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Volunteer program aims to point foster care alumni toward success

posted Mar 2, 2014, 5:03 PM by Steve Waggoner   [ updated Mar 5, 2014, 8:50 AM ]

Once you know Darryl Hinojos’ background, it’s hard to imagine that today he is studying at North Carolina Central University and playing football for the NCAA Division I school. 

It’s not that — at 6 feet 5 inches tall and 255 pounds — the Kansas man isn’t qualified to play tight end. It’s just that after he got into his teen years, he wasn’t on a path toward college, mainly because he was dealing with anger issues, home displacement and a few scuffles with the law.

But the former foster child, now 21, found a guardian angel in Raeann Rose, a social worker in the state foster care program who offered the support and advice that has helped carry him to North Carolina. 

“If it wasn’t for Raeann, I don’t know how I would have made it,” Hinojos said this week in an interview from North Carolina.

Hinojos was one of the lucky foster children in Kansas, where many age out of the system at 18. It’s easy for them to drop out of high school and fall off the map. 

But now a group has begun training volunteers to help.

CASA, the Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, whose volunteers act as advocates for children who are victims of abuse or neglect, wants to identify guardian angels for foster children and, beginning when the children are 12, help point them toward a successful life, said Lois Rice, the executive director of CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties. 

The program is called Fostering Futures, and ideally, CASA volunteers would be trained to work with the youths and identify supportive adults in their lives, Rice said. The program has received a small grant and is also getting support from Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church in Overland Park. Training for the first six volunteers began last week, with hopes for more in the future.

Before 2009, foster children didn’t age out of the Kansas system until 21, keeping in place a strong support system. But that year the Kansas Legislature cut the foster care budget to save $3 million and the age limit changed to 18. Now, a youth must petition a court to stay in the system until he or she is 21, or 23 if he or she is in college. 

(In Missouri, according to Jackson County CASA, the court decides when children leave the foster care system and usually keeps them until 21.)

Without adult anchors after 18, foster children in Kansas are at a disadvantage, statistics show. In Johnson and Wyandotte counties, the high school graduation rate for foster children is 22 percent, less than half the national rate. 

Foster children face other challenges after leaving the system. According to national statistics, 35 percent become homeless and 25 percent become incarcerated soon after leaving foster care. By age 20, 40 percent of them are parents.

At 18 years old, youths who leave foster care face a severe loss of support, Rice said. They don’t understand how to get a job, find a place to live or buy a car. They don’t know how to apply for technical school or college. 

“They may be impulsive,” Rice said. “They may on one day have the ability to think more strategically but then backslide the next day.”

Many times, the youths want to leave the system because they desperately want their independence and feel foster care carries a stigma. 

“Many of them are limited on what kinds of jobs they can get, and that is why so many end up homeless or in jail,” she said. “If we can make any inroads into those percentages, that would be helpful.”

Being a foster child does have a silver lining: Tuition to most colleges or technical schools is free, along with room and board for students who qualify. But few use it.

Karl Ploeger, a local foster parent and a CASA volunteer, said he recently had a teenager who was aging out of the system. He said the girl, who was 17 and an orphan when she came to live with his family, just wanted to be done with foster care. He tried to persuade her to take advantage of the tuition-free education but she said no and moved to Texas, where she works in retail. 

“She was very excited about turning 18 and being free of the system,” Ploeger said. “She did graduate from high school. Unfortunately, she is missing this opportunity in education.”

Ploeger said the younger that mentors can begin working with kids about their futures, the better. 

“Some of the life circumstances that have been put upon these kids, it’s amazing how resilient many of them can be,” Ploeger said. “But not every story turns out great.”

Somehow Daniel Martin’s did. He had a stepfather who constantly belittled him, telling him he would not amount to anything and would end up in jail. He was taken by the state as a runaway when he was 15. But he had people who made it clear that graduating from high school was not an option — it was mandatory. 

Out of high school, he joined the military for two years but returned to the foster program and then earned an associate degree and a bachelor’s in sociology and criminal justice.

Today, Martin, 27, is employed by the Kansas Department for Children and Families and is working on his master’s degree. He recently was recognized by Gov. Sam Brownback for his work identifying and surveying youths who have aged out of the system.

“Daniel serves as an example to other children in foster care,” Brownback said. “A little support, encouragement and care can go a long way.”

Raeann Rose, the social worker and independent living coordinator who is mentoring Darryl Hinojos, said one of the reasons foster children are not more prepared for the future is that until they are age 17 or so, the push is to get them adopted long-term instead of pushing to put them on track for further education.

Rose works with foster children 18 and older who asked to stay in the program, but her time is limited. She has 50 young adults who she tries to find support for depending on what they need any given day of the week.

With Hinojos, she was called by a school official after the 19-year-old senior got a scholarship to play football at Coffeyville Community College. While he was there, Rose stayed in contact with Hinojos by phone, email, Facebook and text messages to help him stay on track and buy such things as groceries and clothing. At one point, his GPA dipped, and Rose helped him bring it back up.

Hinojos, whose mother had to put him up for adoption when he was a child because she couldn’t afford to care for him, graduated in May and then received a full scholarship from North Carolina Central to play football and major in communications.

His next hurdle, though, was finding a place to stay in Wichita while waiting for football practice to begin. Rose got him a temporary motel room.

“Every time I was in deep in trouble and my back was to the wall, Raeann was there to get my back off the wall,” Hinojos said.

Hinojos wants to play in the NFL and says he has to succeed to help pay back all those who helped him. To stay motivated, he recites 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

“I would love to see my mom in a good, great house,” he said. “I would love my family to hold their heads up high. I would love to rise up. Rise up to the top.”

The Kansas City Star