Despite a tumultuous childhood in foster care and a fractured leg injury in high school, Annika kept pursuing her college dream of going to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on a track scholarship and ultimately made it happen. Today, Annika, a UCLA senior, shares her rise to success and urges other foster youth to never stop pursuing their dreams.
As a child in Southern California, Annika lived in group homes, with foster families, and in homeless shelters until she was a teenager. Then she moved to her grandparent's house in Indiana, where the promise of a stable home gave her the chance to focus on high school and her love of sports.
During that time, her grandparents also compelled her to spend more time with their son, Annika’s father, who had abused Annika, her mother and her siblings in the past, she says. Annika and her father started re-building their relationship again around Annika’s illustrious high school track career, but when she broke her leg and had to stop running, the relationship turned venomous again. So Annika stayed with her grandparents until she was legally an adult, and then started a new life with her friend’s family.
At 18, Annika felt traumatized by harrowing memories from her childhood. Attending college gave her a way to heal. It gave her time to figure out the goals she wanted to set for herself and the person she wanted to become, with friends and mentors in her corner. Yet, Annika could not ignore the real-world, adult realities that all transition-age foster youth face, like finding and maintaining a place to live. Like many others in her situation, if a housing arrangement fell through, Annika would not have a home in which to return.
At UCLA, Annika is a member of the Bruin Guardian Scholars, and it has helped her to pay for college, get extra support and make close friends. As she prepares to graduate in the spring, she is optimistic about her future. She is gaining marketable skills and work experience that she hopes to mold into a career.
She started college as a pre-med major, but realized it was not right for her. So she changed her major to political science, and is now contemplating a career in political campaigning. Volunteering for a presidential campaign led her into her current job, where she is working on a candidate’s election campaign for the California State Senate.
Annika thinks she's found her niche, but still has concerns. A career in politics is riskier than one in medicine, she admits, because in politics achieving success is reliant on knowing the right people. Annika will keep on worrying as she sails ahead, but it’ll be Annika, not her worries, steering the ship.
The Reality for Foster Youth, Like Annika, Aspiring To Go To College
Annika’s story shows how she is rising above society’s expectations for foster youth who “age out” of the foster care system at 18. For many foster youth, unemployment and homelessness are far more common experiences than receiving a college diploma, studies show. As a result, education and support services are needed to help young people to transition to adulthood and build stable lives. Our society is recognizing that 18-year-olds from the foster care system cannot simply exit the system and be independent right away. They need many different kinds of support.
The Midwest Evaluation was a landmark study that compared the lives of young adults who had aged out of the foster care system in three Midwestern states to peers in the general population. From 2008 to 2009, when the youth in the study were 23 and 24 years old, only 2.5 percent of them had a four-year college degree, and only 48 percent were employed. Their average income was $12,064. In the general population, by age 23 and 24, 19.4 percent of the youth had a college degree, and 75.5 percent were employed. Their average income was $20,349 – almost double that of the former foster youth.
In California, these kinds of alarming disparities led to the passage of Assembly Bill 12 – legislation that in 2012 extended foster care from age 18 to age 21. This law now enables teenagers in foster care to apply to be in the foster care system for four more years. They can either remain in traditional kinds of foster care placements, like with foster parents or in group homes, or receive a stipend to pay for the costs of living on their own, while also getting support services.
To measure the effectiveness of AB 12, the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall is conducting a five-year research project called the CalYOUTH study. The researchers are interviewing youth in extended foster care and comparing their outcomes with youth who aged out of the system at 18. Their initial findings, released this year, reflect positive signs for AB 12. The study found that while 34 percent of foster youth who left foster care reported being homeless after the study’s first phase, just 14 percent of foster youth still in care had been homeless. Of those youth who left foster care, just 30 percent were enrolled in school, while 61 percent of the youth who had remained in care were in school.
Transitional age youth encounter many problems when they exit the foster care system. Both the Midwest Evaluation and the CalYOUTH study show us that they struggle with unemployment, joblessness and low wages. Some of their greatest needs are stable housing, jobs and career development, life skills, and caring adult mentors.
Finding Employment, Another Hurdle for Transitional Age Youth
Working at ground-level to better equip transition-age foster youth for successful futures is Caroline Christian, an independent living coordinator for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). For the past 17 years, Christian has been helping transitional age youth to secure housing, career development services and life skills training. Since 2012, she has also been helping them apply for extended foster care and obtain the benefits that it makes available.
Transition-age foster youth have a few different ways to secure housing through Los Angeles County’s Independent Living Program. Some live in apartments that Los Angeles County subsidizes. Others receive direct payments, which they can use to pay their rent. Yet despite these available options, transition-age foster youth face numerous challenges in their efforts to find housing in Southern California.
“There are never enough housing options for our young people,” Christian says. “Some of them have had very, very difficult childhoods and have mental health issues. They may have drug issues. So it’s difficult for them to find appropriate housing. I think it’s a challenge for any person today to find a good job,” Christian says. “The drawback for many foster youth is that they don’t have a high school diploma at the same rate that others do. If you’ve been in 12 different foster homes, it’s difficult to graduate on time.”
Due to the challenges foster youth face in transitioning into independence, many California colleges and universities offer support services, financial aid and other programs for foster youth, including the Guardian Scholars programs.