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Originally published Friday, April 16, 2010 at 4:03 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington helps some foster youth with an educational pipeline

Too often, the parts of foster care that are working are missed, writes guest columnist Daniel Heimpel. Washington state has an unparalleled education pipeline that offers an opportunity for some foster youth as they age out of state care.

Special to The Times

THE prevailing misconception about foster care is that it is a broken system that systematically breaks children.

What is too often missed in incendiary news stories is the bubbling of promise in child welfare across the country and embodied in an unparalleled educational pipeline for foster youth found in Washington state.

First, one must understand the hierarchy of needs that public children's administrations have historically focused on: safety and permanency. But from the passage of the federal Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 and punctuated by the passage of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act 0f 2008, "well-being" has become a pillar of foster care across the nation.

Among many provisions in the 2008 law — sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle — that work toward ensuring foster children are not only safe, but actually stable and happy, there is one of particular interest to the state of Washington.

The Fostering Connections law places strict mandates on states to keep foster children in their schools of origin even if they are bounced from foster home to group home and back again. In the event that they must change schools, the law compels states to ensure records are quickly passed from one school to the next, crucial in keeping foster kids on track with their parented peers.

"To put it into perspective, he was like an animal" says Sharon Cormier, 51, of her 16-year-old foster son Tyler. "We had to reteach him everything."

Tyler had grown up on the streets of Chicago and Seattle, his parents homeless, his father prone to violence. At 7 after being beaten so badly that his leg was broken, the Children's Administration removed Tyler and his younger sister from their parent's custody.

By the time Tyler got to Cormier and his new home in rural Enumclaw, he had little to no education whatsoever. Despite a setback that could cripple a person for life, he is articulate and his eyes are proud.

"I made up three years in one," he says. This he credits to Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit that serves 5,000 foster youth throughout the state.

Where Treehouse has emerged as a national leader is in the development of an "Educational Advocacy Program." Educational advocates are tasked with standing up for foster children's educational needs. In Tyler's case, advocate Rob Credle has traveled from his Kent office on numerous occasions to fight for special tutoring for Tyler — tutoring that has caught the teen up on every subject except math.

In 2006, two years before educational stability was written into federal law, the Washington Legislature set aside funds that have since been dedicated for Treehouse to run the educational advocacy program in all six state Children's Administration districts. In 2009, the program served 1,386 children.

But the pipeline doesn't end there.

Former foster youth Leon Lewis, 22, is sitting next to his mentor Joan Miller, who, after having worked for decades as a social worker with the Children's Administration, stays involved in foster care by volunteering as a mentor through Treehouse.

After graduating from high school and having gone through Treehouse's "Coaching to College Program," Leon decided to make a go of it at South Seattle Community College. With no income, he started working at a video-game store and was quickly exceeding a 40-hour workweek, leaving little time to study. His grades slipped.

But then he and Miller heard about the Fostering Scholar's Program being offered at Seattle University, which provides former foster youth a full ride to the otherwise expensive private university. He is one of 24 students who have received scholarships and is now simply another face on the college campus.

"I do better than some of my classmates and some of them do better than me," he says.

Both Tyler and Leon fall into the transitional age category. The state, private foundations and the federal government spend $11 million a year on 5,900 transitional youth, with a hefty 28 percent of those funds going to pre-college preparation and college tuition, according to a January report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

With 500 or so foster youth aging out of care every year, this educational pipeline offers Washington young people a strong opportunity to make it as adults. This is all predicated on making sure that children are not only safe and in permanent homes, but that they are afforded well-being — happiness.

Washington's progressiveness in this important pillar of child welfare goes far to fight the misconception of a broken system, and of youth like Tyler and Leon having been broken by it.

Daniel Heimpel is the director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's Fostering Media Connections (FMC) project. (www.fosteringmedia-connections.org0

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