There is a bill proposed in Missouri that would require foster youth over 15 years of age receive a visit to a state college, university, or vocational school (LB 1267). This would be in addition to other support services provided, such as career planning, financial counseling, and assistance with application processes. I learned about this bill when I read an editorial in a collegiate publication criticizing the legislation. I was set to respond via the website’s comment feature but felt this was deserving of more than a couple of sentences in a comment section.
For starters, as I read the bill, the mandate is upon the state agency to ensure youth in foster care have the opportunity to visit college campuses. The author of the editorial, whose identity I could not discern, apparently interpreted the mandate to be directed at youth in care. (I am referring to the comment: “we are not at all comfortable with the thought of government telling children what to do”.) As a long-time advocate for youth in foster care and former case worker, I know that activities such as visits to colleges are often a luxury not afforded to this vulnerable population. I also know, that for many children and youth in foster care, college is not perceived as a realistic option. Their futures are generally much more bleak, as was alluded to in the original editorial with mention of drug and alcohol abuse and criminal activities. For many youth in foster care, this is the world in which they were born and often, the world to which they will return when they exit the foster care system.
It is also interesting that the author of the editorial focuses on the roles and responsibilities of educators rather than that of the child welfare agencies. While I agree that educators bear responsibility in ensuring a quality education and career counseling services, I am also a realist. I recognize that often foster youth experience instability in their education and the entity that remains constant is the public child welfare agency. There are efforts at the federal level to improve this through legislation such as Fostering Connections but we have a long way to go to be able to claim success in providing a stable educational environment for children and youth in foster care. I would add that it is incumbent upon both education and child welfare to collaborate to address this troubling aspect of foster care placement.
I would also posit that college visitation is an effective means of increasing awareness of opportunities available in higher education and in creating a positive, productive life beyond foster care. This is a strategy that I have seen used in communities where economically disadvantaged youth may be isolated and have limited exposure to opportunities outside of their family or community environment. Being afforded the opportunity to visit, to actually see and experience a college environment with peers who are career-focused, opens a world that is often perceived as unattainable to vulnerable youth. Such activities can create an attitude of possibilities in youth whose only exposure to college life may be through television or media.
My one final point is in response to the statement, “the government should never come this close to taking over the parents’ role”. This is exactly what happens when a child is placed in foster care and it happens in most cases because a parent is unable or unwilling to provide the care and nurturing needed by children and youth. There are situations, of course, when circumstances beyond the control of the parent may require foster care placement. For instance, in some states, out of home placement is sought to obtain needed medical, mental health, or physical care because a parent lacks the resources to do so. However, most children and youth in foster care system are there as a result of child abuse and/or neglect. In the majority of child welfare cases, the parent has demonstrated an inability to adequately care for the child(ren) and temporary intervention is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of vulnerable children and youth.
As is likely abundantly clear by now, in general, I see this legislation as a positive move towards opening opportunities for youth in foster care. I would concede that it is unfortunate that a mandate is required to ensure that youth experience what most of their peers take for granted. My hope is that one day, there is no need for such legislation, or better yet, that one day there is no need for foster care.