Wednesday, April 25, 2007

For most Americans, transition to adulthood is not complete until age 26

Working together to foster success
Mickelson, Jim. North County Times, April 24, 2007.

It happens every day ---- someone comes into your home and states: "You have to leave now and go live with someone else." If you refuse, the police will forcibly remove you. Over the next few years, you will be moved from place to place, having to adjust to new people, new environments and new rules.

That is a short synopsis of what happens to a child who is put into the foster care system. May is Foster Care Month. Why we celebrate a flawed system with a special month is beyond me.

Most teens ---- long past the "cute" stage ---- stay in the system until they turn 18, when they are handed some plastic garbage bags (known as "foster care luggage"), and told to find a place to live, find work, get transportation, etc. It's known in the field as "aging out."
When faced with these challenging life issues, too few undertake the education and training necessary to compete in today's economy.

Here in North County we have San Pasqual Academy, a first-in-the-nation residential education campus designed specifically for foster teens. The academy is a collaborative effort of New Alternatives Inc., San Diego County Department of Education, San Diego County supervisors and others.

The academy's staff understands the importance of preparing youth for the transition from care. They know the single most important contributor to resiliency in youth is being connected to a knowledgeable and caring adult. So how do they "send them off" and still be there?

In comes Cal State San Marcos, just 14 miles down the road. Although a fast-growing campus, it remains student-focused and is no stranger to foster care: It offers Tutor Connection for elementary foster kids and the ACE Scholars program for emancipated foster youth to help them make the transition from care to college to career.

To facilitate this transition, CSUSM will sign a Memorandum of Understanding with San Pasqual Academy on May 3 to address college preparation, recruitment, retention and increase the academic achievement of San Pasqual Academy students enrolled at CSUSM. It's part of CSUSM's ongoing effort to assure that all young people in the region get a chance at a college degree.

San Pasqual Academy receives no state dollars for their efforts after the youth ages out, nor does CSUSM receive state support for the ACE Scholars program.

Unlike other states where the youth can opt to stay in the system until 21, California becomes the "absent parent" once the teen turns that magic age of 18.

Most Americans believe the transition to adulthood is not complete until age 26 and that completing an education is the hallmark of adulthood. With the work of the California Select Committee on Foster Care, we have an opportunity to address many of these issues of aging out of foster care with pending legislation.

If we don't make the needed changes in policy, California will remain the "absent parent" to these young people who are already too familiar with that kind of role model.

-- Vista resident Jim Mickelson is the ACE Scholars Services Advisory Council chairman and is former director of children's advocacy at Palomar Pomerado Health.