Published May 3, 2018
It’s a Monday afternoon, and Anyae McCloud, a 23-year-old junior from Kansas City, Kansas, is picking up her daughter from preschool.
It can be a rush to get to the pickup lane, but today she’s early, so she sits in her silver Kia, parked on the curb near the playground fence. She sneaks some mini Oreos out of the blue plastic cup she picked up for 5-year-old, Harmoni, on the way here. They’re Harmoni’s favorite, she says.
McCloud has just come from the University of Kansas campus, where she worked a morning shift at her desk job in the The Dole Center for Human Development and attended her afternoon classes. In the car, she talks about graduation plans — she’ll have to take classes over the summer and winter breaks to graduate with a degree in behavioral science next May like she plans.
If you looked at her now, with her job, class schedule, and pink car seat in the back, you wouldn’t know how rough she had had it. Five years ago, she was a freshman with a newborn baby, living in an apartment she had begged her landlord for, fighting with her daughter’s father and struggling to hold down a job at the Dollar Tree.
Five years ago, she had just aged out of the foster care system.
“We walk down campus and we look like a normal face,” she says. “But you never know the background people have and what they’ve been through.”
Today, McCloud is taking part in a program that launched this semester for students who have been in foster care. She is one of 173 students identified by KU as eligible for the Fostering Jayhawk Success program. The program was started through KU’s federally funded TRIO office to boost the chances that students like McCloud will graduate from college.
The odds of even getting to college are low for students formerly in foster care, about 20 percent nationally, according to federal statistics. The percent who graduate is substantially lower — fewer than 3 percent of former foster youth ever don the mortarboard.
The grim statistics are due, in part, to the simple fact that former foster youth come to college without strong networks of support or the skills to navigate the murky channels of adult life, says Julie Hamel, coordinating director of Fostering Jayhawk Success.
Students who age out of foster care are required to be more efficient than your average freshman, Hamel says.
“Here is a student who is, essentially, on their own,” she says.
Fostering Jayhawk Success aims to be a hub of resources for these students: a place where they can come and feel confident they’re going to be connected with a person who understands their situation. For students who have been through the foster care system, it can be exhausting to explain their history to people they meet.
Tough teen years
When McCloud became a teenager, she started fighting with her mother.
Her father wasn’t in the picture, and at the time it was she, her Mom and her younger sister.
When McCloud was in middle school, the family moved from the Shawnee Mission School District, where she was the only black student at her school, to Kansas City, Kansas. The move was a culture shock for her, and as she started struggling for independence, the way teenagers do, her mom started reining her in.
The fighting grew worse.
One night, when she was 14, a fight with her mom turned physical. McCloud says the police were called, and she was taken to the Wyandotte County Juvenile Detention Center.
She stayed overnight, and the next morning, in a courtroom, the judge gave her mom the option of taking her home.
“She was like, ‘I don’t want her back in my house,’” McCloud says. “So that’s the day I went.”
In her first placement, she says, she lived with three other girls in a group home run by a woman they called Miss Pam. The four girls shared one room with two sets of bunk beds, an old TV and a VCR. Miss Pam wouldn’t let them into the living room or kitchen, she says.
Before moving there, she had been expelled from middle school for fighting. Without anywhere to go, she stayed in the room “from sun-up to sun-down,” she says. Miss Pam would bring her cereal in the morning and hotdogs and chips for lunch.
The girls were only allowed to shower on designated days, according to Miss Pam’s rules.
During this stay of about six months, McCloud says she didn’t have any contact with family or friends, including her mother.
“I tried my mom, but she had declined every time,” she says. “I didn’t know where she was at all.”
The other girls would try running away from time to time, but McCloud says she knew running away could mean a quick ticket back to juvenile detention. She says she tried to convey to her caseworkers that she felt unhappy and mistreated, but nothing happened.
“I would say, ‘I want to go home, but I don’t know where home is,’” she said. “I was yearning for a home that wasn’t there.”
A program designed for those “falling through the gaps”
For director Julie Hamel, the idea of a program to help former foster care students in college started brewing almost a decade ago, when she was working on her doctoral degree at Kansas State University.
