Even when her life seemed the same as her peers', Misty Stenslie could not forget where she came from. Her college classmates would tell tales of family vacations, sweet Christmas memories and petty issues with parents.
Ms. Stenslie's memories and stories were about life in 30 foster homes and treatment centers in eight states, trouble with the law, physical abuse and the ever-present feeling she didn't belong.
Now in her 30s, Ms. Stenslie has beat the odds. She eventually earned a master's degree in social work and is deputy director of the Alexandria-based Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA), a nonprofit advocacy group.
"All of my cute little anecdotes would have stopped people in their tracks," she says. "To have social grace, you have to not talk about it. One of the hallmarks of being a former foster child is you are without the privileges people get with having a family. Where do you go when the dorms close for vacation? With whom do you share the good news of a job promotion? On the one hand, foster care saved my life. On the other hand, I knew there had to be a better way."
Ms. Stenslie's group estimates there are about 12 million former foster children between the ages of 18 and 32. About 500,000 American children are in foster care, and each year about 20,000 children "age out" of the foster care system.
That is a huge number of people facing the same challenges, says FCAA Executive Director Nathan Monell. The group's mission is to connect alumni who might have the same obstacles and to lobby on their behalf.
A 2005 study by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago showed that most children leaving foster care at age 18 were ill-prepared for life on their own. Researchers interviewed more than 700 youths and found that more than a third of them had neither a high school diploma nor a GED.
The study also found that the teens were more than twice as likely as their 19-year-old peers to be unable to pay their rent. Nearly half the young women had been pregnant at least once by age 19, and 30 percent of the young men had been incarcerated at least once. A third of the interviewees had a mental illness or substance abuse issue.
"The vast majority of young people aged 18 to 24 in this country still rely on their parents," says University of Washington social work professor Mark Courtney, one of the lead authors of the study. "Yet the vast majority of states discharge foster kids by age 18."
The District of Columbia, Illinois and New York are the only jurisdictions that offer services for children up to age 21.
"To stop at age 18 is just irresponsible public policy," Mr. Courtney says. "That support should include programs for basic necessities and mental health needs. We should also support them in areas that give them a leg up in education and the job market."
The FCAA also would like to see health care coverage — particularly for mental health services — extended to foster children until age 21, Ms. Stenslie says.
"Most young adults are able to get coverage from their parents if they are still in school," she says. "Meanwhile, [foster children] are more likely to have mental health issues."
Another goal of Ms. Stenslie's group is to reduce educational disparities. She points out that 28 percent of the general youth population graduates from college. Among former foster children, that statistic drops to less than 2 percent.
"That number has everything to do with how many moves the child has made," Ms. Stenslie says. "Every time a child moves homes, they lose three months of education. If you have 30 moves like me, you can end up way behind."
Changes to the federal McKinney-Vento Act made after the establishment of the No Child Left Behind Act five years ago are helping ensure continuity in education, Mr. Monell says. The guidelines mandate that transportation must be provided so a child can stay in his school of origin even if the new foster home is outside of the school boundary.
The Casey National Alumni Study, an analysis of foster care alumni completed by Casey Family Programs, a Seattle advocacy group, says there are several indicators of adult success. Among them: completion of high school while in foster care, receiving life skills training, participating in clubs or organizations while in care, and access to post-high school opportunities such as college or vocational training.
The Youth Business Initiative is a Washington-area nonprofit that offers training to help foster children make the transition to independent living. The group was founded by Latrice Ware, a former foster child, and Alycia Guichard, a former foster child who is a lawyer and youth advocate.
The YBI recently held a graduation ceremony for the 11 foster care teens graduating from this year's program. The teens are all heading for college in the fall with newfound business etiquette and conflict-resolution skills learned at the two-week YBI program.
Demetrius Green, 17, is already a success story. He has lived with the same Maryland foster family, the Stantons, since he was 6.
"They are like my family," Demetrius says. "I'll always have a family to come back to."
Demetrius says he still learned valuable skills in the YBI program.
"We learned about the correct way to shake hands when you are going to interview for a job," says Demetrius, who will play football for a junior college in California this fall. "We learned about how table manners are different when you are out for business than when you are out with friends. We learned about financial readiness and how to network."
Demetrius says he will go to California (his second time on an airplane) with this quote from YBI coordinator Alicia Murphy in his head: "Life is shaped by the decisions you make."
Kristen Caldwell, a YBI grad who is headed to Delaware State with hopes of becoming a fashion designer, recounted her struggle.
"I tell everyone I am in foster care, but it does not define me," she said. "I am not responsible for my parents' bad judgment. I am trying to break the stereotype that foster care children are ruined."