By Patrick Burns
I was 17 years old when I graduated high school and went away to college.
There were several reasons I wanted to move to a new county. I had a desirable scholarship package at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), which has a great acting program. I wanted to live somewhere new and have a typical “college experience” since I didn’t have a typical “teenage experience.” I also thought that geographic distance from my capricious foster care experience would bring me stability and peace of mind.
I later went into show business, so you can imagine how that worked out.
My birthday wasn’t until mid-October. This meant I’d be living in a different county for two months before I emancipated from the foster care system. (In the days before the 2012 California Fostering Connections to Success Act, we aged out at 18 instead of at 21.)
My social worker told me that I would be assigned a social worker in Orange County who would check in on me periodically until my 18th birthday. If this happened, I never knew about it.
I was also told that the monthly check that had been going to my foster parents would go instead to me for these last two months since I would be responsible for the expenses of my own care. That check must still be lost in the mail.
I was lucky to get a great scholarship package and financial aid. My tuition was covered and I got some money that went toward room and board. This wasn’t enough to cover all my costs, so I worked several jobs while taking a full class load and rehearsing for performances at night. I was working around the clock and feeling slightly crazed, but I was excited to learn and grow. Besides I was accustomed to working hard. They tell me it builds character, and I am bursting with character.
In my junior year, I learned that UCI had a Guardian Scholars program that provided emotional and financial support for foster care alumni. I couldn’t believe it! I thought, maybe, just maybe, this would be a chance for me to work one less job or find a support group for foster kids where I could explore the emotional turmoil of emancipation with other young people like me. At the same time I was baffled that it had taken them until the middle of my collegiate career to find me. At this point I had already been in college for two full years, hundreds of miles away from home. Shouldn’t the counties talk to each other? Wasn’t I supposed to get a social worker in Orange County to help me navigate those last two months of foster care? Were there transitional services that I had missed out on?
I received quarterly book money from my independent living program (ILP) in Alameda County—a service that I counted on to make ends meet. I realized that many transitional services were designed for former foster youth that stayed in town. It seemed that alumni events, transitional coaching and employment services were all something I missed out on simply because I moved away to college. Maybe if I had gotten that social worker in Orange County, I would have had more help.
When I first met those who ran the Guardian Scholars program, they apologized for not reaching out sooner. They told me they didn’t know I was in Orange County. “Sometimes communication falls apart across county lines,” they told me.
Eager to hear about their services, I swallowed my frustration and insisted we not dwell in the past. I was offered a place to study, a computer, monthly advisory sessions and the contact information for a foster care specialist in the financial aid office.
Hold. The. Phone. There’s a foster care specialist in the financial aid office, I thought?
This made me feel like I had been taking crazy pills since my arrival on campus two years before. I am a smart, capable, communicative and resourceful man, but when it came to understanding and maneuvering through the financial aid system at UCI, I was like a cat herder wandering dark alleys and questioning my life decisions. Not to mention that when I said the words “foster care” in the financial aid office, financial aid officers looked at me as if I had said, “I’m from a planet far away made of yarn, yogurt and jazz.”
I should have been elated to learn there was a foster care specialist in the financial aid office. Instead, I was enraged. Communication breaks down not only across county lines, but across cubicles as well.
Later that year, I received a scholarship certificate in the mail from the foundation that funded the Guardian Scholars program at UCI. I tore the envelope open and found an award for $6000. I ran into the living room to show my roommate. Laughing, crying and imagining the impact this would have on my tight budget, I picked up the phone and called the foundation to secure my funds.
But that didn’t happen. I was told over the phone that there must have been a mistake. They apologized profusely, saying that they had seen me on the list of Guardian Scholars, but hadn’t seen that I was from Alameda County, which made me ineligible for the scholarship.
I became less and less involved with the program. I knew they were trying to help, and I don’t blame them for my disappointments, but the repeated dangling of services that I wasn’t going to receive was too much of an emotional seesaw. I felt like I was being punished for leaving; as if I had been feudally tied to my county of origin.
Alameda County is a wonderful place that I love, but going to Orange County for school was the right choice for me. I needed art. I needed space. I needed a new city with people I didn’t know so that I could figure out who I really was apart from foster care. Today, I’m an artist who is very vocal about my foster care experience: it’s a large part of my identity. Moving away for school prepped me for all the big moves I’ve had since then: moving to New York City, moving back to Los Angeles, touring the country and even working in Alaska.
We shouldn’t punish foster youth for wanting to spread their wings. Maybe it’s good for us to move away. If moving out of county is going to make our lives more difficult, then it’s possible that foster youth will be afraid to make that choice. Choice is a rare thing in foster care. We need to empower our youth to take their futures into their own hands and then do anything we can to support them.