It was during that time she met Tina Woods, then a sophomore high school student and president of the Kansas Youth Advisory Council, a group that provides former foster youth the chance to give advice and recommendations regarding the child welfare system.
At that time, Hamel says, she recognized this was a student population who was “falling through the gaps.”
“A lot of people just didn’t comprehend there were people who had been in foster care in college,” she says.
Students who age out of the foster care are required to be more independent than your average 18-year-old. Yet many have not learned simple life skills such as cooking and cleaning, let alone how to deal with more complex challenges such as applying for insurance or financial aid.
These students often lack a support system. This means they might not have a co-signer for a lease, a favored teacher to ask for a reference letter or even a successful adult to plan their future with.
Woods had was still in foster care when she enrolled at KU in 2012 to major in social work.
She knew no one at the University and had trouble finding a formal network of support.
“I found myself having to repeatedly explain different things that I felt like someone should know,” she says.
Few people understand the challenges faced by former youth of care, Woods said.
“I didn’t expect everybody to be super familiar with foster care or that system, but I expected there to be someone around at KU specifically related to foster care, supporting those alumni,” she said.
Although there was no formalized network, Woods started establishing her own. She became the de facto mentor for younger students, often helping them fill out applications or forms. She looked to students at institutions around the region, including Wichita State University, Kansas State University and the University of Oklahoma, for support.
It was during this time that Woods says she was lobbying for a program for former youth in foster care, but was having trouble getting traction.
It wasn’t until 2015, when Hamel, working in the KU Career Center, reached out to Woods and took on the project that Fostering Jayhawk Success started to take shape.
Woods was a major catalyst for the program, and, together with Hamel, started pulling people together from across campus that were interested in supporting former foster youth.
“Julie was really pivotal in actually getting a good representation of people from all offices, which is great,” Woods said.
In January, almost two years after Woods graduated, Fostering Jayhawk Success was officially launched. Its mission is to provide direct services such as tutoring, financial advice and career planning. Other goals are to educate the University community and build a network of advocates across campus that students can connect with and trust.
The program is part of KU’s TRIO office, which provides educational opportunities for low-income individuals, first-generation college-bound students and students with disabilities.
Woods, who is now living in Michigan and working toward a master’s of social work, says she’s excited to see how the program will impact the experiences of students like her.
“I think the fact that there is any kind of effort being placed in it I think automatically is a success,” Woods said.
The second house
One day, six months into her stay in Miss Pam’s House, McCloud says she was allowed to go with the other girls to a nearby park.
Miss Pam came to pick them up in the car, saying she had to go down the street to visit a friend.
When they pulled up to the house, McCloud says she was told to get out of the car. Miss Pam walked up to a woman standing in the yard, said “Thank you so much,” and drove off.
McCloud was at her new foster home.
She had no warning, no time to even pack a bag. Miss Pam later packed up her things and sent them over.
Despite the abrupt relocation, McCloud says she was relieved to get away from Miss Pam.
In her new home, things got better.
She lived with a couple named the Walkers, a pastor and his wife who the foster kids would sometimes call grandma and grandpa. There, she was allowed to move around the house as she pleased, grab snacks from the fridge when she was hungry, and, best of all, shower whenever she wanted.
She had started back in an alternative school and started going to church every weekend at Galilee Baptist with the Walkers. She got close to their adopted children, whom she still remains friends with.
“The new house was great,” she says. “It was wonderful. It was the best.”
It was during McCloud’s time with the Walkers that she started communicating again through therapy sessions. It was also during this time that she began to ease back into living her with her family, overseen by her agency, KVC Kansas. The goal of KVC Kansas is always to get children back with a safe parent, said Kellie Hans-Reid, director of communications and recruitment.
At 16, McCloud moved in with her aunt and was able to stay with her mom intermittently while still under the supervision of the state.
And then she got pregnant.
The fighting with her mom started up again. Things got physical, and one night, scared and frustrated, she left to go down the street to a friend’s house. Her mother called the police about a runaway, and she was picked up and returned to live with her aunt.
At this point, she was 17, and months away from graduating high school and giving birth.
