One On One: Questions and Answers with CWLA Staff

Lilly Eagle Dorman Colby

Foster Youth Outreach Coordinator

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CWLA's new foster youth outreach coordinator entered foster care due to her parents' drug abuse and mental illness. Despite struggling with dyslexia, she graduated high school as an honors student. She eventually became a foster parent to her autistic brother, and she now attends Yale University.

Dorman Colby is determined to improve the foster care system. She has written a handbook for foster youth about how to apply for college, and she served as an AmeriCorps volunteer helping first-generation college-bound youth apply for college. To get involved with her efforts, contact voice@cwla.org.

Can you talk about your experiences in foster care?

Iwent permanently into foster care when I was 12. I went through five homes in the first couple of years. I went from two friends' families to two foster homes. The first was a really restrictive environment and then the second foster home was a really friendly environment. The commute to school was really difficult to and from that second foster home--an hour and a half each way. Halfway through my freshman year in high school, I moved to where my brother was staying, with his friend's family. I stayed there until I turned 18.

Why do you feel that it's important to reform foster care now that you're no longer in the system?

I think there are a lot of things that can go wrong in foster care. For example, I had friends' families who wanted to take me in, but because of minor regulations, they weren't able to. These were people who knew me, loved me, and cared about me.

When you're trying to make sure kids are safe, you set rules that tend to make sense in isolation. But sometimes there are cases when they don't make sense. For example, in California, you had to have a lid on the garbage can to make sure a child doesn't crawl in and eat garbage. While the rule was designed for babies, it was not age-specific, and one of my foster mothers almost lost her license because she didn't have a lid on the garbage can when I was 17 years old.

Some of these rules prevent kids from learning how to be independent. For example, at 17 technically you're not allowed to be home alone, but then by 18 you're completely on your own. It's a ridiculous expectation; you have a lot of kids who are not allowed to gain responsibility and not allowed to do things during their teenage years, but at 18 they're supposed to be able to do everything on their own without any help. It's not surprising that a lot of foster kids have a very difficult time transitioning to adulthood. We have awful statistics--high rates of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration--and that's not acceptable. That's not in the best interest of the child.

I care about working on foster care reform because I know there are a lot of kids who need more support, who need to find loving families and get adopted, and who need help dealing with learning disabilities or physical disabilities so they can have a chance at success. I had a mentor when I was in foster care who helped me apply for colleges, helped me study for the SATs, and read over my college essays. I was able to get into Harvard, Princeton, and Yale because somebody was supporting me. I think every kid deserves that kind of consistent support.

What will you be doing in your new role at CWLA?

Last summer I was as an intern in CWLA's public policy department. I really wanted to work on the White House Conference on Children and Youth. This is a bill that would bring about a presidential conference on children and youth. The conference would have a long process leading up to it, during which child welfare experts, social workers, foster youth, and foster parents would give recommendations for change. The White House Conference would talk about that reform and make recommendations for federal policy reform.

During my internship, I reached out to youth to get them involved in the call for a White House Conference. I contacted a number of foster youth-serving organizations like the Orphan Foundation of America, Foster Club, and Foster Care Alumni of America. I talked to a number of youth and got some of them to write letters to their senators and representatives about the bill.

Now, as a part-time youth outreach coordinator, I am trying to get more youth involved by starting a group to address this bill and to discuss foster care in general. The goal is not to be a separate entity from youth advisory boards at other foster youth-serving organizations, but to work with those kinds of organizations to build consensus. It is a great opportunity to allow youth to speak up about why we care about reform. It's so important to us, to our siblings who are still in care, and to all the other kids who are or will be in the foster care system. We've tentatively named the group the 2 Percent Club, which comes from the statistic that only 2% of foster youth graduate college. That's something we want to change. So although we care about lots of things, this is a way to highlight that we care about educational outcomes.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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