January 12

Program aims to help youths’ transition from foster care to college

A new program at Good Will-Hinckley helps children raised in foster care, who are statistically more at risk for homelessness and lack family support.

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — In many ways Tyneshia Wright is a normal college student.

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COLLEGE-BOUND: Good Will-Hinckley School student Tia Knowlton-Basford, center, sits among students in an English composition class Thursday at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield. Knowlton-Basford is taking part in the College Step Up program, which helps foster care students take college courses.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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STUDY: Teresa Smith, left, director of admissions, career and transfer services at Kennebec Valley Community College, helps Good Will-Hinckley student Tyneshia Wright with a school project recently. Wright is taking part in the College Step Up program.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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“Cooking” means she usually has cereal for dinner. She and her roommate accidentally locked themselves out of their new apartment during their first week of classes. She dreads waking up for an 8 a.m. communications class.

Unlike most of her peers at Kennebec Valley Community College, however, Wright, 21, has spent most of her life in foster care. She lived with eight families and in a group home from the time she was 5 years old until the time she graduated from an alternative high school in Bangor. She has lived in Benton, Rockland, Bangor, Brewer and Waterville, and although she has three brothers, she has never lived with any of them. For the last two years Wright lived and worked at organizations helping homeless youths and those without families while living in a shelter, on friends’ couches and for a short time on her own.

Her roommate, Tia Knowlton-Basford, 20, has a similar story. She was taken into foster care when she was about 12. Her mother had just been arrested and her father was in jail. She was placed with a family once, but after meeting her they decided they didn’t want to keep her because she didn’t have blue eyes, said Knowlton-Basford, who spent most of her adolescence in group homes.

The start of their first college classes this week also means the start of a new life — a new apartment where each girl plans to stay for an extended period of time, the building of new relationships and embarking on new goals that include, for Wright, getting a degree and becoming a social worker so she can help others through the foster care system, and for her roommate, a degree in mental health.

The two are the first students to enroll in a new program at Good Will-Hinckley called College Step Up, aimed at helping youths in the state’s foster care system seek a college degree.

The program, although the first of its type in Maine, is one of a growing number of programs at colleges across the country aimed at helping children and youths who have grown up in foster care — many of whom have grown up abused or neglected.

There are 1,887 children in foster care in Maine, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Nationwide, there were 397,122 children in foster care in 2012, the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The goal of foster care, which provides support to children and youths who have been neglected or abused by their parents or caregivers, is to reunite children with relatives or place each in a family by the time he or she is 18 years old.

That doesn’t always happen, though, said Therese Cahill-Low, director of Child and Family Services for the Department of Health and Human Services. At any given time, there are 150 to 200 youth ages 17 to 20 in Maine that are “aging out” of the system, the process by which children who have been in foster care transition to adult life.

“When you think of what it’s like to turn 18 or to graduate from high school, most people have a support system that they’ve grown up with, and these kids don’t. A lot of them find themselves in situations where they don’t have a home. It’s a very difficult transition to adulthood when you have no support at all,” Cahill-Low said.

Youths who have grown up in foster care are at greater risk for living in poverty or becoming homeless, she said. Many of them don’t have access to transportation or know how to drive a car. Many also have behavioral problems as a result of traumatic experiences and the lack of a stable home life, she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Tia Knowlton-Basford

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Tyneshia Wright


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