Names of students have been changed to protect their identities.
It’s move-in day, fall 2014. Among the buzz and bustle is Hailey. She is accompanied by her older sister and, like her peers, she is abeam by the feelings of liberation that moving away to college brings.
After she gets settled in, Hailey hugs her sister goodbye. To an outsider, this embrace may seem like any goodbye hug, but for Hailey, it hurts a little bit more. This anxiety-laden farewell is reminiscent of the pain she felt when she was ripped away from her mother at three years old and placed in foster care.
California had the highest number of children in foster care than any other state in 2012, with an estimated 56,315 youths. The state with the next highest number was Texas, with 29,664.
At UC Santa Cruz, there are 120 students out of 15,645 undergraduates who classify as former foster youth, wards of the court or orphans as of June 2015, according to the Financial Aid Office. Former foster youth make up a small portion of the population at UCSC because many foster youth face significant barriers that make getting to the university especially difficult. But for some, after many moves, the transition to college is one to look forward to.
Hailey lived in a foster home from the ages of three to five years old. Her single mother, who battled a methamphetamine addiction, would often let drug dealers stay in the garage in exchange for meth. Other family members were concerned about Hailey’s safety and that of her two older siblings. Unable to take the three children into any of their homes, several of Hailey’s family members reported her mother to the California Department of Social Services (DSS), and the children were placed in foster care.
The primary purpose of foster care is to provide a safe, temporary placement for children who cannot remain safely in the home of their parent(s), according to the DSS website. While children are in foster care, the parent(s) undergo therapy appropriate for their condition(s) that prevents their children from being safe in their care, whether that be counseling for substance abuse or treatment in a mental health facility.
The ultimate goal of foster care is permanent placement for a child, whether that means reunification with a child’s parents — which is the first priority — or placing a child in an adoptive home. Moving a child from a harmful home into a safe foster home can prevent a lot of damage that they might have otherwise endured, said Tony Hoffman, a psychology lecturer at UCSC who was a clinical child psychologist in Santa Cruz County for 17 years.
“The positive sides of foster care are that some children are physically safer, and some can get the nurturance and support they never received at home,” Hoffman said. “There are some foster homes that are loving, caring, wonderful places that really turn around neglected lives.”
Although “permanent and stable foster placement can be a significant buffer for fragile youth,” Hoffman said, he also believes that “nothing can replace good biological parenting.”
After the DSS agents picked them up, Hailey and her siblings were sent to a foster home 20 miles outside of Los Angeles, with a family who was already taking care of six other children.
Hailey said her foster parents were verbally and emotionally abusive. She recalls them frequently telling her, “Shut up. Be quiet. Watch TV. Don’t cause any problems.”
Her foster mother feigned the perception of a loving mother-daughter relationship in public, but Hailey said it never felt sincere.
“I remember the mom would force me to hold her hand when we went to the store, but it was never a mom and daughter holding hands. She would hold my hand so hard that it would hurt.”
Hailey said she felt that her foster parents didn’t treat their biological children the same way they treated her and her siblings. There was never any physical abuse, but the verbal abuse, Hailey said, was a constant reminder that she and her siblings were never truly part of the family.
Paola, another UCSC student, said she felt a similar way during her time in foster care.
“It’s definitely not the same type of love,” she said.
Paola was placed in two foster homes between the ages of 5 and 11, both in Southern California. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother had a drug addiction and a mental illness.
She said her foster parents didn’t abuse her physically or verbally, but were rather ambivalent about the children.
“They took care of us and we were never missing anything, but we definitely weren’t their priority,” Paola said. “It wasn’t an unconditional motherly love. It was like, ‘I have to take care of you, so I’m going to take care of you.’”
Like Hailey’s foster parents, Paola’s also had children of their own. She said one of her most vivid memories from foster care was when one of the biological daughters was getting ready to go to Universal Studios. Paola was excited because she thought she was going along with her, but was crushed when the girl gave her a smirk and bluntly told her, “No, you’re not.”
“Every time I would go to foster care I thought it was a permanent thing, where I would stay in the house and it was like a family,” Paola said, holding back tears. “But it was never like that. It was always very disappointing. Like, maybe I was going to go, maybe I was going to have a family. But it wasn’t like that.”
The average number of changes in foster care placement is 3.2, according to a 2008 study by the Casey Foundation. That means that the average child can live with as many as five different families, if they are ultimately placed with someone other than their biological parent(s).
