LOS ANGELES—Research shows over 70% of all California State Penitentiary inmates have spent time in the foster care system.
Only 1% to 5% of foster youth ever graduate from college.
Terra Sztain was once on her way to becoming another heartbreaking statistic.
“I was put on probation for the first time when I was 14,” she said. “It was around that time I was homeless and addicted to drugs.”
At 17, she was placed into an addiction treatment center and was amazed to find a huge support network available to her, as long as she was willing to put in the work. Such services are provided by the Independent Living Program, authorized by the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, and the Department of Children and Family Services.
“I started going to community college, and I’m going to transfer to UCLA in a couple months. I want to do cancer research,” she said.
Now at age 21, she is helping mentor other foster and probation youth, encouraging them to further their education and stay clean.
She was part of the first-ever Youth Development Services College Summit, held on Thursday in Los Angeles. The event was organized by youth who were formerly on probation or in foster care. It was sponsored by the LA County Probation Department.
A number of local universities were there to provide information about services for at-risk youth. The University of Southern California has a Trojan Guardian Scholar program that supports current and former foster youth enrolled in the school through scholarships, financial aid, and other services such as counseling. Other attending schools with similar programs were Pasadena City College and California State University, Dominguez Hills.
In one of the day’s events, Terra Sztain was one of five mentors that hosted a forum for youth that were just aging out of the foster care system, or “emancipating.”
They discussed the complications that came with applying for work and college with a criminal background, sometimes violent. The youth were surprised to learn that they could get some crimes erased from their record. They also didn’t have to report them on an employment application, because they were minors at the time of the crime.
Studies show that approximately 51% of youth are unemployed within 2–4 years of emancipation. Nearly 40% of transitioning youth will be homeless within eighteen months of emancipation, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.
Danyell Reed is just 18 years old, but she has already decided to make the best out of some bad decisions she made as a minor. She helped organize the summit and also hosted the forum.
“That’s the purpose of it—to find out ways that we can help to make the system better, to make it more effective for us,” said Danyell.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to appoint a child protection czar with authority over multiple departments, including the foster care program. They said the system was in crisis, and they hope the czar will better coordinate care and prevent problems in the overburdened child welfare system.