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Beating the System

 by Stephanie Berger
 published on Thursday, October 6, 2005

/issues/arts/694253
 
Lupe Tovar grew up in the foster care system, where she bounced around between seven different families and six different high schools. Here she looks at her childhood photos as she reflects on what it was like to grow up, and then age out of, the system./issues/arts/694253
Shaina Levee / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Lupe Tovar grew up in the foster care system, where she bounced around between seven different families and six different high schools. Here she looks at her childhood photos as she reflects on what it was like to grow up, and then age out of, the system.
 
/issues/arts/694253
Shaina Levee / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 

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For Arizona's 9,536 foster children, 18 is a scary age -- they're legal adults with no support system or clear path to follow. Find out what happens when foster kids "age out" of the system and meet one former foster child who has given herself a future in the form of a college education.

Lupe Tovar, now 23, moved out five years ago and set off to make a life for herself. Fresh out of high school, the psychology major found an apartment near ASU and started classes at Scottsdale Community College to get her prerequisites out of the way. She eventually transferred to ASU, joining multicultural clubs and working at the dean's office in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

But Tovar's experience is different than the typical student's because of one major obstacle: she has no parents or family to support her.

She is a former foster child who entered the system when she was 5, and left it when she turned 18. She says she lived with seven different foster families, switched high schools six times and constantly dealt with the stigma of being a foster child.

"A lot of people don't understand what a foster kid is," says Tovar. "Often times a foster kid is blamed for being in foster care. Kids need someone to say, 'I know you can do it,' but instead they're told they are going to do all these bad things."

Tovar will graduate in May 2006 after five years of college. But not every foster child is given the same opportunities for success.

When children in foster care turn 18, they become eligible for emancipation from the system. Although any minor that turns 18 is legally an adult, foster children have the option of foregoing emancipation and remaining in the system on a voluntary basis until they feel ready to be on their own. But, the Children's Action Alliance, an Arizona non-profit group that conducts research about the child welfare system, says that many are pushed to move on, often without information about the resources needed to help them make the transition.

Setting Goals

Tovar says she was lucky to have her case assigned to Casey Family Programs when she was in the fourth grade.

"They were like a savior to me," she says.

Casey Family Programs is a private organization that trains foster families and takes cases on referral from the Department of Economic Security. The organization works primarily with older youths who are likely to be emancipated from foster care without the possibility of reuniting with their birth family or getting adopted.

Tovar says Casey provides traditional casework support to its foster children, but also focuses on preparing them for a successful future.

"My caseworkers would come take me out and want to know what I'm going through, what I'm thinking and how I'm feeling," she says. "The families I lived with never asked me these things, so it got me dreaming and setting bigger goals."

Tovar says that she had difficulty adjusting to families who often treated her differently than their own biological children and did not respect her long-term goals.

"I couldn't create my own sense of self," Tovar says. "When you're in some of these families your dreams and goals need to be what theirs are, and you don't have that freedom to think for yourself."

As a foster child, Tovar says families expected she would want to drink, party and do drugs. But all she wanted to do was join dance teams, student council and drama.

"Some of the families didn't understand how a foster youth without the set foundation of a family to teach morals and values could have dreams," she says.

With the encouragement of school counselors and her caseworkers, Tovar was able to graduate from Scottsdale's Arcadia High School in 2000. She did it in four years, despite having to deal with different requirements at each of the six high schools she attended.

Casey Family Programs also helped Tovar learn about life on her own. She says that she attended workshops that taught her about finances, renting apartments and buying a car, as well as other skills she would need.

"That was like the Bible to me," Tovar says. "I didn't get that through the families I was with."

After high school, Tovar chose to attend ASU. But she says nothing could prepare her for facing life on her own for the first time.

"I knew college would make me whatever I wanted," Tovar says. "But I had no one when I went home, nobody whatsoever. I was absolutely terrified."

