Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2018

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Guest column:

Tuition plan will help Nevada foster children beat the odds

Nevada is a parent to 4,400 children — that’s the number of children in foster care.

For these children, the national data do not play into their favor. One in 5 foster youth will be homeless at some point, 74 percent of boys in foster care will end up in prison at least once in their lifetime, and 1 in 4 will develop post-traumatic stress disorder from their time in foster care.

Bleak numbers, indeed.

In Nevada, leaders have fought to ensure that systems support our vulnerable children. Three examples stand out:

Former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley put in place important protections and reform for when kids age out of the system.

As an Assemblyman, current Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson led the charge on the Foster Youth Bill of Rights with the help of foster care alumni Madison Sandoval-Lunn.

Last session, Sen. Julia Ratti, D-Reno, worked with Legal Aid of Southern Nevada to make sure every foster child has an attorney.

These legislators worked with committed child-welfare advocates and of course with steadfast public servants in state and municipal government. Thanks to their efforts, Nevada’s foster youths have a voice.

I didn’t know any of this and wouldn’t have if I had never met Alexis. Alexis is my Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Nevada little sister, and we met in 2014. Over the years, we have shared countless manicure dates while getting to know each other. We may not share genetics, but I consider her family. She inspires me with her kindness and has shown me what it means to be brave. Alexis is the kind of kid who is destined to leave a big mark on the world. She’s also one of Nevada’s 4,400 foster youths.

When we met, I knew little about our foster care system. I now know each child in our custody has his or her own story. Kids end up in foster care only after attempts to keep a family together have been exhausted. Parents may have mental health or substance abuse issues that lead to children being removed from the home, for example. Our kids come from a variety of backgrounds, but all share the common trait of being Nevada’s responsibility.

Alexis and I have talked through ideas, researched, and now we’ve started taking action. Alexis has spoken to other foster youths and encouraged them to share their experiences. She has been at meetings with policymakers, and most recently she attended a weeklong conference on independent living and foster care. We could never have known six years ago just what a team we would become.

When Alexis turns 18, she will be one of the 200 kids who annually age out of Nevada’s foster care system. On average, less than half of those children will graduate from high school, and only a few will go on to get a college degree. By the time they reach 18, 40 percent of Nevada’s foster kids will have gone through at least five placements. That can mean at least five schools, and a lot of turmoil during difficult teenage years. Nationally, less that 3 percent of all children in foster care will earn a college degree.

To me, those numbers are unacceptable. Thankfully, this week, the Board of Regents is considering a policy to create a tuition-waiver program for kids who age out of foster care and are ready to attend an NSHE institution. The proposed policy also mandates that an individual be available to work with foster youths on campus. The program would allow for former foster children to overcome some of the barriers associated with higher education by significantly decreasing the financial burden. If enacted, Nevada would become the 29th state to institute such a program. It’s a win-win for our kids and our state.

We would not have come to this moment if it weren’t for Alexis’ courage and her advocacy for foster youths. Her voice matters, and I’m honored to have played a small role in amplifying her vision. Thanks to our chancellor, Thom Reilly, and the Board of Regents, Nevada’s 4,400 kids may have a better shot at opportunities for bright futures.

To be clear, this is not the end of Alexis’ and my work. We have a long list of ideas, and we’re building a team of experts and dedicated individuals to help us. When our youths muster the bravery to tell us what they need, we have a responsibility to listen. More importantly, we have a duty to empower them to be leaders.

Yvanna Cancela was appointed in 2016 to the Nevada Senate’s 10th District seat, becoming the first Latina to serve in the state Senate.