By Daniel Heimpel | Op Ed in the daily News | http://bit.ly/rOzn1E+
11/10/2011 09:42:02 AM PST - These are hard and patently unfair times. For the 99 percent occupying the streets, systemic economic inequality dims optimism and stokes rebellion.
But now think of the other 1 percent - the children and adults who have or are experiencing foster care; or worse, both foster care and the juvenile justice system at once.
A comprehensive study released this week takes a sobering and nuanced look at the experiences of youth as they age out of Los Angeles County's foster care and/or juvenile justice system. The study, funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and conducted by the University of Pennsylvania with the L.A. County Chief Executive Office, uses administrative data in the domains of public welfare, criminal justice, health, mental health, substance abuse, employment, earnings and educational attainment to asses how well these vulnerable youth are doing as long as eight years after exiting either or both systems.
The findings make good fodder for predictable media stories chronicling the system's failings: nearly one quarter of "crossover" youth (who experienced both foster care and the juvenile system) received mental health treatment associated with "serious mental illness" one to four years after turning 18; five to eight years after aging out, a mere 10 percent of foster youth were consistently employed; and 80 percent of former foster youth and 90 percent of crossover kids received public assistance after leaving care. Expectedly, rates of incarceration were inordinate and the costs associated considerable.
And remember this study looks at records in L.A. County alone. What of the kids like the young man I mentored, who fled Los Angeles and his infant son at 18 only to have two more children in the two-and-a-half years since, while drifting from hamlet to hamlet in the Pacific Northwest?
The expectable storyline is correct: we are - on a massive scale - failing to live up to our responsibility to these young people, this one percent. But as the ninety-nine percent is showing us everyday, the time for standing by and staring at problems without action is over.
Forty-six percent of former foster youth captured in the study enrolled in community college. While it is dismaying to note that only 2 percent went on to earn an associate's degree, it shows a catchment area, a place where if we devoted effort we could likely keep these kids on a track that would lead them out of accepted failure. Of those former foster youth who enrolled in a four-year university, 16 percent earned a bachelor's degree and 6 percent went on to earn a graduate or professional degree.
"Earning more credits at a community college was associated with higher earnings, lower cost of public services use, a higher likelihood of being consistently employed, and a decreased likelihood of being a heavy user of public services, of experiencing a jail stay and of receiving either GR \ or CalWorks assistance," the study plainly reads. "Moreover, youth who had high educational attainment \ had drastically lower costs associated with their use of public services and were far less likely to be heavy users of public services, to experience a jail stay or to need GR or CalWorks assistance."
The facts and implications are clear. A large proportion of these youth enroll in at least community college with others going straight into four-year institutions. Our ability to ensure they get the most of that experience can put them on a path to a fairer future. Dismantling the institutional inequality that may well drive the 99 percent to the brink will require solutions. And it is when we look at the 1 percent in the most need that we find those answers we need most.
- Daniel Heimpel is an award-winning journalist and the director of Fostering Media Connections.