Monday, September 18, 2006

Checks too late to help emancipated foster

NO REFUGE: A false promise to foster youth
San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, Calif.:Sep 15, 2006. p. B.10

IF CALIFORNIA legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are serious about helping foster youth make the transition to adulthood, they need to do more than pour money into the bureaucracy.

They need to make sure that money is going to the young adults it is designed to help -- when they need it most.

A case in point: The new state budget includes a $5.7 million supplement to a federal program that provides grants of up to $5,000 for emancipated foster youth to cover the costs of housing and other expenses when they go to college.

It's a compelling need. By definition, these former wards of the state lack the personal resources and family-support structure that is so essential in navigating higher education. Only about 2 percent of all former foster youth ever get a college degree. An 18-year- old leaving the foster-care system is many times more likely to become homeless or imprisoned than to earn a diploma in the following five years.

So, with September rents now overdue and classes having started more than two weeks ago on most campuses, how much of this money has actually reached the roughly 2,000 eligible foster youth in California colleges and universities?

Not a dime.

At the earliest, the first checks will be sent out in "mid-to- late October," said Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, which administers what are known as "Chafee grants," after the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., who championed the program to help young people ages 18-21 who are leaving foster care.

The excuses amount to classic bureaucratese. Fuentes-Michel insisted it's not the commission's fault -- as of Thursday, she was still waiting for the state departments of Social Services and General Services to sign the "interagency agreements" to give the commission authorization to distribute the money.

"The timing of this program," she acknowledged, "is not in sync with the academic calendar."

That is an understatement. The distribution of funds has been so outrageously slow that some financially strapped students have given up and dropped out of school as a result, according to those who administer the money at the campus level. At Cal State University East Bay, the dozen students who were certified for Chafee grants in summer 2005 did not receive their checks until August 2006. Financial-aid administrators at City College of San Francisco and Laney College said many-months delays were not uncommon.

The frustration is statewide, said Minh Ngo-Gonzalez, director of the Silicon Valley Children's Fund, which runs a program to help 41 emancipated foster youth at 15 California colleges.

She said "almost all" of those students received letters from the state last fall indicating they would get a Chafee grant -- and counted on it as part of their financial-aid package -- but none received a check before springtime. A few waited and waited, until they were finally notified -- in the spring -- that the program had run out of money and they would not get anything.

This bureaucratic dysfunction is worse than intolerable. It is cruel.

Ngo-Gonzalez said state administrators had been assuring students that, with the extra state money, the problems had been fixed and the grants would be issued in a timely manner this year.

That promise is officially broken. Even a one-month delay is untenable for a student who is scrambling to come up with the money for food, apartment deposits and other basic expenses.

"It's not right, what's happening," Ngo-Gonzalez said. "If the federal or state government tells you they're going to do something, you expect them to do it."

Sarah Mejia, a 22-year-old single mother and full-time CCSF student, knows all about delays and bureaucratic snafus. A mix-up in government records left her without a Chafee grant in 2004-05, despite documented evidence of her years in foster care. Her eligibility was finally certified by the state at the start of school in late August 2005. Still, she did not receive her $4,800 check until May 2006.

Mejia is livid at all the bureaucratic finger-pointing in Sacramento.

"At the end of the day, they get to go to their big homes, sit by their warm fires, enjoy their cappuccinos and watch their plasma TVs," said Mejia, who, at 22, is no longer eligible for the grants that came late one year and not at all in the other. "They're insulated from the conditions that me and other people who are counting on these grants have to live with."

Assemblywoman Karen Bass, a Baldwin Vista Democrat who has taken a lead role in advocating for foster youth, said legislators had two objectives in adding $5.7 million to the Chafee grant program. One was to make sure that all eligible students could obtain the grants. (Last year, there were twice as many applicants as there were available dollars to fully fund the grants).

The other goal was to alleviate one big excuse for the delay in getting the money to the students -- the fact that the federal fiscal year, which will bring $7.9 million in Chafee grants to this state, does not begin until Oct. 1. The state fiscal year begins in July, thus, theoretically, allowing the state money to flow in time for the school year.

Bass was none too pleased to learn the state bureaucracy was not going to be getting money to the eligible students until mid- October at the earliest.

"What you've brought to my attention is that this is still a problem," Bass said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "For a middle-class kid, this (type of delay in financial aid) means you borrow from your parents. For a foster kid, this could mean you are on the streets."

In most other forms of financial aid, standard practice is to ensure that students know exactly what they will be receiving -- and, in many cases, have checks in hand -- before the first day of class.

Consider the plight of a newly emancipated foster youth entering CSU East Bay. Even if a student were to receive a maximum $4,600 Pell grant -- the main source of financial aid for the lowest- income students -- the math of higher education is daunting. On- campus room-and-board runs $8,400 a year. A $5,000 Chafee grant could make or break a college opportunity for a freshman without parents, credit or connections.

"These are probably the most disadvantaged group we serve," said Rhonda Johnson, financial aid director at CSU East Bay. "You can imagine the impact of having to wait for any type of financial aid."

California legislators this year made foster care a higher priority than it has been in memory -- including the addition of $5.7 million for the Chafee grants. Their most significant move toward reform was the passage of AB2216, authored by Assembly members Bass and Bill Maze, R-Visalia, to set up a council to oversee this state's severely disjointed system for caring for the 80,000-plus foster children that are our collective responsibility.

The bungling of the Chafee grants is a perfect example of why the state needs a commission to oversee the system and outlay of dollars, as AB2216 proposes. Schwarzenegger must sign this bill -- for the sake of taxpayers and for the sake of young people who are being shortchanged by the state government's disorganization and inattention.

"One of my greatest fears is that we will do this work and the implementation will fall short," Bass said of this year's strides in foster-care reform.

Enough of the bureaucratic excuses. The emancipated foster youth who have enrolled in college -- overcoming tall odds in pursuit of their dreams -- deserve the support of the promises the state has made to them.

The Chafee program must be realigned so that these grants reach students before the first day of classes -- before they purchase their books, before they have to arrange child care or buy groceries, before the rent is due.

We will stay with this issue until the problem is fixed. . Urge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to intervene in this bureaucratic logjam that is delaying Chafee grants -- and encourage him to sign AB2216 to make all foster-care programs more efficient and effective. E-mail him at


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