By Lexie Gruber
Former foster youth Lexie Gruber played a vital role in changing Connecticut’s policy on foster youth education.
Foster children face unique barriers to educational success. This is something I know, because I experienced it myself.
In my beloved home state of Connecticut, anecdotal evidence had long shown that this was also the case for local foster youth. Data compiled earlier this year by Connecticut Voices for Children, a child advocacy group, proved it. Testing scores on standardized testing showed that less than 50 percent of children committed to state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) scored proficient or better, compared to 80 percent of non-foster children. This achievement gap was evident as early as third grade, the first grade in which students are tested.
Connecticut Voices for Children was inspired to bring this issue to the attention of lawmakers. They arranged a conference at the State Legislature on January 16, 2014 and invited state lawmakers and community advocates to have an honest conversation about the educational challenges facing youth in state care.
The forum featured a panel of adolescent foster children who testified to the barriers they faced to educational success. These fledgling advocates shared their dreams of becoming high school graduates, college students and ultimately successful survivors of the system.
After the youth panel concluded, I moderated a panel of state and local public officials on how they are working to close the academic opportunity gap for youth in care. Each of the panelists was clearly moved by the passionate group of youth that spoke before them, and publicly swore to work diligently on the issue.
As a result of the forum, the state legislature proposed two bills to help mitigate the educational challenges facing youth in stare care.
The first bill would require schools to share educational information with foster parents and attorneys of the children in their care. The second would require DCF to maximize the enrollment of foster children in preschool programs.
As an alumni of foster care and an advocate, I was proud of what I believed to be commonsense reform. But as is always the case with children’s issues, these bills addressed the needs of a silent constituency, and the lack of pressure on lawmakers meant that passage was unlikely. In order for this legislation to become law, it had to be brought to the attention of voters outside of the child welfare community.
I set to work on an opinion editorial, offering my personal story as a testament to the need for educational supports for foster children. On the day the bills were up for vote, my article was published in the state’s largest newspaper and it became one of the most read opinion articles of the day. Connecticut voters were learning of this issue and becoming invested change makers. This public awareness, along with the diligent efforts of countless other advocates, helped guide these bills to passage. The first bill was signed on June 6, 2014 and the second was signed into law on June 13, 2014.
Being a voice for the silent is a privilege. Child welfare issues are largely unknown the public, and my experience in foster care, combined with my professional work, makes me an able agent to bring these social problems to the attention of the public. I’m lucky to be in this position. Many of my foster siblings fell victim to poor outcomes when they aged out, using drugs and prostitution to calm their inner cries. It is for them, and for all vulnerable children, that I continue to use my voice for change.
Lexie Gruber is a policy assistant for Congressman Jim McDermott (WA-7), policy intern for First Focus and student at Quinnipiac University.