But most only touch them for a short while, and move on to care for the next. This does not create gravity.
Nonprofits have to fill the gaps, and stick around, to create family for our most vulnerable students. Organizations like HANDY (Helping Abused, Neglected and Disadvantaged Youth) have done it very well, and are few and far between.
Helping to study for tomorrow’s test, and creating your first resume is fairly easy. But doing stuff like cheering at your games, watching your performances, shopping for your first suit and dorm room supplies, then driving you there to move you in…that’s what family does.
Breon Callins said HANDY was the place he went to see all his brothers. And today, he was among the 95% of HANDY kids that graduate high school, the 100% that matriculate into college or technical school, and the 68% that graduate college. Now that’s gravity!
*All pics are actually HANDY Scholars