While many 18-year-olds spent the summer happily selecting the perfect sheet sets and shower caddies to brighten college dorm rooms, Jessica Chandler was homeless, hopeless and “waiting for the next bad thing to happen.”
It was hardly fair.
Chandler had just accomplished what only half the foster children in California ever do. She had earned a high school diploma, despite transferring schools a dizzying 13 times throughout the five years she’d bounced around the child welfare system.
It seemed a cruel twist that her birthday came right before graduation, meaning the state was no longer responsible for keeping a roof over her head.
With no money or responsible family members — only a father living on the streets and a mother who was mentally ill and prone to violent hallucinations, Chandler found herself among the 36 percent of former foster children who age-out of the system with absolutely no place to go.
Her day-to-day consisted of crashing on friends’ couches until they tired of her.
Then she learned she was pregnant.
“I knew the only chance I had to save my son from the streets was to get an education,” said Chandler, now 22 and the mother of two boys. “But at that point, with no home, no social worker and no parent, I didn’t even know where to start, or if a second chance was even available to me.”
On June 17, the young woman, who now aspires to become a writer and motivational speaker, revealed the unexpected path her life took during a presentation on emancipation issues sponsored by the USC School of Social Work and Fostering Media Connections, a media-driven nonprofit attempting to speed implementation of state and federal foster care reform and increase general awareness of the system.
The event, which featured an appearance from Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services director Trish Ploehn, was held in part to spotlight the California Fostering Connections to Success Act (AB 12). The proposed legislation, which passed unanimously in the Assembly and is now before the state Senate, would extend housing and other services for foster youth from the current age of 18 to 21.
The California bill is an offshoot of the 2008 Federal Fostering Connections Act. In 2011, the federal government will start reimbursing 50 percent to 83 percent of the costs to states associated with extending foster care for young people who are either completing high school or a GED, enrolled in college or a vocational program, participating in activities designed to remove barriers to employment or working at least 80 hours a month. It also will provide funding for young people who are unable to do any of the above due to medical conditions.
Ploehn said the legislation is “critically important” for California’s 65,000 foster youth, who are currently on their own at an age when many of their peers are still receiving plenty of support from their families.
“Today, some [former foster youth] are successful, but it’s not because of us; it’s in spite of us,” Ploehn told the audience at the Hamovich Research Center. “The majority struggle. They go from couch to couch, don’t get their education, and many end up with substance abuse problems. They don’t end up with good jobs, and they don’t have good lives.”
Unfortunately, the national statistics support Ploehn’s grim assessment, said Wendy Smith, director of instructional enhancement for the USC School of Social Work.
Fifty-six percent of young adults accessing federally funded homeless shelters are former foster youth. Forty-six percent failed to complete high school, and 51 percent were unemployed four years after leaving foster care.
Less than 2 percent receive a two- or four-year college degree.
Smith said AB 12 would be a step in the right direction toward giving these young adults a sense of connectedness and continuity through the establishment of long-term relationships with caring older adults.
“They need to know someone cares about them, that someone cares whether they do well or don’t,” Smith said.
For Chandler, things started to change when she reconnected with an old mentor from the Alliance for Children’s Rights. But as much as she respected and liked the woman, Chandler was sure she’d reject her when she admitted she was pregnant.
“I had already accepted I would repeat that same cycle of failure,” she said. “I was already preparing myself for the next bad thing to happen.”
Instead, Chandler’s mentor began asking about her plans for the future in a way that led Chandler to believe she actually had one.
It was the start of a slow, four-year process of counseling and a wide array of support services.
In June, Chandler graduated from community college with a 3.2 grade point average. She will enter California State University, Northridge in the fall.
Looking back, she doesn’t think she could have possibly been ready to face the world alone at age 18.
“It took until I was 20 to open up,” she said. “I needed a few years to develop the maturity and confidence to heal from the emptiness that was my existence, so that I could accept help, so I could take advantage of the opportunities presented to me.”
She says she now knows what other foster youth need to succeed. It’s the same thing everyone else needs.