New York, Dec. 22, 2009 – Only a small fraction of New York City’s foster youth are enrolled in or applying to college, but the shining few who fit this description face bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining everything from allowances to basic information about applying to school.
Foster youth face challenges and issues their peers heading to college would never have to think about. One conspicuous problem is that foster care ends when the adolescent turns 21, but college students don’t usually graduate until they are 22, so the only way for foster students to receive consistent services throughout school is to apply for an Exception to Policy (ETP). In one case, a foster student applied for an ETP in November 2008, but it was not until June 2009 – after the foster care agency submitted the wrong form on the student’s behalf – that the student found out her extension was granted and she was still eligible for the agency’s reimbursements.
Students in Columbia Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic encounter these problems regularly while working with their adolescent clientele in foster care. Prompted by frustration over the city’s policies involving college-bound foster youth, third-year student Lilli Scalettar and former clinic student Melissa Hazell ’09 wrote letters over the summer to James F. Purcell, Executive Director of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, and John B. Mattingly, Commissioner at New York City Children’s Services.
The letters addressed the hardships facing their clients, who have neither parents nor a stable household to support them as they apply to and attend college. These issues include difficulties in obtaining certificates of residency, problems adolescents face in obtaining funds, and conflicts between the agencies’ goal of encouraging independent living and the requirement that foster youth adhere to specific living conditions.
Scalettar and Hazell also argued that the timing of ETP applications can be restrictive, since they require the adolescent’s registration form in advance of the upcoming semester – regardless of whether the registration period is even open yet. Finally, the letter-writers recommended Children’s Services issue a memorandum to local foster care agencies clarifying which entitlements, such as room and board or clothing and hygiene items, they are required to cover.
The response could not have been more rewarding: Mattingly and Purcell invited clinic students to meet with them and senior staff of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services in November to discuss the issues in full.
Along with fellow Columbia Law School third-year student Zac Soto, a current teaching assistant in the clinic, Scalettar prepared a presentation and handout for the meeting focusing on several issues raised in the letter. “We went to ask for transparency and access,” says Scalettar. “The system is set up to help the foster youth, but the way it plays out is ineffective and ends up giving them expectations that are not fulfilled.”
Soto proposed creating a package for college-bound youth that contains all the important documentation they would need along the way, such as certificates of residency and birth, and social security information. According to Soto, the senior staff was highly responsive.
“As I see it, these kids are a success story for New York foster care,” says Soto. “Child Services shouldn’t be hampering them.”
Showing tact while aptly making their case, Scalettar and Soto have received invaluable hands-on advocacy experience through the Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic, which they describe as a boot-camp. The clinic combines intensive adolescent-focused coursework, research and policy development, extensive interviewing, counseling, and case-prepping simulations, and finally, real casework in which students represent clients referred from legal advocacy offices and foster care agencies. Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law Jane M. Spinak, a longtime children’s rights advocate and current Co-Chair of a task force on reforming Family Court, runs the clinic and supervises the students. “There is no professor at Columbia Law School like Jane,” says Soto. “She’s passionate about making successful advocates.”
While much work remains to be done for youth aging out of foster care, the meeting left an impression on the people in the best position to affect policy. Scalettar and Soto’s handouts are circulating among senior staff at NYC Children’s Services, and a follow-up meeting is being planned. Mattingly, Children’s Services Commissioner, said that the initial letter spurring the meeting was one of the best examples of advocacy he had seen in his eight years as commissioner.
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