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What Barnard and Columbia can do to help the most vulnerable children

By Daphnie Ordóñez, Children's Rights intern

Illustration by Sookeun Jung for Columbia Spectator

This article was originally published for the Columbia Daily Spectator in Spanish. 

TW: Child abuse; neglect; foster care system

Warning: child abuse; negligence; host system

This semester I had the privilege of doing an internship with a legal organization called Children’s Rights. The nonprofit organization files class action lawsuits against states and/or institutions in our country that do not protect the rights of children, especially those who are victims of abuse and neglect. The vast majority of cases are against states that have foster care systems that do not meet federal standards. Instead of procuring the well-being of children (which is what they intend to do), many of these systems cause more trauma and instability in the lives of the same children who have already experienced so much suffering.

I wanted to work with this organization because as a child I had my own encounters with the child welfare system. Although I was not removed from my family (which in itself represents a privilege), I wanted to do something, even if it was not much, to make the process less traumatic for other children. I want to start by saying that while this experience has been difficult and even emotionally charged at times, having the opportunity to contextualize my own experiences is a privilege. Thanks to my work with Children’s Rights, I have learned a lot about how our systems fail unprotected children and contribute to their trauma.

In an interview with the Columbia Daily Spectator, Professor Chris Beam mentioned that she became an adoptive mother after one of her students was admitted to a juvenile detention center because the Child Protection Services did not have enough space to house her. although she had not committed any crime. This is not an exception, since the foster care system reflects the reality of the criminalization of poverty at a social level. As explained in the Washington Post article entitled ” The ongoing criminalization of parenthood (and poverty)“, the problem with this system is that it unnecessarily distances children from their homes due to structural failures, specifically the inability to address economic and racial inequality in our country. For example, a child may be separated from his parents by the state, due to an allegation of neglect, for being left alone at home while the parents are working to support the family. Instead of providing help to each family, or changing the structures that cause parents to have to work so hard, the government punishes the family. This creates a lot of instability in the life of the child who is away from home.

Moreover, the normalization of the instability in the lives of these children has a great impact on their education and their futures. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, only 50 percent of young people who are or were at some point in the foster care system finish high school at age 18. Of the young people who do graduate, only 20 percent of them attend a university. Moreover, the national rate of foster youth who obtain their degree is only three percent.

Why is it so unlikely that someone who has been a ward of the state will graduate from a university? While our government does not do enough to ensure that these individuals have adequate resources for their K-12 education, the same can be said for elite institutions such as Barnard and Columbia. As I wrote a few weeks ago, our institutions were built to protect the wealth of a few under the guise of meritocracy. Institutional failures, both governmental and academic, create too many obstacles for children in the foster care system to access institutions such as Barnard and Columbia. What can our institutions do to support these students during the application season and after, when they are here?

The University of California, Los Angeles established a program in 2009, The Guardian Scholars (GS) Program, to support students who are and/or were involved with the child welfare system and the foster care system. The program offers workshops to promote academic success and to teach students life skills-to navigate the campus and the world. In 2013, UCLA had 250 students in the Guardian Scholars program and the university graduation rate for this population was 65 percent, demonstrating that support from the university really makes a big difference. Establishing a similar program in Barnard and Columbia (as well as other institutions nationwide) would be a good start to making higher education more accessible to children who are part of the foster care system. Obviously, it is important that we fight against the larger systems that criminalize poverty and that do not protect the most vulnerable children. However, our universities can and should do more for these children who have the right to have the opportunity and support to attend institutes like ours.