Sunday, December 10, 2017
Opinion

A helping hand in jeopardy for state's foster kids

The child was born without a home.

Her parents were out of the picture almost from the start, and her first steps were into the arms of someone she will never recall.

She was adopted at 2 by her grandmother, along with an older brother and sister, but was back into the system by the time she was 5 after being physically abused.

If I can't beat them, she recalled her grandmother saying, then I don't want them.

This is not the frightening part of the story.

Her brother ran away when he was about 12, and years passed before she heard from him again. It was around this time that her journey through foster homes began in earnest.

Different schools, different homes, different rules. Different faces, different expectations, different dreams.

She was adopted again at 12 by her case manager. A few years later, she once again was returned to state care.

This time, she says, the fault was hers. The caseworker had a child of her own, and resentment and confrontations followed.

"I didn't understand how to be in a family,'' she says in retrospect.

Still, this is not the frightening part of the story.

At 16, she found herself in legal trouble. Facing a battery charge, she was sent to a wilderness camp for at-risk youth.

By the time she was 18 and officially out of the state's care, she had spent time in more than 30 foster homes.

Ready to enroll in college, she realized she was not yet ready to assimilate into the world.

"We'd never been taught about checking accounts. We didn't know anything about budgets or cooking,'' she said. "Our whole lives, we've been told where to go and what to do. At 18, we were still behind.''

April White is 22 now. She has a full-time job, has been pursuing a degree at St. Petersburg College and has hopes of a career as a social worker.

The pieces of her life started falling into place when she connected with Ready for Life, a Pinellas nonprofit created by Gerry Hogan and Bud Risser to assist young adults as they transition out of foster care. White is now one of the organization's youth leaders.

Which brings us to the frightening part of the story.

Foster care youths like White who remain in school and stay away from drugs get a monthly state stipend of a little more than $1,000 to help them adjust to living on their own from the time they turn 18 until 23. Yet the state House is now proposing that stipend be cut off at 21.

One study suggests that less than 3 percent of foster care kids go to college. About a quarter of them end up in prison. And females are four times more likely to receive public assistance than the general population.

In other words, the cost of these kids not succeeding is far greater than the small investment it takes in getting them started.

White recently traveled to Tallahassee to implore lawmakers to give others like her a fighting chance.

"We are your children. And we don't stop being your children just because we've turned 21,'' White said. "We still need help. We still need someone to be there for us.

"I understand the economy is a problem, but it's not going to help the economy if we wind up homeless or in jail.''

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

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