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It’s graduation season and our agency is celebrating the graduations of eight teens in foster care served through our programming. Through many circumstances out of their control, youth in foster care encounter extra barriers to succeeding educationally and graduating from high school. Due to these circumstances, they are more likely than their peers to change schools (resulting in learning loss with each move), have absences and need special education services. They are also less likely to graduate from high school.

In a report produced by the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, 84% of 17- to 18-year-olds in foster care expressed a desire to attend college. However only 20% of those who graduate high school actually go on to do so. Only 3% of former foster youth who do attend college obtain a degree.

Our Bridge program provides educational mentoring to youth in foster care and kinship care. This year all eight of our seniors graduated, with five going on to college or trade school, one entering the military and two already having obtained employment. These youth not only overcame barriers to completing high school but also have a 100% rate of post-secondary employment or education.

For youth still in school, this week is the end of a challenging school year. Students are excited to complete the year with the anticipation of summer vacation and the security of knowing they will see their friends again in the fall. For the 6,857 foster youth in West Virginia, the end of school year may bring a mix of circumstances and feelings.

Due to frequent moves throughout foster care placements, one-third of foster youth will experience five or more school changes before the age of 18. With each school change comes four- to- six-months of academic loss, bringing more challenges to their academic achievement, not to mention social and emotional stress.

Youth in foster care have already experienced trauma and loss, meaning that change, even a traditionally celebratory end of the school year, means a shift in environment and routine and may lead to anxiety, depression and a further feeling of instability. This can be aggravated by the uncertainty of whether they will return to the same school and see the same friends in the fall.

Families typically look forward to summer as a chance to reconnect with their kids, engage in family activities and vacations and make memories. Many visit grandparents, host family reunions and engage with extended family as well. Even a youth in the best foster home may feel anxious and stressed by these scenarios.

West Virginia has integrated the concept of normalcy or prudent parenting into their foster care system, meaning that youth in care have opportunities and experiences like that of their peers. We hope that this makes it more likely for youth placed with foster families to have fun and engaging summers.

Foster youth are generally allowed to attend sleepovers, participate in sports, attend camp and join family vacations. Yes, permission is required for youth in care to travel out of state, but it is greatly encouraged that youth be included in family trips. It is both an essential part of feeling included in the family and an opportunity for youth to experience something they may have never done before: travel out of state, see the ocean or visit an amusement park.

For youth in residential care, there will unfortunately be less options for fun summer experiences. Group and residential facilities make the best efforts to provide an enjoyable summer for their youth. There will be daily activities, field trips and possibly even travel. However, youth will be engaging with and making memories with staff and other youth who will not be a permanent part of their lives. While it may be the best under the allowable circumstances, it falls short of the ideal for a positive summer experience.

There are several ways that the public can help youth in care have a more positive and memorable summer. Some group homes may look for volunteers to assist with summer activities such as picnics or outings. If you have a business, consider offering a discount to foster families or to a facility in your area.

If your child is a friend to a youth in care, do not hesitate to invite them to your home, to join a birthday party or a fun activity. Speak to the foster parent before asking the child, to avoid disappointment if permission is not granted. But generally youth are permitted to participate in play dates and sleepovers. These invitations give them a fun experience, make them feel included with their peers and gives the foster parent a short break. Please also think about youth being raised by grandparents as they often have fewer resources than foster families and would be just as appreciative of an invitation.

And if you are inclined, you can inquire about being a foster parent. Some families are hesitant about foster parenting because they worry it will restrict their own family activities. While providing foster care does change the dynamics of your home life, youth also thrive in families who keep kids active and included in typical family activities.

For information on foster care adoption, visit www.missionwv.org/request-information, email fosteradopt@missionwv.org or call 304-512-0555.

Rachel Kinder is a program director with Mission West Virginia, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure safe and loving families for children through life skills education and foster family recruitment. She can be reached by email at rkinder

@missionwv.org.

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