The Basics of the System

Tovar isn't the only foster kid feeling terrified or alone. According to the federal Administration for Children and Families' Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting in 2001 there was an average of 542,000 children in foster care on any given day in the United States. Out of these youth, 100,000 are 16 or older, and 20,000 per year transition out of foster care into independent lives when they turn 18.

In Arizona specifically, the DES's Division of Children, Youth and Families reported 9,536 children in foster care as of March 31, and 31 percent of these children are age 13 or older.

The Children's Action Alliance reports that approximately 450 Arizona youth age out of foster care each year. It also says that these former foster youths are more likely than their peers to suffer low education, homelessness, non-marital childbearing, joblessness, poverty and physical and mental illness.

Tonia Stott, a social work doctorate student, is writing her dissertation on the unique challenges that face children aging out of the foster care system.

"There's a lack of resources, and a lot of times the kids don't get connected to the right resources at the right time," Stott says. "They struggle with being actively involved in the community."

In Arizona, resources include the education and training vouchers, which provide up to $5,000 annually for postsecondary education and vocational training for former foster youth. Most young adults who have aged out are also eligible for Pell grants, which are federal need-based grants of up to $4,050 a year.

The state can also provide Medicaid up to age 21, and up to $558 in monthly aid for living expenses through the Independent Living Subsidy Program.

Without these state and federal funds, it would be nearly impossible for a foster child with no parental support to attend college. ASU estimates the cost of attending the University to be $18,378 for the 2005-06 school year including tuition, books, housing, living expenses and transportation.

Tovar says applying for these resources involves a lot of paperwork, but that the applications are worth the time when they translate to an affordable education.

But Stott says that applications can be difficult to fill out without the help of a caseworker, who is often busy with multiple caseloads. The Child Welfare League of America, a national child welfare organization, recommends that caseworkers be assigned no more than 15-18 children each, but the national average is 24-31 children each.

Other Options

Tovar says her experiences with Casey Family Programs helped motivate her. Other programs in Arizona seek to provide foster youth with similar experiences.

Cory Gonzales, program coordinator for ASU's Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars Program, says that foster youths need a sense of community to thrive.

"My heart goes out to them," she says. "They're by themselves, and ASU can be a very large, unfriendly institution."

The Nina Mason Pulliam scholarship is awarded to eight students each year who have serious disabilities, have children or have been wards of the court. The scholarship pays for recipients' full tuition and books, and provides a $2,500 annual living allowance.

Gonzales says the 36 current scholars also receive mentorship and group support.

"If you've not had parents backing you up, it can be difficult to find your way," Gonzales says.

Although scholarships provide valuable assets to former foster youths, Foster Angels of Arizona Serving Together Executive Director Diane Daily says her organization tries to reach children earlier, between the ages of 14 and 17.

"We act as a bridge to smooth the path for a child as he or she moves to new homes and new schools," Daily says.

FAAST provides mentoring and tutoring to children in foster care and will soon be launching a transitional living program to help young adults move out of the system.

"We realized that this time of transition was a central component, and that all the kids that we were encountering were failing," Daily says.

FAAST works primarily with children from group homes, and Daily says these youths have to deal with the specific problem of becoming "institutionalized."

"The state creates a false sense of security," Daily says. "The youths are so micromanaged by staff, court-appointed special advocates and group homes. You have to be ready to hit the street running the minute you turn 18, but we are telling you how to act up until that point."

Daily says that as soon as the transitional living program gets funding, she hopes it will provide support for these issues.

"All these kids have a lot of trauma and crisis they are dealing with. Instead of having a solid foundation, they are always being pulled down. We try to help them establish a vision of the future."

The Future

For Tovar, the future after college is not far off. She says she might apply for funding to attend graduate school. She also says that she wants to give back to the system that she knows has a lot of problems, but also helped her become successful. Her dream is to open an adolescent transition home for women.

"They have to learn how to love themselves," Tovar says. "It took me so many years to learn how to love myself. But now that I do, and I found my voice, it's like nothing can shut me up. Now that I found my voice, it is my strongest tool."

Reach the reporter at stephanie.m.berger@asu.edu.



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