We know that youth in Kentucky are key to creating positive change for kids, and their leadership galvanizes other youth, parents, educators, community leaders, and legislators. In the Kentucky Youth Speak Up series, students advocate for policies, encourage other youth to serve their communities, promote strategies for student success, and motivate all of us to build the best commonwealth for Kentucky kids.

By Karena Cash

Last year, I had the opportunity to tutor a young girl in foster care, Grace*. When I first met her, I was blown away at how much she struggled at basic division problems. She was in fifth grade, so she must know thirty divided by six, right? I simply thought that she didn’t pay attention in school.

As the months trickled on, however, I learned that she was in foster care and had moved homes three times over a two-year period. Each new placement caused her to move to a new school, each of which were at a different place in the curriculum. In addition to this, it took weeks in order for her to be enrolled in a new school and records transferred. The reason she didn’t know how to divide is that she had never been taught. Not only that, but she had fallen so behind that she felt like there was no reason to even try.

Further, she never bothered to make friends at any of these schools. In her mind, it was impossible to catch up or form lasting relationships, and even if she did manage to, she’d just move schools again in a few months anyways, so what was the point? Three months into me tutoring her she moved schools again.

Like many, I started my junior year of high school with the idea that one just needs to “pull themselves up by their boot straps”. However, I quickly learned that the lack of stability in Grace’s life meant that she didn’t have bootstraps to begin with. She had no stable home, no stable relationships, and no stable education. In addition to this, she faced deep trauma from the abuse and neglect in which she had suffered from her parents. This created the situation in which she not only acted out as a response to trauma, but also had no stable environment or relationships where she could relax or work through hard times. Grace is not an anomaly in the foster care system either, with most of Kentucky’s children in foster care having similar experiences as her.

As a Commonwealth, we cannot continue to allow this instability to be the norm. We cannot continue to have an average of three different foster care placements be the norm. We cannot continue to have 42% of children in foster care not immediately enrolling in school be the norm. We cannot continue to allow the graduation rates of youth in foster care hovering around 50% be the norm.

Karena Cash (left), Representative Steve Riley (center), and Terrance Sullivan (right) testifying on HB 527 before the House Health and Family Services Committee.

While some instability will always be inevitable for children in foster care, we must work to prevent as much of it as possible. By prioritizing school stability, we give them a stable environment, stable relationships, and stable access to education. All of these have the potential to counteract years of abuse and neglect that often stem from being in foster care.

House Bill 527, sponsored by Representative Steve Riley, has the potential to help counteract years of trauma for many children in foster care. This legislation, which is a Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children policy priority, seeks to support the educational stability of children who have experienced abuse or neglect by allowing them to remain in the school where they were most recently enrolled or, when that is not in their best interest, ensuring a seamless transition to their new school.

Karena testified in support of HB 527 at the House Health and Family Services Committee on March 8th and it passed unanimously. Track the progress of HB 527 throughout the 2018 Kentucky General Assembly on our bill tracker.

Karena Cash is a freshman at Xavier University where she studies Philosophy, Politics, and the Public. She is involved in various organizations, such as Campus YMCA Congress and Xavier’s Community Engaged Fellowship. Her goal is to eventually lobby for various issues across Kentucky.

*Name changed to protect identity.