“Every time they do a move, they move schools, move out of their neighborhood, and have to change friendships, not to mention the ongoing issues of whether they should be returned home to their families or not,” said UCSC psychology lecturer Tony Hoffman. “These were kids who were in constant transition, constant upheaval, and the basic thing we know about children is that multiple moves harm them both academically and emotionally.”
Paola said she found solace in the classroom, where she could distract herself from her foster parents’ emotional blows. However, her older brother was expelled from school and her younger sister regularly got “horrible grades.”
Less than half of foster youth in California finish high school — 45 percent — while 79 percent of the general population finish high school, according to a 2013 study by the Stuart Foundation. Only 10 percent of former foster youth in the US make it to college, and of that percentage, only 3 percent graduate, according to Promises2Kids.
“When you’re talking to a former foster youth here at UCSC, you’re looking at the success story, and even they are struggling here,” Hoffman said. “The ones you’re not seeing are the ones who are homeless and living by the river here in Santa Cruz or living by the beach. They’re living in some housing project somewhere.”
In 2013, the Stuart Foundation sampled about 4,000 foster youth and 4,000 non-foster youth in California whose demographics, school or district, school performance ranking and performance on the English-Language portion of the California Standardized Test (CST) matched all those of the sampled foster youth. The study showed stark differences in the education outcomes of the two groups, even though the only varying factor was foster care.
The study shows that California foster youth complete high school, enroll in community college and continue in college at lower rates than non-foster youth who also face challenges like poverty or disability, according to the report.
“What [this report] says is this: the children who are treated most unjustly, who have the fewest rights, who are experiencing the worst poverty and extreme difficulty in our culture are not defined by ethnicity, by race, or by poverty,” Hoffman said. “It’s because they’re in foster care.”
One of the most prominent groups in the US that has made it its mission to serve the wellbeing of foster youth is the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association, a non-profit organization with over 900 chapters nationwide.
Social workers must sometimes handle as many as dozens of cases at a time, which spreads them thin and renders them unable to provide any individual child with adequate attention. Like Hailey and Paola, there are other foster youth who feel that their foster parents are not very invested in them. This is where CASA comes in.
CASA connects foster youth with a volunteer from the community who acts as an advocate for the youth in court. Advocates spend time with their youths once a week for a minimum of two hours a day for two years. They write monthly reports on how they think their youth is doing, and what further steps they think should be taken in the youth’s case — whether the youth are ready to be returned to their parents or whether they need to stay in foster care.
“It’s just one person focused on one child,” said Cita Rasul, Outreach Coordinator for CASA of Santa Cruz County. “The CASA volunteer gets to be that person who sees them every week and gets to know them and helps them figure out how to express themselves, or how to do things in healthy ways, or just explore other possibilities in life.”
After being neglected by multiple people in their lives, foster youth can begin to feel apathetic about forging connections with adult figures, said Sarah Robey, a transition-age youth specialist for CASA of Santa Cruz County, who works with people between the ages of 15 and 24.
“I think a lot of the teens who might’ve been in the system for a while are used to feeling that nobody cares and nobody listens,” Robey said. “‘So why bother?’”
CASA volunteers are meant to be a source of support in any capacity the youth chooses — as someone to simply talk to, bake with, or play music with — but many volunteers assigned to teens and transition-age youth help their youth in applying to college.
Despite the positive impacts a CASA volunteer can have on a youth’s life, Robey said, many youth can be slow to open up to volunteers because they are so deeply affected by the repeated loss of people close to them. But sometimes, Robey said, a youth will open up and give a volunteer a chance.
“I’m surprised by their ability to let someone in,” Robey said. “Because of all those things they’ve experienced, they should probably not want to trust someone ever again, but sometimes it happens so quickly. If I were them, I wouldn’t want to let anyone in.”
Tucked away underneath the redwoods, in a corner of Kresge College, sits the headquarters of an entire community that goes largely unnoticed. There isn’t a single sign telling people that it’s there, but housed in the office of Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS) is the Smith Renaissance Society, a cross-generational community of mentors and over 100 UCSC students. At the time of publication, one-third of the Smith students were former foster youth, and the others had parents who, for one reason or another, were absent for much of their lives.
The Smith Society was founded by Bill Dickinson in 1999. One of the first students to arrive at UCSC in 1965, Dickinson grew up in an orphanage and in foster homes. Years later, Dickinson decided he wanted to give back to UCSC and honor his mentors who helped him during his time at the university.
One of the main things Smith Renaissance does is help students — known as Collegiate Fellows — pay for their education. Given that many students in Smith Renaissance come from low-income backgrounds, the Smith Renaissance Society helps out by awarding each student a scholarship of $1,100, provided they participate in the organization’s events all year. The organization also helps students pay for unforeseen expenses, such as medical bills, and even helps students purchase new laptops up to $1,400.
