Brittany Hope is a former foster youth. She is also a Portland Community College student, the Foster Youth Retention/Transition Coordinator at the Cascade Campus, and an organizer of Solutions PDX,
a recent event that brought together representatives (including New Avenues for Youth) from the public, private and nonprofit sector to work toward improving the lives of children in Oregon's foster care system. She shares her story:
It's an overused analogy, but bear with me for a moment. Life is a race to be run. We like to
pretend that everybody starts from the same place, and that the outcome depends on nothing
but one's own abilities and will to win -- but it's pretty clear that this isn't the case. There are an
array of factors that give some people a head start, slow others down, stop some completely, or -- for a lucky few -- enable them to start the race a step from the finish line.
There is one group of people, though, who face a slower start than almost any other, whose obstacles in the race cut across lines of race, class, gender, and origin: foster youth. Broadly speaking, the life outcomes for foster youth and former foster youth are dismal. We experience higher rates of teen pregnancy, addiction, unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration than the general population. We see lower rates of graduation and degree attainment. We are more likely to find ourselves in abusive relationships or to experience
discrimination when we're looking for work. Many of these outcomes can be attributed to an immovable, universal human truth: Life is easier when you have a loving, stable family. But by definition, foster youth fall on the wrong
side of this divide -- we are placed into the foster system because a court recognized that life with our biological families, in our homes, carries an unacceptable risk of maltreatment, neglect, or abuse. We are asked, in essence, to run the race without shoes.
Even those of us lucky enough to be placed with foster families who welcome us as one of their
own face a rocky track. Because of our history, many of us are likely to display
higher-than-normal levels of emotional and behavioral problems linked to childhood trauma,
more likely to be suspended or expelled from school because of these emotional and behavioral
problems, and less likely to engage in school and extracurricular activities. Many of us move
from one foster home to another as we grow up, and regardless of how well we might be
treated, this is a situation antithetical to creating the kinds of familial bonds and support that
transcend time, space, and the expiration of the system's obligation to look after us.
For those foster youth who "age out" of the system -- rather than returning home or being adopted -- the prospect of running a successful race looks even more bleak. According to a national study, only 48 percent of aged-out foster youth had graduated from high school by the time they aged out, and only 54 percent had graduated two to four years later. Only 2 percent go on to earn a college degree, and only 50 percent are employed at age 24. To put this into perspective, 23,439 foster youth aged out of the system in the United States in 2016. One in four will become homeless within four years of turning 18, and 33 percent of men and 75 percent of women will end up on some kind of government assistance after aging out.
In a very real sense, for many foster youth, it seems the race is over before it ever begins. To be fair, it's better to have a foster care system than to not have one -- but the inescapable truth is that the system is failing too many foster youth too much of the time, even in our community. We can do better. We must do better. I am grateful to say, though, that here in Portland, the plight of foster youth has not gone unnoticed. Recently, the City of Portland worked with community partners to open a housing program for a few transitional foster youth in North Portland. This is the kind of investment and commitment that we need, not only from the city's government and select non-profit organizations, but from the greater community of Portland. These are the make-or-break years for foster youth -- if we can come together and give them the support they need in early adulthood, suddenly they're back in the race.
We need more of this kind of investment from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors; and more importantly, we need to elevate the profile of foster youth in the community's consciousness. This is why New Avenues for Youth, Oregon Foster Youth Connection, and the Associated Students of Portland Community College - Cascade teamed up to put on Solutions PDX, an afternoon of networking, education, brainstorming, and conversations about ways in which all of us can better support foster youth in the Portland area.
And who knows -- if we put our minds to it, one day every foster youth will be able not only to run the
race, but actually have a shot at winning.