This article is written by Daniel Heimpel.
THERE Shalita O’Neale sits, big belly, 10 days away from her first child. She is smiling, brimming under the hum of overcooled air being pumped through the vents of an old building in East Baltimore.
On the sill of a window, which separates the world she has built in her executive director’s office from the rough outside, sits a photo. It is of her, then 19, standing next to Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state.
O’Neale was a member of the first class of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Intern program, which has in the years since placed dozens of former and current foster youth in the offices of members of Congress. It was one of myriad connections she made after her 18th birthday.
Unlike most states across the country and in our home state of California, Maryland didn’t cut O’Neale off at age 18 simply because she was a foster youth, a fiscal burden rather than human being. Instead, the state continued to subsidize her housing and waived her school tuition.
“I started meeting people in college, making connections,” she says. “If I was out on my own, I couldn’t have done that.”
And what that has done for her individually and for thousands of other foster youths in states like Maryland, Illinois and New York is at the crucible of the decision Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now weighs. California is poised to tap into federal funds to extend foster care to the 4,500 youths who age out of the system every year at 18 to age 21. The bill, AB 12, which would accomplish this, hurtled through the state Sssembly and Senate and now awaits the governor’s signature by the end of the month.
If the governor does indeed sign AB 12 it would mean that one-eighth of the nation’s foster youths – 65,000 – would, in one fell swoop, be offered the same chance that O’Neale has built a life on.
Often and rightly, the debate has hinged on what will happen if we don’t support foster youths through age 21, but something has been missed: What will happen if we do?
Consider Shalita O’Neale. Forget that she has broken the chains of often-unplanned pregnancy that bind 67 percent of girls who leave foster care by age 23. Let us forget the smaller but significant population who has more than one child and the increased incidences of abuse, leading to children of foster children entering foster care.
Instead let us look at what that period, from age 18 to 21, has given us in O’Neale. It was while studying criminal science at the University of Maryland that O’Neale started making the connections that would get her that internship in D.C. and would see her through college. And through those connections O’Neale was able to do something that most average citizens neglect to do, and most former foster youths simply don’t have time or resources to do: fight for the rights of others.
Nearly three years ago, O’Neale founded the Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center, which helps young adults aged out of the system find services.
Outside O’Neale’s window an oppressive heat lies atop Baltimore, with its 30,000 vacant homes and its wide expanses of blighted neighborhoods. As much as a third of a city of more than 600,000 people is on some sort of public assistance.
“Sometimes the monster is just so big,” O’Neale says. “Sometimes we feel like we are picking at this huge boulder with this tiny pick. Just digging a tunnel without knowing how long it will take to break through.”
In California, the governor now has a choice: hack at the the boulder that lurks over all of us, or let the monster grow.
Daniel Heimpel is an award-winning journalist and the director of Fostering Media Connections. www.fosteringmediaconnections.org