Although Smith Renaissance Society gives out thousands of dollars in scholarships each year, Smith Renaissance advisor Amy Hamel said a parent’s role in young adults’ development is much more than helping to pay the bills. “They also need guidance, mentorship and emotional support.”
Smith Renaissance connects Collegiate Fellows to mentors, known as Senior Fellows. Many Senior Fellows are UCSC alumni and some are former Smith Renaissance students themselves.
Deutron Kebebew (Kresge, ‘03) is a former foster youth and was a Smith Renaissance Collegiate Fellow during his time at UCSC. Now 35 years old and working with foster youth in his professional life, Kebebew decided he wanted to give back directly to the Smith Renaissance Society by returning to the organization as a mentor.
“A mentor is not in the traditional sense somebody who knows better than you and they’re going to guide you,” Kebebew said. “It’s just being a listening ear or being on that path with them by their side — not in front of them, not behind them, but by their side.”
Despite the deeply positive impact Smith Renaissance has on UCSC students and members of the Santa Cruz community, it does not receive any direct funding from the university. The only money the organization gets is the money that goes toward Hamel’s salary for Smith Renaissance, which is actually paid by the students through student fees.
Sally Lester, the full-time program coordinator for STARS and staff liaison for Smith Renaissance said, “We’re employees of STARS,” Lester said, referring to herself and Hamel. “And Amy’s salary, that’s from the Student Fee Advisory Committee. That’s not from the university saying, ‘Yeah! This is a great idea!’”
Smith Renaissance is not technically part of the university. It runs almost entirely on the generosity of donors, who Hamel said are the reason why the organization has been able to survive for so long. However, she called the effort to find monies “a continuous struggle.”
The Smith Renaissance Society does what it can to help students who have faced difficult barriers in their lives, whether they were in foster care or not. And even though the organization helps students at UCSC, there are thousands of students throughout California and across the country who don’t even get to the university.
“It’s a bigger problem, the whole issue of foster youth, wards of the court,” Hamel said. “It’s a much bigger issue than just what we’ve got here. It’s a whole societal issue.”
Just a few years ago, Hailey was standing in her mother’s kitchen as her mother yelled at her while high on meth. “You’re not as smart as your sister! You’re bad at math! You’ll be nothing in life! You are a failure!” Hailey recalled.
“I still have issues with confidence because of what my mom said to me, and attachment issues that I think are attributed to my time in foster care at such a young age,” Hailey said. “Even as an adult here at UCSC, I’m always scared that friends, boyfriends, anyone is going to leave me. I’m always afraid of being alone or being abandoned.”
Hailey said she still suffers from emotional and psychological trauma, but she tries to channel that energy by volunteering with the Smith Renaissance Society. When local foster youth visit UCSC, Hailey stands before them and tells them about the SAT, college applications, and the barriers she had to surpass to get to the university, in the hopes that they can overcome their obstacles, too.
All of the sources interviewed in this story said they believe the general public holds an unfair stigma about foster youth.
“A lot of people think that we’re delinquents, we’re going to amount to nothing, get Fs in high school, flunk out,” Hailey said.
But the reason this stereotype exists, Cita Rasul said, is because so few people understand the reasons why foster youth end up in out-of-home care in the first place.
“[The foster care system] is kind of an invisible, mysterious part of our culture that a lot of people don’t know very much about,” Rasul said. “These are not juvenile delinquents, these aren’t kids that were shoplifting and that’s why they’re involved in the courts — these are kids who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and who, through no fault of their own, are involved in the system.”
Studies such as the one by the Stuart Foundation show that foster youth are more likely than their peers to drop out of high school, but, Hailey said, people should not assume that this is the case for all foster youth.
Hailey and Paola had access to support and resources that prevented them from becoming another statistic, but not every foster youth is granted the same opportunities. For foster youth to advance, society must wholly acknowledge the foster youth population and view them as a group who simply share a unique experience — rather than stigmatize them for something that was out of their control.
Sitting in the back of the Oakes Cafe, Hailey spends over an hour recounting her life story into an audio recorder on the table.
“There are feelings that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to terms with,” Hailey says. Noting her sometimes persistent feelings of abandonment, she says, “Sometimes those feelings are kind of irrational, and I have to really think them through and remember. I feel this way because of a lot of things that have happened in my past, but —” She pauses and looks down at her hands in her lap.
“But it’s not your fault,” this reporter offers.
“But it’s not my fault.”