It is time we step up for our young people in foster care. We can no longer stand for small ideas and hope for incremental progress. It isn’t working, and our youth is falling farther and farther behind their non-foster peers.
In true Silicon Valley fashion, we need to set big goals and shoot for outcomes that will be disruptive, not incremental. We must become the first community in the country to insist that young people from foster care will achieve educational, employment and income outcomes that are on par with the general population.
“They are an upper-middle class parent and they should act as such,” Dontae Lartigue, CEO of Razing the Bar, a San Jose nonprofit that matches foster youth with housing and mentorship, told the Chronicle of Social Change. “It’s their responsibility because they uprooted us in the first place. They took us from our homes, they assumed responsibility for who we are and what we’re going to be.”
Who is the “they” Dontae is referring to? Well, it’s the Santa Clara County government. And, truth be told, it’s all of us. We empower the government to remove children from their homes. It isn’t “they” who are responsible for the outcomes, it is “we.”
Few would dispute the notion that we want our foster youth to have the same opportunities in life that we want for our own children. After all, when the decision is made by our government, it is really we, the community, that are saying, “We need to step in, this child needs support and we can do it better than the family at this time.”
Too often, however, this isn’t the case. We don’t do better. In fact, we do worse. Over the past four years, the average high school graduation rate for foster youth in Santa Clara County is 49%. The California state average is 53%. Our county average for all students is 85%.
Most shocking of all is data that says that the median earnings for young people that age out of foster care in California is just $8,300 per year at age 24. Read that again. It is no wonder that former foster youth are a major part of the pipeline to youth homelessness.
A coalition of government, school, business and nonprofit leaders has been working on a plan to address this problem head on. It starts with big goals. Simply put, the goal is that our foster children will achieve “parity” with their non-foster peers. This means that on-time high school graduation rates will move from 49% to 85%. Bachelor degree attainment will move from 9% to 33%. And median income by age 26 will move to $50,000.
Importantly, the plan calls for rigorous data tracking and measurement, so that no student falls through the cracks. The coalition is now tracking three cohorts of high school youth.
Thus far, there probably isn’t much that I’ve written that is too controversial. Of course, we want all of that for our foster youth, right? Right?
Well, it isn’t exactly clear. Three years ago, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors teamed with the county Office of Education to launch the Joint Foster Youth Task Force. One of the key objectives was to “develop a five-year work plan with annual goals…” Six of the 24 Task Force recommendations presented in September 2018 were related to education and employment parity and rigorous data tracking strategies.
The Board of Trustees of the county Office of Education showed strong leadership and adopted a “parity resolution” in October 2018, which can be found here. Unfortunately, their partner in the Task Force, the county supervisors, did not adopt a similar resolution in December 2018, when it formally accepted the Task Force report.
The work continued among a determined group of public, private and nonprofit employees. A second workgroup of experts, convened by the county, delivered yet another report on Oct. 31, 2019 calling for public, measurable goals and a commitment to foster youth parity.
Yet, our supervisors still haven’t taken action. Despite the formation of the Task Force and three years of analysis and recommendations, the supervisors haven’t set any public, measurable goals for improving foster youth outcomes. In fact, none of the original goals set forth in the Task Force charter were achieved. It is shameful.
But, there is hope. At the Oct. 31 meeting, one supervisor, Dave Cortese, said (referring to high school graduation rates), “I don’t want to leave here as a county supervisor knowing that those numbers are still where they were when I got here.” He went on to say, “If you come back here for resources, or to the Board of Supervisors to speed that up, you certainly have a vote from me to start stepping up our business model…”
Bravo, Supervisor Cortese! We are here, we are asking for help. Who is the “we”? Maybe it is me, or maybe it is the nonprofit leaders, or the social workers. But I really think that the “we” is the 172 youth in the first cohort being tracked.
We are high school juniors. And, only half of us are on track to graduate (again). Forty two percent of us are chronically absent from school. We are just 16 years old. We are watching the community give up on us, as so many others have before. What will you do? Will you answer our call? It isn’t too late to “step Up the business model.”
If you want to support a public commitment to foster youth success, please let your elected representatives know.
John Hogan was a county commissioner on the Joint Foster Youth Task Force.