Campus: San Josť State University -- February 4, 2000

Perez at the White House picLife after foster care: Helping more youth to beat the odds

For most young people, it would be a proud day to be invited to speak at a White House ceremony, to sit beside the president and to be introduced by the First Lady. But it was perhaps especially so for Alfred Perez, '98 Social Work, because he had come such a long way.

On December 14, he took part in a bill signing ceremony for the Foster Care Independence Act, a law that greatly strengthens the support for young people who leave foster care at age 18 to make the transition to adulthood and self-sufficiency.

Perez was one of the 530,000 U.S. children who are in foster care on any given day. He spent 11 bleak and lonely years moving between California group homes, foster homes and children's shelters. And he was one of the 25,000 teens who "age out" of the foster care system annually without returning to the homes of their birth parents.

Just like a dad

But a turning point in his life came with participation in the Independent Living Skills Program, the program that is strengthened by the new law. There he met some of his peers and a caring adult who became his mentor. Although no one in foster care had ever talked to Perez about further education, his mentor took the young man's goal of getting into college seriously. He helped him to identify schools and complete applications, then drove him the 250 miles to campus to settle into a dorm. "He did what any parent would do for his own child," Perez says.

Perez started out at Humboldt State University and then transferred to San Josť State because he was liked its urban setting and it offered the major he wanted--social work.

A book for Hillary

Perez also joined a group called California Youth Connection, which, in November 1997, provided him with the opportunity to meet First Lady Hillary Clinton. In helping him prepare for the meeting, SJSU professor Joan Merdinger said, "Read her book, It Takes a Village." Perez did, and then thought of a book he wanted to bring to Mrs. Clinton's attention. Called The Heart Knows Something Different: Teenage Voices of the Foster Care System, the book details the obstacles for young people who leave the foster care system: few caring adults, few resources, few skills, few incentives. Perez gave Mrs. Clinton the book and she promised to read it.

Meantime, at SJSU he encountered an acquaintance and a former foster care youth, Phu Nguyen. Nguyen was attending school on extremely limited resources and had run out of money for food. Perez was so disturbed by seeing his friend look so thin and having nowhere to turn that he charged $75 worth of groceries for him and told him from that day on, they were brothers and if Phu needed a dollar or a hundred dollars, to call him and they would find a way to get it.

Unearthing a little-known law

After that, Perez heard of a state law that directs the California State University and community colleges to help former foster youth get into college and graduate. But the law had no provision for funding, and administrators at San Josť State and other CSU schools had not heard of it.

Working with Janet Knipe of the California Youth Connection, and with Sylvia Rodriguez Andrew, SJSU's dean of social work, Perez put together a public forum with panel of seven students who had been through the foster care system. The impact of the panel was powerful. As the young people spoke, packets of tissues were passed from hand to hand in the audience. Afterwards, the university created a task force to address the concerns raised: housing, financial aid, medical care, mutual support.

"We actually had to make assignments," recalls Stacey Morgan-Foster, associate vice president for student affairs, "because we had so many people wanting to help."

However, identifying students who needed and qualified for help was not easy. Counselors say that former foster care students often want to move on from past experiences, and do not want to ask for help or be seen as objects of pity.

Surveys and scholarships

Two SJSU social work professors, Joan Merdinger and Alice Hines, obtained small grants to study how young people make it from foster care to college and to assess what is needed to help them. Based on the survey results, the university designed a brochure with information about services that these students most need. Morgan-Foster says that community support remains high and there are plans to develop a scholarship program. Meanwhile, Merdinger and Hines have just received a much larger grant to extend their survey to other CSU campuses.

Perez takes justifiable pride in his role in bringing much-needed support to former foster youth who want to become responsible and productive adults. He has come a long way, but in another sense, he is just getting started. Now enrolled in the master's program at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work, Perez plans to work in the area of public policy. "I want a job where I can shape child welfare policy and make the foster care system more responsive."

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