Jessica Melford takes her dog, Landon, for a walk outside her apartment. As a former ward of the state, Melford benefited from a program that provides financial and other support for former foster children beyond the age of 18. She just graduated from Georgia State and starts grad school Monday. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Jessica Melford beat the odds. The 24-year-old entered the foster system at age 13, but still graduated from high school and also from Georgia State University. She’s heading to Albany for graduate school Monday.
She succeeded in part because of a lucky break and her native pluck and determination. More than a decade ago, authorities removed her from her mother’s home in DeKalb and took her to a group home in the same middle school attendance zone. There was testing the next day and, since she was still in the child services intake process, it didn’t seem like anyone was going to take her there, “so I went to school,” she said. She walked to a store and hitched a ride.
A month later, she was moved to a foster home in Gwinnett County, but she ran away after the weekend when it became clear that she would have to change schools. Police caught up with her and returned her to the group home, where she was allowed to stay.
The school was her “safety spot,” Melford said. “My teachers that I knew were at school; my friends that I knew were at school.” The teachers, particularly a math teacher, helped her transition to foster care. “They were pretty much my support system.”
It’s common for foster children to change school districts after they’re removed from their natural parents because there are so few willing foster parents in the state and often none available nearby.
There are currently about 5,400 foster homes and more than twice as many children who need one, according to the Division of Family and Children Services, which oversees foster care.
About a third are placed outside their home county. As with Melford, many move at least once after their first placement, losing ground at school.
“Each time you change your address, you lose momentum,” said Susan Worsley, who runs North Georgia Angel House, a group home in Cherokee County.
Those students may also have to retake courses, leading to frustration, said Anthony Stover, a youth coordinator with the Multi-Agency Alliance for Children, and a former foster child. "Because someone like me, if you tell me I have to do algebra again, I'm just not doing it," he said.
Bob Bruder-Mattson, who runs an Alpharetta-based organization that contracts with the state to recruit, train, license and support foster parents, said there is also an emotional toll. Children need a relationship with at least one reliable adult, and it’s hard to build one when they’re on the move.
“If I don’t know if people care about me, it’s pretty hard to pay attention to learning,” said Bruder-Mattson, president and CEO of FaithBridge Foster Care.
Carmen Callaway, an interim section director for DFCS, said each move can cost a child three to six months of learning. “The trauma is the biggest thing, but sometimes it’s academic records,” she said. Credits may not transfer, or districts may require retesting for transfer students who, while under duress, may score worse than they did at home, resulting in a lower grade placement.
DFCS is trying to address the problem by reducing the number of moves during the school year and with arrangements to keep children in the same school even if a move takes them to another attendance zone, she said. The agency is also merging databases with the Georgia Department of Education, so caseworkers can easily keep tabs on educational progress.
DFCS' 2018 annual report said 11% of Georgia's foster children graduate high school. But the data merger allowed state education officials to calculate a more accurate number: 37% of foster children graduated on time in 2018, the education department said. By comparison, the overall graduation rate for Georgia students was more than 80%.
The rates rise as foster children get older. The federal Children’s Bureau reported in 2016 that two out of three nationally had earned a diploma or GED by age 21.
Georgia’s foster population has been growing at a faster rate than the nation’s, rising by 90% to more than 13,000 from 2010 to 2017, according to counts on the same day each year the state reported to the federal Children’s Bureau. Over that period, the national foster count rose by 8%.
DFCS has not studied why the state’s rate rose so sharply, but reports of neglect increased after the agency established a central call center in 2013.
The problem is getting noticed. In May, while signing education bills at a Cobb County high school, Gov. Brian Kemp telegraphed plans to improve foster care during the 2020 legislative session.
“We must continue to protect the innocent and the most vulnerable among us,” Kemp said, “which is why next year we’re going to work on adoption reform and foster care reform.” His office would not elaborate.
Former foster children who beat the odds, including Melford, say a recent DFCS program helped.
A 2014 overhaul of the juvenile justice code extended support for housing, food and even college tuition past age 18. Support used to end with adulthood. The passage of House Bill 972 last year allows the state to tap federal funds, to expand the program, which will be called Connected by 21, starting in October. In 2017, the year before Georgia's bill passed, about half the states were already accessing those federal dollars.
Jared Oenick, 20, checks over the items he is packing for school. Oenick, a former ward of the state, has benefited from a program that extends financial and other support to former foster children beyond the age of 18. He’s getting ready for a move to the University of North Georgia, where he hopes to earn a college degree before heading to medical school. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Jared Oenick, 20, spent many of his teen years in group homes and other facilities. Without the extended support after he turned 18, he said, “I don’t know where I’d be.” The state money has been financing his way through college. He’s transferring from Clayton State University to the University of North Georgia this month, and said he hopes to go to medical school.
Melford is too far along in her schooling to get aid now, but she used it to earn her undergraduate degree. Without it, she said, “I don’t know if I would have been able to deal with everything I was dealing with. … I would never have got as far at all.”
Many of the friends from her foster care days didn’t get that help. Some matured before the program was established. Others opted out. Many wound up “couch surfing,” she said, including one whom she sheltered for a while.
“He was like, look I got it. I’ll figure it out,” Melford said.
Editor’s note: The number of foster homes and the graduate rate for foster children in Georgia has been updated in this story.
BY THE NUMBERS
Counting the number of foster children is tricky because they enter and exit the system at different times. The federal Children's Bureau has two methods: One is to count the number in care each Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year; the other records all served during a fiscal year, including those who left the system.
The number in care on Sept. 30, 2010, and 2017
Georgia: 6,895 then 13,146, up 90%
Nation: 410,856 then 442,995 up 8%
The number already in, or entering, care during federal fiscal years 2010 and 2017
Georgia: 13,333 then 20,037, up 50%
Nation: 668,577 then 690,548, up 3%
5,400 — Number of foster homes in Georgia
34% — Percentage of children placed in foster homes out of their home county
Source: Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services
The percentage of foster children reporting certain experiences by age 21:
67% — Earned a diploma or GED
43% — Had a homeless experience
32% — Had a child
Source: A federally mandated survey by the states as reported by the Children's Bureau