Offering California's foster youth better opportunities to succeed

By Senator Scott Wilk

Life in foster care is extremely challenging for a multitude of reasons. Many of the day- to-day activities that numerous children take for granted are inaccessible to children in foster care.  Whether it is sports, music, art or just being part of an extracurricular club – these types of activities are mostly out of reach.

Studies show us extracurricular and enrichment activities play a crucial role in normal childhood and adolescent development. Participation can help young people develop skills and interests that can lead to higher education opportunities and fulfilling careers. Additionally, participating in such activities boosts resume skills and encourages stability in the lives of those who may have very little.

Providing access to extracurricular activities can make a tremendous difference in a child’s life. This is why I introduced Senate Bill 219, which creates a pilot program to provide grants to foster youth. The bill allows foster youth to receive $500 annually for enrichment activities – an amount based off a Money Magazine estimated annual cost of extracurriculars.

This change would make a tremendous difference in the lives of children in our area. The Antelope Valley alone is home to one out of every third foster youth in LA County. California ranks 36th in the nation among states in overall child well-being.  One-third of all foster youth never finish high school or get a GED and only 3-5% graduate from four-year colleges. Foster youth are also, on average, more likely than their peers to experience suspensions, expulsion, and interactions with the juvenile justice system.

Despite these sobering statistics, there has not been any funding allocated for foster youth extracurricular activities – a step that has been proven to positively affect the lives of foster youth.  A report released by the Youth Law Center earlier this year concluded that youth who participate in such activities are better able to build resilience and have improved academic outcomes. The evidence even goes farther to show that extracurricular and enrichment activities are linked to decreasing the effects of trauma on foster youth.

My office has been working with the Youth Law Center, an organization that advocates for improvements to foster care and other juvenile justice systems, on this legislation. We share an interest in enabling every child to thrive and it is an honor to be collaborating on this pilot project.

According to Virginia Corrigan, staff attorney with the Youth Law Center, “Extracurricular activities are critical for healthy development. When young people participate in extracurriculars, they gain resilience, build skills, develop life-long relationships with friends and caring adults.  Unfortunately, too many young people in foster care miss out on these important opportunities because of a lack of funding.  SB 219 fills this important gap and helps ensure that foster youth are able to enjoy these normal childhood activities."

In 2001, the California legislature passed a comprehensive piece of legislation referred to as the Foster Youth Bill of Rights. Amongst many rights assured for the wellbeing of foster youth was the right to live in a safe, comfortable home, the right to attend school, and the right to participate in extracurricular, cultural, and personal enrichment activities.  Eighteen years later, the mandate is still unfunded, and foster youth all over the state are unable to participate in countless activities in and out of school settings along with their peers. Additionally, the increasing cost of extracurricular activities add another layer of difficulty for foster youth.  

SB 219 is a first step in making these types of opportunities affordable and accessible to foster youth. In a system that puts them at a disadvantage and is frequently a source of instability, the California legislature owes it to these youth to afford them every opportunity possible.

Also published in the Antelope Valley Press on February 26, 2019.