Turning Foster Care Into an ‘Engine of Opportunity’
In 2018, a few months after Elizabeth Clews exited the foster care system at 18 years old, she was pregnant and living out of her car on the streets of Southern California.
She tried to pull herself out of the desperate situation by enrolling in community college. Juggling an infant, a job slinging lattes at Starbucks, all with no support and unhoused, she bombed the first semester and didn’t go back.
“My time in care was really hard but that transition to adulthood proved to be much harder,” Clews says. “I think that if I would have had somebody there for me, that would have made all the difference.”
Today, thanks to years of policy advocacy by John Burton Advocates for Youth – or JBAY for short – foster youth have a mountain of support to help them get into college and succeed so that what happened to Clews is the rarity, not the norm.
Since its founding in 2004 by John Burton, a former California politician, JBAY has helped thousands of California’s foster and homeless youth gain safe housing, food security, and access to higher education. The 53 bills JBAY has guided through the State Legislature have led to $3.6 billion in public investment to uplift the state’s most vulnerable young people.
“We’ve made tremendous measurable impacts that have contributed to transforming foster care, a historically problematic system, into an engine of opportunity,” says Amy Lemley, JBAY’s executive director.
Foster youth caregivers now follow a curriculum created by JBAY that begins preparing a young person as early as in the 8th grade for a path toward higher education. Social workers are now required to help foster youth apply for college admissions and financial aid.
Once at school, another host of JBAY-sponsored laws has led to the creation of a community college network of programs to support foster youth on campus as they transition into adulthood. A new law makes it possible for every foster youth attending a community college, Cal State University, or University of California campus to have access to economic, academic, and social support.
Now 28, and with two children, Clews tried college one last time after losing her job during the pandemic. This time, she received support with financial assistance and was connected to resources to help former foster youth. She graduated from Ventura College with an AA degree and was accepted to the University of California, Santa Cruz, her number one pick.
“She’s going to be a Banana Slug,” Lemley says. “She’s going to get the financial aid we’ve made possible, she’s going to get campus support at UC Santa Cruz because of our advocacy.”
Executive Director: Amy Lemley
John Burton Advocates for Youth improves the quality of life for youth in California who have been in foster care or homeless by advocating for better laws, training communities to strengthen local practices and conducting research to inform policy solutions.
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When I was 17, I’d been sleeping at a park for several months and my social worker came to see me. She told me about a new program called SILP. It sounded too good to be true. I cried when I got it. This option gives young people like me a sense of hope and trust in the system again. It has meant being able to hold my own and still be supported.
Be the Safety Net for Foster and Homeless Youth
Foster youth often lack a safety net of people to call on when they need help, so when unexpected costs occur, they can have life-altering consequences: losing a job, dropping out of school, or homelessness.
“Even though we’re changing state laws and regulations for the long term, we know young people need help today,” says Amy Lemley, JBAY’s executive director.
The Burton Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund is designed to provide that safety net, with funds going directly into the hands of young people when they need it most. JBAY is raising $250,000 this year, and with a $1-for-$1 match, donors can double their impact on helping 1,600 young people with basic necessities like school supplies, transportation, medical bills, and groceries.
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College Futures Foundation
Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
George and Judy Marcus
Help for Children
John and Mary Pat Kagel
Pritzker Foster Care Initiative
Sisters of St. Joseph
Tipping Point Community
United Way California
Walter S. Johnson Foundation