Tori Black, 25, “aged out” of Colorado’s foster care system seven years ago. Her story is one of survival, but also of perseverance and rare success. She didn’t soften the words of her struggle as she addressed the state Senate Finance Committee.
“The pathway from foster care to higher education is a cliff, and most of us are just completely falling off the cliff,” Black said, her voice rising, as she explained her view that the state is failing foster youth.
Black spent most of her childhood in foster care. Now a college graduate, she is an advocate for “youth in transition,” or kids who age out of the child welfare system at 18.
In taking testimony from Black and others on legislation that would impact foster care in the state, the senators heard about a system that many consider dysfunctional.
A Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analysis of data provided by the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) revealed that only 28.7 percent of foster youth will graduate from high school on time, but at least 38 percent will have been incarcerated between ages 16 and 19.
By age 19, foster youth who were never placed in a permanent home are more likely to have a criminal record than a high school diploma.
Foster care outcomes are particularly bleak for Colorado minorities.
According to CDHS statistics, blacks are four times more likely than whites to enter the child welfare system, and Hispanics are nearly three times more likely than whites to spend time in out of home care.
“I was an eight-year-old kid,” Alfredo Carrillo, a former foster youth said. “I thought I should be home with my mom, not having other people tell me when I can sleep, when I can eat.”
Carrillo said that living in foster care and group homes boosted his chances of getting into trouble with the law, that his background has followed him into his adult life.
“I’m still looked at as a criminal,” Carrillo said. “Just because I have tattoos, the color of my skin and how I lived my life, back in the day.”
Carrillo, 21, said that he “started robbing houses” as a juvenile, but maintained that he has since avoided criminal activity. He currently lives just a few blocks from where he grew up, and was able to find housing through a program called Bridging the Gap at Mile High United Way. The program provides 18 months of housing vouchers for youth who age out of child welfare or the division of youth corrections.
This gave Carrillo the opportunity to escape the alternative, homelessness, he said, and has helped him to stay out of jail. He said that while he was in foster care he felt like he was being prepared for prison.
“They make you feel like, you’re one of the statistics, you’re going to the penitentiary,” Carrillo said. “So we’re gonna get you set up for the penitentiary.”
Nationwide, former foster youth and young adults are more than 10 times as likely as their non-foster peers to be in jail or prison as their “current living arrangement.”
The national data show that 43 percent of women and 74 percent of men who emancipated from foster care will have been incarcerated at least once in their lives.
State officials said the primary solution to addressing this problem is to place foster kids in permanent homes, either through adoption or being reunited with their birth families.
“We know that aging out of foster care, without a family, without a permanent family, does not have good long-term effects,” said Robert Werthwein, director of the Office of Children, Youth and Families in the Colorado Department of Human Services. “Having a family is really key. You don’t just stop growing at age 18.”
But for teens in foster care, finding a permanent home can be difficult. In Colorado, close to 70 percent of teens in foster care live in group homes with other foster teens.
“I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention; basically, that was my second home during my teenage years,” said Tamisha Macklin, 26. Often group homes are populated by both those in the juvenile justice system and those who are not.
Macklin entered foster care at age six and by 14 she was spending most of her time in group homes and detention centers. “I would just leave, or miss curfew and be counted as a runaway, I would just violate,” she said.
Macklin now works as a foster care advocate, regularly appearing before the Colorado General Assembly and appealing to lawmakers in Washington.
She uses her past experiences to help others, including Anthony Piccolo, 21, who said he also experienced several placements after fighting with foster parents or running away. He said that life in group homes helped him build a rap sheet.
“Living in these group homes, there are all these guys and then all this testosterone and you get in fights and then that’s an assault charge,” Piccolo said. “It’s the simplest things that you end up going to court for.”
Common behaviors like fighting or running away – which youth policy advocates say is common for all teens, not just those living in care – can lead to harsher penalties for foster youth.
“It’s normal for kids to break curfew,” said Kippi Clausen, a policy consultant in Colorado working on child welfare programs. “Some of these challenges are normal for kids.”
State officials say that it’s not policy to require criminal charges for what might otherwise be considered simply youth acting out, but that there are reporting requirements to ensure safety.
“We have licensing and monitoring in Colorado, we need to know what’s going on,” Werthwein said. “But that doesn’t always mean charges – it’s a different track than a judicial charges.”
Werthwein says his goal is to reduce the size of group homes and to help more kids remain with their families or a family member, or with a foster family.
“Not in an ideal world, (but) in this world, we need to have more foster homes,” Werthwein said. “It’s not an easy thing.”
A recent report from policy research group IFC International, submitted to the state auditor’s office, estimated that Colorado needs 574 new caseworkers and 122 additional supervisory positions to meet the demands of the 10,000 foster youth flowing through the system each year. There is also, CDHS reports, a consistent shortage of foster homes.
But attempts to address staffing and housing shortages have been difficult. This year, Gov. John Hickenlooper requested that the $25 billion state budget include room for 130 new caseworkers. That request didn’t make the final budget.
Other bills to address the needs of teens and young adults leaving the foster care system have faced similar challenges.
“I thought, ‘I cannot let these kids down,’” said state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Arapahoe County, who has proposed a number of bills that would support older foster youth. “The hundreds of kids across the state, those kids who through no fault of their home have lived with this system as a parent, I couldn’t let them down.”
She sponsored the “Fostering Connections” bill to help foster youth get into college, while keeping them off the streets and out of jail.
The bill failed by a 3-2 vote in the Senate Finance Committee.
Tori Black and Tamisha Macklin, who both testified on behalf of this bill, said they were saddened and somewhat surprised the bill failed – but remain steadfast in their advocacy for foster youth.
The senators who voted against it said that focusing on foster kids and higher education missed the mark. As it is, many foster teens have gained a juvenile record and will have trouble graduating from high school.
“I think this is a huge problem, I just don’t think this is the solution,” said Sen. Tim Neville, R- Littleton, the committee chair.
Most advocates and former foster youth do not think there is a simple solution to all that ails the system. They hope legislators and the human services department will continue to seek ways to decrease the incarceration rate for foster youth.
“I’m worth it,” Carrillo said. “I have a chance to prove something to society. I am not who they think I am. I am better.”