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What it takes to get teens from foster care to college

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User Kyle James
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Only 20% of college-qualified foster youth go on to attend college

Foster care advocates gathered in Lansing Tuesday to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Fostering Success Michigan.

The statewide initiative's mission is to help teens and young adults who've been in foster care graduate from college and build successful careers. 

Getting a college acceptance letter is exciting for most students, but especially for those who've spent time in the foster care system. That's because only 20 percent of graduating teens who've been in foster care make it to college. 

A place that is helping young people do that is Thomas House in West Michigan. It's an independent living house for teen boys run by the social service organization Samaritas. 

Thomas House manager Danette Nordhof and current resident Robert Flippo joined Stateside to talk about the difficulties of transitioning from foster care to college and independent living.

Flippo entered the state’s foster care system in August 2017. He spent time in both residential facilities and Thomas House. This fall, Flippo will begin school at Kuyper College.

Bucking the trend

Flippo says he thinks the low number of kids in foster care who go to college can be attributed to a lack of support systems, as well as the trauma of going through the foster care system.

“I think it is just a mental battle most of the time.” Flippo said. “You just don’t feel like doing anything anymore after going through the whole situation.”

That's one of the things that Thomas House hopes to change, by providing foster teens with a community invested in their success. 

“I have seen a lot of youth that are college material, but they are just afraid to go on to college and they don’t have that extra family backing them to say, ‘You can do it. You can move on,’” Nordhof said. “They might have one or two people in their corner, but they don’t have a plethora like other kids have.”

Faults of residential facilities 

According to Nordhof, Thomas House typically looks for teens placed in residential living who do not need to be there. When a kid in foster care is placed in residential, they are sent to a locked and highly supervised facility, monitored by one to four people at all times.

Flippo says when he entered residential, he had all the freedoms of a typical teenager stripped away from him.

“When I got to Thomas House, it was actually moving, and I was so happy to finally have that freedom back.” Flippo said. “When you get there, you’re like, ‘I can finally be treated like a teenager’ instead of like a little kid who needs to be monitored all the time like I am going to do something bad — when I am not bad.”

To help better prepare foster teens for college and independent living, Thomas House focuses on teaching life skills such as balancing work and school, and navigating social settings.

“We provide them supervision when they need it. We provide a listening ear when they need it," Nordhof said, "And just someone to joke around with, someone to be in their corner, someone to help in whatever they might come across in life.”

Right now, Nordhof said, there is a shortage of foster homes in the state of Michigan. That means more children are being placed in the state's residential facilities, even if they do not require that level of supervision.

What could Michigan do better?

Nordof says the state needs more foster homes that are willing to take teenagers, and also more facilities like Thomas House.

According to Flippo, there just is not enough support for teens when they are ready to move out of foster care.

“Universities and colleges are scary because its just more schooling but its harder — it's deemed as harder— with no help,” Flippo said. “Just being able to provide more support and mentorship in getting over the fear is a lot.”

Flippo plans to study youth minstery in school, inspired by the youth ministers who had a positive influence on his life.

“This is a new chapter of life,” Flippo said.  “I am really excited to move on and experience real adulthood.”

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