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A Struggle for Education in Foster Care

photo_leah_charpentier_psEarlier this month, millions of children in America have gone back to school. While convention has it that kids dread getting back on the bus and suffering through phys ed, for most it’s a time of excitement, meeting new teachers, studying different subjects, and connecting with friends.

But not all children share in that experience. For too many kids in foster care, the first day might be a strange building in an unfamiliar town, far from their family and friends, each day filled with the uncertainty of not knowing where they might sleep that night or if they’ll be able to go to school at all.

For Leah Charpentier, a former foster youth from Rhode Island, foster care posed a serious threat to her education — which, in many ways, has defined who she’s become.

Leah was 13 years old when child welfare officials showed up at her school and took her into custody. She had no idea that she would never see her home again, or the inside of a classroom for 30 days.

She became part of an emergency foster care program called “Night to Night.” Her longest stay in any home or facility during this month-long nightmare was three nights. Each day, a child welfare official would pick her up and either give her a couple bucks before dropping her off at the mall or take her to a daycare facility that seemed more like a holding cell. But she never went to school.

At this point in her life, Leah understood that her mother suffered from serious mental health issues, and that she might have to look elsewhere for the support her mother couldn’t provide. That place was school.

“Education was the biggest and most important part of everything for me,” said Leah. “It was a carrot on the stick. It was a way to grow.”

When she was finally placed somewhere she could enroll in school, she faced challenges of a different sort. Other kids didn’t always appreciate her enthusiasm, especially during her stays in several group homes. “I was often targeted because I was the good girl,” she said.

Rhode Island child welfare officials subjected Leah to a string of group home placements during high school — similar to many of the foster youth Children’s Rights is representing in a sweeping reform campaign. The stateconsistently ranks among the worst offenders when it comes to rates of abuse while kids are in foster care.

Leah persevered, viewing college as her salvation, a path to independence. “Foster care for me was always so focused on self preservation. Everything was a risk,” she said. “I had always wanted to go to college. Everything tied to getting into college.”

Her ambition for higher education ran into a new set of obstacles: administrators at every level who tried to thwart her efforts to graduate early. But Leah wouldn’t be denied, taking as many as eight classes a term while petitioning anyone in power to help her. A city council member in Newport ultimately stepped in to force the school to award her a hard-earned diploma. She was barely 17 years old.

College came with its own challenges, the most disappointing being the lack of support from Rhode Island child welfare officials. When Leah withdrew from one university because it wasn’t the right fit, her caseworker said, “We knew you’d be back.” That lack of encouragement hurt.

It was also seriously misguided. Not only did Leah not give up on higher education, she’s made it her career. After getting her undergraduate degree from University of Rhode Island, she earned her master’s in higher education administration from the University of Vermont, shouldering the burden of finding funding and understanding what was available to her as an alumnus of foster care.

Today, Leah, 25, is a career-services advisor to students at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

She admits that getting through her education ordeal required more than hard work. “A lot of this is lucky breaks,” Leah said. And that’s the problem.

She emphasized that children in foster care shouldn’t have to count on luck to get through school. They should have the same opportunities as everyone. The fact remains that as few as 2 percent of children who have spent time in foster care get a college education, far below the 27 percent for the rest of the population.

She hopes to play a role in changing that statistic. Leah has planted the seeds for an organization that aims to help more young adults from foster care land in college if that’s what they want.

Children’s Rights salutes Leah — for persevering, for never listening to the word NO, and for saying I AM ONE who has a vision for the lives of other children in foster care that extends far beyond the limitations of failing child welfare systems.