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December 01, 2017

Onward and Upward: A Foster Youth's Path to College

Sneha Barve

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

This youth profile accompanies the article, "How Attorneys Can Support Postsecondary Success."

For the first time in her life, Toya lives alone. She rents an apartment near Lone Star College, where she is a student. After years of frequent moving—she lived in over a dozen foster homes and residential treatment placements —her apartment is her haven. “It’s nice to come home to my own place,” she says. “It’s nice and quiet. I love it.” 

An Uneasy Path

Toya’s path to postsecondary education was not easy. Frequent moves meant constantly changing schools. “Switching schools could be confusing,” she explains. “The new schools were sometimes further ahead of my old schools, and I had to catch up. I would be working on something at one school, and when I moved, they would be working on something else.” Toya received help from her school; smaller classes, tutoring, and extra time for assignments. She also received speech therapy. Despite frequent school changes, Toya graduated high school on time. She then enrolled in college, something only 20% of foster youth who graduate high school do. Her independence was hard-won, but she says she did not do it alone. 

Advocates Prove Critical

When Toya was eight, she was appointed an attorney. That attorney worked with her for nearly 12 years, until Toya opted out of extended foster care at age 20. When Toya got a little older, she was appointed a “Preparing Adult Living Skills” “(PALS)” worker. Her PALS worker and attorney helped Toya navigate a complex and difficult endeavor: becoming an independent adult. 

Her attorney attended school meetings on her behalf and advocated frequently for her educational interests. At least monthly, Toya’s attorney would meet with her, usually in person. When court hearings took place, the attorney made sure Toya knew what was going on and always represented her interests in court. Looking back, Toya doesn’t remember all her foster parents being involved in her schooling, but she remembers her attorney was working with her along the way. When Toya was interested in studying abroad through her college, she turned to her PALS worker and her attorney. Getting court permission for this type of travel can take months, but Toya’s team took care of it quickly. She studied in China for two months and considered making another trip. 

When Toya was older, she started going before a new judge, who she calls by her first name. “Allison was great,” she says. “She always had my best interest in mind, she was very supportive. She was always asking how the court could support me, always interested in what I had to say.” 

Her PALS worker and attorney met with Toya frequently before she turned 18, to plan for the future together. Although she had support, Toya always felt like she was in the driver’s seat. “I felt like I was in charge of the decisions,” she says, but adds, “I’ve also had to learn to be flexible and adapt to a lot of new circumstances.” When it came time to begin college, Toya’s PALS worker helped her access financial aid. They filled out FAFSA forms, and applied for an Educational Training Voucher. She also helped Toya access her Tuition/Living Allowance through Lone Star. Before classes began, Toya’s PALS worker accompanied her to orientation. 

“I got a lot of help from a lot of people,” Toya says. “I had a lot of caseworkers, and a lot of judges, but I always had one attorney, which was good. My PALS worker was good, too.” Although Toya is no longer under court jurisdiction, she stays in touch with those who were there for her. 

Toya’s experiences have made her adept at accessing resources. She has learned to advocate for herself. “If I need something,” she explains, “I’ll make back-to-back calls until I have an answer.” When she was leaving foster care and experienced instability in her living arrangements, she eloquently explained the situation to her professors, who were all supportive. She has found a professional mentor and has even met with the mayor of Houston about job opportunities. Toya recognizes the challenges foster youth face in college. “The holidays can be hard when you’re in college—if you live on campus, it’s hard to figure out where you’re supposed to go during breaks. It’s hard getting your life as an adult going because you don’t have anyone to co-sign things or a credit score. I had a lot of trouble in the past getting my educational paperwork transferred from school to school. There are a lot of issues.” 

Bright Future Ahead

Toya is working towards a degree in physical therapy. “I like to help people. When my foster sister had a sports-related injury, I liked helping her do her physical therapy. I hope one day I will be able to travel for work, because I like to travel.” She also advocates for foster youth in her spare time and is an All-Star Intern for the FosterClub, a program that empowers youth in the foster care system. “There’s a lot people don’t know. It’s hard to relate to other kids because they haven’t been through it. People are always telling you what to do instead of showing it to you hands-on. Hands-on help is always better than just instructions.” 

Although Toya knows not all foster children go to college, she knows many who have. “Above all,” she says, “I believe in resilience and overcoming.” 

Sneha Barve is a staff attorney at the ABA Center on Children and the Law.