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Proposed New Lifeline For Foster Teens Hangs In The Balance At Idaho Legislature

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Ivy Smith
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Scores of young men and women "age out" of Idaho's foster care system each year. Unfortunately, some of them have nowhere to go, and many of the systems of care that previously protected them begin to drift away. According for ForeverFamily.org, national studies indicate that within two to four years of leaving care at age 18, only about half will graduate from high school and the risk of joblessness, drug or alcohol abuse and incarceration are disproportionally higher. But a new bill making its way through the Idaho Legislature would, if approved, allow foster kids to "opt back in" to foster care until they're 21, as long as they remain in school or are employed.

Ivy Smith, who herself aged out of Idaho's foster care system and had to fight in court in order to live in a dormitory while an undergraduate student at Boise State University, is now an advocate for Idaho's foster kids and is the driving force behind the bill before state lawmakers.

"I think everyone can just see the value of where investing in foster youth is going to take us.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Every year, scores of young men and women “age out” of the foster care system. Some of them…well quite frankly, have nowhere to go. Soon after, the things that the State of Idaho was supposed to protect: shelter, nutrition, education, drift away. It's a rarely talked about issue. But we're going to talk about it this morning. Ivy Smith is here; and she knows all too well about this idea. Good morning.

IVY SMITH: Good morning, George. How are you?

PRENTICE: I'm well; and thanks for doing this. Up front:  We should let people know that you “aged out” of the foster care system.

SMITH: I aged out back in November of 2016. And I entered the foster care system when I was 12 years-old here in Boise.

PRENTICE: Tell me when this is none of my business: Did that include time in different placements?

SMITH: Absolutely, I was in about five different foster placements, one of which was with a biological parent in another state at one point or another for about six months before coming back to Boise, and even staying in a group home here for almost two years… just a little over a year and a half. When I was 17, I actually graduated from high school. And so, my last technical foster placement was actually in the dorms at BSU. And I had to fight in a courtroom for a little over six hours to be able to do that. That was the first time a judge had granted permission to do so.

PRENTICE: So, it's my understanding that you're in the Master's program for Public Administration at Boise State.

SMITH: Absolutely, yes. It's been fantastic.

PRENTICE: So, that's incredibly rare for someone who spent time in foster care. Sad to say, many foster kids don't make it to college.

SMITH: You're absolutely right. It's really unfortunate. But the national statistics that we're seeing for foster youth who age out of the system is roughly about 50 percent will have their high school diploma, by the time they're 18, or a GED; about three percent will go off to college. And of that, one percent will actually graduate.

PRENTICE: Well, full disclosure  I need to put my cards on the table. I spent a good chunk of my adult life working for foster kids as a guardian ad litem in the court system, and then as a care provider. So, it's something I know a little bit about. Let's talk about House Bill 336, which passed last week through the Idaho House and it’s stunning that it was a unanimous vote by the Idaho House. And among other things, it would allow for extended care for young men and women who might otherwise age out of foster care. How would this work?

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Credit Ivy Smith
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  SMITH: Yeah, it's going to be fantastic. So, we're looking at basically giving foster youth an opt in program so that it's their choice if they would like to stay within the foster care system, but it would look a little different. They'd have to be eligible for this program. And eligibility is based off of the federal requirements. So, we are going to be getting some federal funding through the Fostering Connections Act. And so that's going to help fund this bill. But basically what it looks like is foster youth who turn 18… they want to go to college or vocational or technical program, or they can be working 80 hours a month or they have to be in a job training program. And that's really important, especially because so many foster youth have such difficulties gaining employment, even while they're in the foster care system, due to constraints of transportation and time. And it has to be lots of red tape around that. So, this is really important. And so as long as they meet that kind of eligibility, they're going to be eligible to receive housing and food scholarships and mental health support… all kinds of different resources that wouldn't otherwise have been available to them. And it will hopefully improve those statistics that we see of so many foster youth. The day they turn 18… they risk becoming instantaneously homeless. One in four will be homeless when they age out of the system. About seventy one percent of female foster youth will be pregnant by the time they're twenty one. I believe it's only 50 percent will have a form of employment within two years. But I could go on for ages about all these statistics, but it's just showing that they're really not equipped for adulthood. And so that's what we're hoping to address with this bill.

PRENTICE: You would think that this would be a no-brainer, but this was a long road, I have to assume.

SMITH: Unfortunately, it's just that bureaucratic red tape, where we go through so many different levels of government here. And then just beyond that, so many different agencies have a handle on this. But like you were saying, it was just incredible to see the unanimous vote in favor on the House floor. I think everyone can just see the value of where investing in foster youth is going to take us.

PRENTICE: Can I also assume that the tipping point is putting a face and a voice to this?

SMITH: I would say so.

PRENTICE: Your story is pretty compelling.

SMITH: I started down this path. This was my undergraduate Capstone research project…just looking at what happens to foster youth when they age out of the system. And obviously, I found all of these troubling statistics, and I was so compelled to do something about it. I couldn't just have this research in front of me and just do nothing with it. So, I took it to the legislature about a year ago. And I spoke with Senator Abby Lee and a few other representatives and tried to get them on board. And the support was there. But it was so late in the session. They were like, “We just can't do it this year, but let's try it again next year.” And then I tried to partner with the Department of Health and Welfare because I sit on the Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board, which is a board that's comprised of current and former foster youth. And we help the department kind of construct new policies and guidelines. But that being said, it wasn't necessarily well-received on that. It came as a shock that it wasn't as well-received as I initially hoped it would be. But luckily, in my partnership with another nonprofit in town, Idaho Voices for Children, I just received overwhelming support. And they've been working with me and helping to get this along and I’m just so grateful to have this partnership with them and working with all the legislators. We now have eight co-sponsors on this bill, and it's just incredible.

PRENTICE: It's amazing how many friends you can get with a unanimous vote. Tell me about you. Where are you with your Masters?

SMITH: I've got a year-in now. I graduated with my undergraduate from BSI in Political Science and Environmental Studies back last May. And then I just kind of hopped right into the Masters of Public Administration program. And I've just been loving it. I love learning about policy and I'm really grateful. I'm getting to apply what I'm learning with my volunteering as well. And it's just very rewarding to see the process of this and… hopefully it coming to fruition.

PRENTICE: Well, this is as good as it gets…I can tell you from where I sit for a young woman… and in particular, a young woman who spent time in foster care. So, for every reason I can think of, best of luck with this and your studies. And she is Ivy Smith. We still have a ways to go on this if it is to be considered by the State Senate. So, stay tuned for that. In the meantime, Ivy, thank you and have a great morning.

SMITH: You too. Thank you so much for having me.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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