The big leap: Aging out of Arizona's foster care system

May 07, 2013

Every year, hundreds of young adults age out of Arizona’s foster care system.  It is a big transition that comes with very little support, but there is new legislation intended to lighten the load, though it may only help a little.

At 12 years old, Monique Gilliam was put in foster care after her mother overdosed on prescription drugs and alcohol. She mostly lived in group homes and shelters. She never got a foster family. 

monique Monique Gilliam graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in social work. (Photo by Christopher Connelly - KJZZ)

“I always had something to prove,” Gilliam said of life in the system. “I had to prove I was tough enough not to get beat up. I had to prove I was independent enough that they didn’t have to do everything for me and tell me how to live my life.”

But in school, Gilliam was in control. Other girls would skip class, but Gilliam would go, even if it meant begging for bus fare. It was her way out of life in a group home.

“The sooner I enrolled in college, the sooner I could leave,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam graduated early, at the top of her class. When she turned 17, Gilliam had herself declared independent from the foster care system.

“I had no bed. I had no furniture. I had no kitchen supplies,” Gilliam said. “I didn’t have a vehicle. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t have insurance cards. I couldn’t take myself to the doctor. I couldn’t even sign a lease for an apartment.”

Still, she figured out how to get by. She went to college full time, took out loans and worked two jobs – 75 hours a week. At one point she took in her younger sister who had a new baby.

“I don’t think I slept for years through school,” she said. “I just graduated last year, and I don’t think I slept until that point.”

Gilliam’s experience should have been easier, according to Arizona Senator Adam Driggs. He sponsored a bill that would set up a five-year pilot program to ensure foster care alumni pay no tuition at Arizona state schools and community colleges.

“It’s an additional safety net for them to say you can plan on college,” Driggs said. “If you’re in the foster care system, start planning now when you’re 12, 13, 14, start planning now because college is attainable for you.”

Driggs Arizona Senator Adam Driggs sponsored SB 1208, which would set up a pilot program to close the cover the balance of tuition foster care alumni are left with after scholarships and grants. (Christopher Connelly/KJZZ)

The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting a formal vote in the House.

Suzanne Schunk is with Southwest Human Development, which has programs to help foster kids get on their feet as adults. She said the bill will make a difference.

“We see young people who are graduating from high school, which is a major accomplishment in and of itself, who want to go to school but can’t afford it,” Schunk said.

But they need more than just money for school, she said. 

“We are talking about children who have been severely abused and neglected by their families of origin, sometimes for years,” Schunk says.

That early trauma sets many foster kids back she said. Add to that Arizona’s child welfare programs have faced big cuts in recent years, which means caseworkers are swamped.

Foster kids in Arizona are more likely to live in group homes or shelters than in any other state. Schunk said multiple placements can often disrupt academic development for kids in the system, and many never make it through high schoo. When they age out of the system, many are expected to make adult decisions with big consequences, without any support.

“Most of these young people have no one,” Schunk said. “If they age out of the foster system, it’s rare that they maintain a relationship with the foster family or that the foster family is able or willing to do so.”

Studies have found a quarter of foster care alumni are homeless by their mid-20s and many end up in jail. Some 75 percent of women become pregnant by then. Only 6 percent earn a college degree.

Monique Gilliam does not like to be called exceptional, but by the numbers, she’s rare.

She is 23 now, with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a job helping foster kids get adopted.

Looking back, she said people who age out of the system need better services. They need counseling, college and career guidance. They need mentors.

“You run into times where you’re very depressed because you don’t have anyone to call for support, or you do but you just don’t want to ask those people for those things and try to explain that this isn’t as easy as it is for some other people,” she said. “This is a daily effort just to be here and to do these things.”

Still, Gilliam said it would have eased the burden if she did not graduate from college $40,000 in debt.

EDITOR'S NOTE (5/7/13 at 5:33 p.m.): This story has been modified to reflect that statistics on foster care alumni homelessness, pregnancy and college degree attainment was not based on a national study, but instead upon a comprehensive regional study in the Midwest. Additionally, the study found the rate of college degree attainment is 6 percent.

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