Commentary: A successful foster care story — mine

In California, 46% of children who are in the foster care system lack a high school degree compared with 16% of the general population, according to Orangewood Children's Foundation.

Of that, fewer than 10% who do graduate from high school continue their education into college. Of those, fewer than 2% receive a college degree. Because of the lack of support and guidance available to them, 65% of former foster youths transition into adulthood, after aging out of the system (becoming emancipated), without a place to live, and 51% of former foster youth are unemployed within two to four years after emancipation.

Meanwhile, 70% of all state prison inmates in California had been in foster care.

Beneath the stunning numbers, however, are the stories of individual lives. I know. I am one of them.

Far from a statistic of hopelessness, I have been fortunate to have benefited from the power of a loving and stable home coupled with a community-based effort aimed at youths in the foster care system. Now working on my doctorate in a respectable program, I know firsthand that there is hope for this vulnerable and often-overlooked segment of society.

Orangewood was developed more than 30 years ago to assist children who had been abused, neglected and abandoned. Commonly, when minors age out of the system, they find minimal if any resources to help them prepare for life. Many who age out of the system are unaware of the possibilities for a brighter future, such as attending college.

The power of education creates the possibility of a brighter future. Because most of the children in the system lack the guidance and support that many youngsters from more stable backgrounds receive, they give up on their dreams. They are more concerned with survival than preparation.

Orangewood developed a program in 2009 with the intention of providing support to former foster youngsters who had the desire and determination to pursue academic studies at an advanced level.

In California, Orangewood's is the only program to offer scholarships to former foster youths who are pursuing an advanced degree. To date, this organization has assisted 14 individuals with support and scholarships.

Among those selected to take part in the program are people who are obtaining their masters in social work, public policy, fine arts and creative writing, education in youth development leadership, nursing, clinical psychology, business and in counseling psychology. Some recipients are attending school with the hope of obtaining a doctorate.

These former foster youths surpassed the statistical odds for their future. These individuals are attending a variety of universities — including Harvard and USC — that I am sure at one point must have seemed out of reach to them.

If we take a moment and contemplate how we as a society can improve the odds for foster youths aging out of the system, what comes to mind?

I think of improving resources and guidance for this population. I also think of organizations such as Orangewood.

I think about the courage to create change in Orange County.

EMILY DIXON is a doctoral student of clinical psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology Alliant International University, Los Angeles. She lives in Laguna Niguel.

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