FAIRFIELD — In many ways Tyneshia Wright is a normal college student.
“Cooking” means she usually has cereal for dinner. She and her roommate accidentally locked themselves out of their new apartment during their first week of classes. She dreads waking up for an 8 a.m. communications class.
Unlike most of her peers at Kennebec Valley Community College, however, Wright, 21, has spent most of her life in foster care. She lived with eight families and in a group home from the time she was 5 years old until the time she graduated from an alternative high school in Bangor. She has lived in Benton, Rockland, Bangor, Brewer and Waterville, and although she has three brothers, she has never lived with any of them. For the last two years Wright lived and worked at organizations helping homeless youths and those without families while living in a shelter, on friends’ couches and for a short time on her own.
Her roommate, Tia Knowlton-Basford, 20, has a similar story. She was taken into foster care when she was about 12. Her mother had just been arrested and her father was in jail. She was placed with a family once, but after meeting her they decided they didn’t want to keep her because she didn’t have blue eyes, said Knowlton-Basford, who spent most of her adolescence in group homes.
The start of their first college classes this week also means the start of a new life — a new apartment where each girl plans to stay for an extended period of time, the building of new relationships and embarking on new goals that include, for Wright, getting a degree and becoming a social worker so she can help others through the foster care system, and for her roommate, a degree in mental health.
The two are the first students to enroll in a new program at Good Will-Hinckley called College Step Up, aimed at helping youths in the state’s foster care system seek a college degree.
The program, although the first of its type in Maine, is one of a growing number of programs at colleges across the country aimed at helping children and youths who have grown up in foster care — many of whom have grown up abused or neglected.
There are 1,887 children in foster care in Maine, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Nationwide, there were 397,122 children in foster care in 2012, the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The goal of foster care, which provides support to children and youths who have been neglected or abused by their parents or caregivers, is to reunite children with relatives or place each in a family by the time he or she is 18 years old.
That doesn’t always happen, though, said Therese Cahill-Low, director of Child and Family Services for the Department of Health and Human Services. At any given time, there are 150 to 200 youth ages 17 to 20 in Maine that are “aging out” of the system, the process by which children who have been in foster care transition to adult life.
“When you think of what it’s like to turn 18 or to graduate from high school, most people have a support system that they’ve grown up with, and these kids don’t. A lot of them find themselves in situations where they don’t have a home. It’s a very difficult transition to adulthood when you have no support at all,” Cahill-Low said.
Youths who have grown up in foster care are at greater risk for living in poverty or becoming homeless, she said. Many of them don’t have access to transportation or know how to drive a car. Many also have behavioral problems as a result of traumatic experiences and the lack of a stable home life, she said.
As they age out, foster youths can decide at age 18 whether they want to receive support from the department through age 21. Some youth choose to become independent. Others can receive financial support as long as they are working a minimum of 80 hours a month or enrolled in high school or college classes.
The College Step Up program offers a little more. It provides year-round apartment-style housing; transportation to Kennebec Valley Community College, where students take classes; and support for improving life and study skills and building relationships.
The two girls are the only students now enrolled, but the program has room for up to six students and plans to expand to up to 12 next semester. They will work toward pursuing an associate degree or professional certification at the college with the option of transferring to a four-year school. The program also will help students apply for federal and state assistance so they can be expected to graduate with little to no debt. It is a partnership between the Good Will-Hinckley organization and the college and was started with funding from the Finance Authority of Maine.
For a long time, Wright said, she had anxiety about going to school, although she has wanted to pursue a degree. She doesn’t keep in touch with any of her foster families and has had more caseworkers than she can remember over the years.
Since leaving the Carlton Project, an alternative high school in Bangor, she said, she has spent most of her time volunteering and working for organizations that help foster children.
“That’s actually why I’m going to school, so I can get paid to do it. I love it and I do it for free, but it’s really not going to pay my bills,” Wright said.