“It was a depressing time,” she said today. “I just couldn’t wait to turn 18 so I could go do my own thing and not live with anyone.”
Kansas struggles to find placements for teenagers
There are more than 7,000 children in foster care in Kansas, according to state records. Of those children, about 30 percent are teenagers.
Kansas has seen its foster care population rise by about 2,000 children since 2012, according to data from the Department of Children and Families. The increase has left Kansas case workers overloaded and foster parents in high demand.
“What’s going on in the state of Kansas right now is we do not have enough available placements for teenagers,” Hans-Reid said.
KVC is the the largest child welfare contractor in the state and is responsible for the care of children in 30 counties, including the Kansas City area. KVC is also the organization that handled McCloud’s case.
It can be especially hard to place older youth. The majority of licensed foster care parents opt to house kids ages 0-10, according to KVC. There’s a perception — or misperception, some say — that teenagers are harder to deal with.
“There is a huge stigma around teenagers, that teenagers are difficult,” Susana Mariscal, a professor in the University’s School of Social Welfare, said. “It’s absolutely bulls---.”
Mariscal has worked for years with foster youth, especially those who have aged out. A huge problem with the treatment of foster youth, Mariscal says, is the lack of empathy and understanding of their experience.
Sometimes teenagers act out, she says. They test the adults around them, and as a result, they get a bad reputation.
“It’s not their fault,” she says. “So many of them are experiencing consequences of things that they cannot control, they weren’t responsible for in many ways. The behaviors were results of trauma they experienced.”
Harmoni was born in October 2012. A few weeks later, McCloud turned 18 and moved back in with her mom, who had moved back to Johnson County.
She was getting up every day at 6 a.m. to ride the bus to her daughter’s daycare, then back to school for classes. She was fighting with her boyfriend and struggling on a campus of more than 25,000 students.
“It was like school, work home, repeat,” she says. “That’s it. I didn’t do anything else.”
After spending three semesters at KU, she was exhausted.
She didn’t want to deal with Lawrence anymore. She was tired of her child’s father, tired of everything.
“Nobody’s supporting me, nobody’s helping me. It’s hard,” she said.
She packed up with Harmoni and left for St. Louis in January 2016 to live with her grandmother and extended family. She knew she wanted to come back, but needed time off.
She came back in January 2017, with a renewed strength and determination. She had already been getting help through the TRIO office before she left. When she came back, however, they said they were developing a new program to help former foster care students like her.
Hamel set McCloud up with a tutor, and McCloud was invited to help them develop the program.
“I feel seen”
Back on Monday afternoon, McCloud has some time to kill.
She’s taking headshots for her LinkedIn account in a few hours, but until then, she’s taking Harmoni to a local recreation center to play the 5-year-old’s favorite game: basketball.
Upon entering the gym, Harmoni immediately runs up to a front desk assistant, requesting a big basketball. On the court, she runs between three different goals and shows off her dribbling skills. At one point she runs up to a man practicing on the other side of the gym and demands to know if he can dunk, because she wants to dunk, too.
McCloud hangs back, watching her daughter sprint between goals, occasionally bouncing the ball back to her or stepping in to play a bit of defense.
The 23-year-old described how for many years, she was reserved. Her freshman year, she didn’t go out at all, and even now, she’s slowly working on opening up to people. For so long she was self-reliant and had to be her own support system.
But since getting involved with the Fostering Jayhawk Success program, she said she feels seen.
“They recognize me, they know me,” she says. “I feel like when I walk through the door, I know they’re happy to see me.”
After an hour or so, it’s time to leave the gym. Harmoni leaves reluctantly at first, but then takes her mom’s hand as they walk back to the car.
McCloud doesn’t know what she wants to do when she graduates yet, but she has some things in mind. She says she wants to write, to share what she’s been through, and she’s recently decided to get her minor in journalism.
For a long time, she says, foster care was something she wanted to forget. But now she’s figuring it out; she’s making those lemons into lemonade.
“I feel like I was sent through those experiences so I could tell someone else that this is not the end,” she said. “And just because something bad happens to you doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.”