Most Foster Youth Can’t Afford Extracurriculars. California Might Pick Up the Tab.

Research shows that sports and other extracurricular activities enhance healthy development. Photo: Lee-Mt. Vernon Sports Club

Latrice Ventura, a 23-year-old former foster youth in Los Angeles, participated in a number of extracurricular programs growing up and said they were instrumental in her development.

“Each one has taught me something different,” Ventura told The Chronicle of Social Change, listing modeling classes and arts programs as some of her favorites.

But her martial arts training was the most impactful, instilling in her a sense of self-discipline and providing an outlet for her to release the anger Ventura struggled with as a foster youth. It also gave her more faith in her own potential.

“It reminds you that you can do anything you put your mind to. Because there were a lot of things that I couldn’t do out the gate but was able to learn,” Ventura said.

Ventura’s experience is backed by evidence pointing to the benefits of extracurricular activities, but foster youth face several barriers to participation. Not only do these clubs, teams and programs often require various fees and expensive equipment, transportation challenges and frequent moves also add logistical challenges.

A bill working its way through the California legislature seeks to help more foster youth access these enrichment opportunities by establishing a pilot program to distribute small grants to their caregivers to allow them to participate in sports, music programs, clubs or other extracurricular activities.

“Life in foster care is extremely challenging for a multitude of reasons,” wrote State Sen. Scott Wilk (R), who authored the bill in a recent op-ed. “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.”

In Ventura’s case, she was able to tap into some existing low-cost extracurricular opportunities in her community, but when she wanted to join her high school’s rugby team, the starter fee and uniform costs made that impossible.

The proposed California Foster Youth Enrichment Grant Pilot Program would enable selected counties to distribute grants of up to $1,000 annually per participating youth to fund their engagement in activities “designed to enhance the foster youth’s skills, abilities, self-esteem or overall well-being.” According to a brief from the Youth Law Center (YLC), participation in a single extracurricular activity can cost as much as $600 a year.

In addition to recreational extracurriculars, the grants could also pay for school trips, college campus visits, test preparation courses or materials, summer camp, school dances and graduation activities.

In January, YLC, a legal advocacy organization sponsoring the bill, published a brief outlining the tangible benefits of engaging in extracurricular activities. The brief cites research that indicates that participating in sports and clubs can build soft skills like leadership and improve school performance.

It also suggests that these activities can even counteract the negative impacts of childhood trauma.

“When a child is exposed to developmentally healthy experiences, the brain can actually ‘rewire’ itself to counteract the damage caused by traumatic experiences and to develop resilience – the ability to confront, adapt to, and overcome challenging circumstances,” the report says.

Taking part in these programs can also help young people expand their social networks and build relationships with supportive adults, which is correlated with improved outcomes for foster youth and could even lead to housing options, according to the YLC brief. Joining clubs and teams that meet after school has also been shown to reduce criminal activity, which is particularly important for foster youth given their increased odds of involvement in the justice system.

Senate Bill 219 is meant to build upon the 2001 Foster Youth Bill of Rights, which enshrined the rights of foster youth to participate in extracurriculars but never provided a funding source to support that right, Wilk noted in the op-ed.

Lucy Carter, a YLC policy advocate argued that while the term “extracurricular” makes these activities sound like luxuries, they’re actually crucial to healthy development.

“Even though it says ‘extra’ in the name, it’s really fundamental,” Carter said.

If passed, SB 219 would require the state Department of Social Services (DSS) to allocate up to $12.5 million to support the two-year program which would be piloted in four counties, two rural and two urban.

Rolling it out statewide could be an expensive proposition. An attempt earlier this year to fund the program through this year’s budget failed to go through. As written, the bill allows all youth in care to participate in the program, regardless of age, so in a statewide implementation nearly 60,000 youth would be eligible. Carter points out the benefits of toddler dance classes and swimming lessons, but said they could scale it back to just school-aged children if necessary for budgetary reasons.

While a growing number of states have enshrined foster youths’ right to participate in extracurricular activities via “Reasonable and Prudent Parenting” legislation, it appears that only one state has set up a funding mechanism, according to research from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). A 2017 Nevada law created a $200,000 “Normalcy for Foster Youth Account” in the state’s general fund to support foster youth participation in extracurriculars, both via funds paid directly to caregivers and grants made to organizations providing activities for foster youth.

To be considered for the pilot, county child welfare agencies would have to submit a plan to DSS outlining how they would reach out to foster youth and caregivers to engage them in the program. They would also need to collaborate with tribal leadership and their county’s probation department to ensure Native American and probation-supervised youth would also be able to access the funds.

So far, the bill has sailed through the legislature, passing unanimously in each committee it has been heard in and on the Senate floor. It is currently in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, where sponsors will seek an amendment that would make funds for the pilot project contingent upon obtaining a budget allocation for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The bill is expected to be voted upon by August 26.

“We prioritize [normalcy] in our legal language, now we just need to prioritize it in our wallets,” Carter said.

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 88 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change