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Their View: Educating foster youth critical to their – and our – future

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opinion Perham, 56573
Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

Foster youth are at higher risk of poor academic achievement, including higher dropout rates and truancy, than their peers who are from stable, permanent families. While post-secondary education is a given for many Minnesota children, it may seem like only a dream to young adults in the foster care system.

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The work of the Children’s Justice Initiative, a statewide collaborative between the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Judicial Branch, is working to make that dream a reality by ensuring appropriate secondary education planning for youth.

One youth, who we will call Sarah, was in and out of the foster care system since she was six months old. Yet Sarah persevered, despite the odds stacked against her. She gained admission to college, earned a music scholarship, worked at a grocery store, and with a little help from the state along the way, graduated. We want to help more foster youth like her.

While our goal has always been and will remain to find permanent families for the 11,400 children in foster care – whether that means they return safely home to their biological families or to new, permanent families – we are committed to  supporting their education no matter what. This is particularly true for the 18-21-year-olds in foster care. Through the oversight of youth progress toward educational goals provided by judges and resources provided by Minnesota’s Education and Training Voucher program, opportunities for success are becoming realities.

The Education and Training Voucher program, administered by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, is a critical part of helping current and former foster and adopted youth attend colleges, universities, vocational or technical programs. Eligible students receive up to $5,000 per school year to pay for tuition, fees, books, housing, transportation and other school-related costs and living expenses. Since the program began in 2003, approximately 200 youth, ages 18-21, have received Education and Training Vouchers each school year.

Sarah, the former foster youth we described previously, stated about the program, “I know that I wouldn’t have been able to go (to college) if it wouldn’t have been for the funds…I am so grateful.”

These vouchers work best in conjunction with support from foster care workers and foster families. A young woman who recently aged out of our foster care system planned to attend college in North Dakota, but she needed help beyond just financial assistance. Her county workers found a foster home in Minnesota across the border from her school, who welcomed her into their home on weekends, holidays and summers, provided mentoring and support for her, and assisted her in the transitions that come with college life. Support like that can be the difference between graduating and dropping out of college.

This spring we have 25 graduations to celebrate. Twenty-five youth who received Education and Training Vouchers are graduating with degrees in computer networking, business administration, industrial design, culinary arts, social work, cosmetology, accounting, chemistry, nursing, finance and math. They are graduating from community, technical and four-year universities around the state.

Let’s celebrate with them and continue to support the hundreds of foster youth who will follow. Ensuring they have the tools to live independent, productive lives as adults is not just our responsibility, it’s our privilege.

By Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea and Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson

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