In December, when Wright had been living for about two weeks with a friend’s family and working at a youth organization called Maine Youth Transitional Collaborative, the director of the College Step Up program came to visit.
“I’d been thinking I want to go to school, but I’m terrified of schools. I have major anxiety and I just don’t like doing it. So when he came and talked about this program, I was like, ‘This is totally for me. I think it would work.’ I thought it was a great opportunity, so I took it,” Wright said.
The application for the program has four questions:
• What are your academic goals?
• What life skills do you want to learn?
• What are your vocational goals?
• Who do you want to have in your life moving forward?
The point of the last question is to get the youth to think about forming long-term relationships, something many foster children don’t have, said Michael Hinckley-Gordon, director of the College Step Up program.
The program’s goal is to help more youths that age out or reach adulthood under the foster care system achieve their academic goals. The partnership is with KVCC, which is expanding its campus at Good Will-Hinckley, meaning that next semester students in the program can walk to classes, Hinckley-Gordon said.
On Dec. 31, the girls moved onto the Fairfield campus, where they have a two-bedroom apartment with a shared living space, a porch, cable television, Internet service and phone service.
“It’s pretty good here. I like the window, even though it’s really big, and I like that I can see the trees. I just like it,” Wright said. The building formerly was used to house young adults at the former Good Will-Hinckley Home for Boys and Girls, a residential school that served at-risk youth but closed in 2009 because of financial problems.
The campus is also home to the state’s first charter high school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, which opened in 2012 and also serves at-risk youth from around the state.
“Getting and completing a college degree tends to be a challenge for all kids. It’s a particular challenge for these kids, which fits with our historical mission of supporting underprivileged children who are struggling to make themselves a better life. And it fits well with the needs that exist in Maine right now,” said Glenn Cummings, president and executive director of the Good Will-Hinckley organization.
When it closed, Good Will-Hinckley was a 121-year-old residential school that served at-risk young people in its core operations on its sprawling 2,450-acre campus. It later reopened.
There are no statistics on the number of colleges that offer special programs for foster children, but it appears that the number of such programs is growing. The Fostering Achievement Fellowship Program at Tallahassee Community College in Florida was one of the first.
In California, the state with the largest number of foster children nationally, at least two colleges have programs: the University of California at Los Angeles and Los Angeles City College.
Most children in Maine’s foster care system are 5 or younger and are taken into custody by the state as a result of having experienced physical or sexual abuse or neglect by their caregiver — a parent, grandparent or whomever they were living with, Cahill-Low said. The department assesses the situation to see whether anyone else can care for the child before he or she is taken into custody. Once the child is in foster care, the department tries to reunify the child with a family member within the first 12 months. It will work with families trying to reunify for up to 24 months, she said. If that doesn’t happen, the court will terminate parental rights and the child becomes eligible for adoption.
In foster care, the department continues to look for extended family members or friends who could care for the child. There is always a plan for the child to leave foster care, with the goal being for all children to have families by the time they reach the age of 18.
In cases of youth who age out of care, every attempt to achieve reunification or find a permanent connection has fallen through.
“I would love to put programs like this out of business, not have any children that age out of care. Our goal is to make sure every child has a family when they turn 18, but that is not a reality right now,” Cahill-Low said.
The College Step Up program will offer these youths services they haven’t had while in foster care or would have difficulty getting during their transition out of care, such as transportation, a place to live year-round, people who care about whether they succeed and a sense of normalcy — something Wright said she has been striving for most of her life.
If she becomes a social worker, Wright said, she hopes to make it easier for children in foster care to feel normal. Growing up, she said, it was hard to do things such as go to a friend’s house because that meant having the department do background checks on her friends’ parents or signing a permission slip for a field trip. Still, she said she is grateful for the experience.
“Its just part of who I am. Without this whole history behind me, I probably wouldn’t want to do it. I probably wouldn’t even know anything about it, so I’m grateful for it,” she said.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 firstname.lastname@example.org