EastBay Today

Posted April 6, 2017

College is Mission-Critical for Foster Youth

Professor and former foster youth speaks to Senate and Congress

Associate Professor Toni Naccarato is a former foster youth, with a decade of experience in Santa Clara's child welfare system. Today, she teaches in Cal State East Bay's Master of Social Work program, and pushes for federal legislation to help foster youth gain access to higher education.

Cal State East Bay Associate Professor Toni Naccarato’s experience helping foster youth get into college goes deeper than her decades of work in the child welfare system. For Naccarato, it’s personal.

“I’m a former foster youth from upstate New York,” Naccarato says. “My mother had taken me to a casino with her in California — she had a gambling addiction — and law enforcement intervened on my behalf. I was put into foster care shortly thereafter.” 

By the time she was 18, Naccarato had dropped out of high school, was pregnant and working as a waitress. Going to college was not only a distant concept — it was worlds apart from any idea the single mom had about her future.

It all changed with a phone call. After Naccarato decided to take her GED at an adult learning center, a woman contacted her to deliver her test results. Given Naccarato’s high scores, the center employee asked if she intended to enroll in community college.

“Her voice was like an angel’s,” Naccarato recalls. “Nobody I knew ever talked about college or had ever been to college, but she helped me with information about financial aid and how I could do it.”

It took Naccarato several years, including some starts and stops, to obtain her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. But eventually, with the help of a Title IV-E loan — a type of repayable financial assistance — she was recruited to the master’s program at San Jose State and began a career in Santa Clara’s child welfare system. 

Today, the former foster youth has not only obtained a Ph.D. and is a professor in the Department of Social Work at Cal State East Bay, she is a national expert on transitional foster youth — those who are aging out of the system and must find a way to support themselves, frequently with incomplete schooling and few other developed skill sets.

Given her past, Naccarato affirms an obvious solution, yet one that is still challenging to implement.

“Do you know of any mechanism, beyond education, that can take somebody who is at risk and move them forward?” she asks. “For people who don’t have choices, you have to get that certificate or degree. Otherwise, there is no person or support system helping [foster youth] pave the way.”

It’s a message she recently shared with senators and representatives in Washington, D.C., at a caucus focused on creating employment opportunities for foster youth, sponsored by Rep. Danny K. Davis’ office.

“What I talked about is the relationship between education, employment and risk,” Naccarato says. “What’s hard to do — for people who don’t know anything about poor kids — is ensure they understand that those are the links.”

While Congressman Davis is interested in casting a wide net of employment opportunities for foster youth, including through initiatives like hiring incentives, he stresses the importance of college. According to a 2012 study by the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, somewhere between just 2 and 9 percent of foster youth obtain four-year degrees.

“We’re going to find as many different ways and approaches as we can think of … to get them the greatest opportunity for higher education,” Davis says. “And we’re going to make sure they get the full benefit of money that’s intended for them and that it doesn’t go to other places. It’s exciting to be moving toward some concrete assistance for our foster youth.” 

In addition to being an opportunity to influence upcoming legislation and pinpoint the issues that transitional foster youth face during a vulnerable time in their lives, the caucus was also a chance for Naccarato to highlight how they may be impacted by the current political climate.

“With the focus on privatization of industries and education that’s now happening, my question is, where do you expect these people who can’t compete within that system to show up? What are they going to do?” Naccarato says. “I’ve been working in this field a long time, and I still believe in the mission of public education. And that’s why I’m at East Bay. It’s so important to me to have a diverse community of folks who all understand that everyone should have an opportunity to be educated.”

Graduate students from Cal State East Bay's Master of Social Work participate in Lobby Days, a three-day event at the state capitol that introduces them to the legislative process and is intended to inspire advocacy.
Courtesy of Camille Cyrus

The Next Generation of Advocates

In addition to the work Naccarato does advocating for foster youth directly, she’s also involved in showing Cal State East Bay’s social work graduate students the value of speaking up for legislation they care about. In March, Naccarato took 40 master’s students to Sacramento for an event called Lobby Days, sponsored by the California chapter of the National Association of Social Work.

Camille Cyrus (B.A. ’10, Sociology), will graduate with her master’s in social work in June, and is chair of the Department of Social Work’s Graduate Association. Cyrus coordinated Cal State East Bay’s involvement in the event and says, “It’s a first step into seeing what social work can do on a macro level — we do a lot on a one-on-one basis, but this is learning about legislation and how we can influence policy to create change in our communities.”

Over the course of a weekend, the students listened to keynote speakers, presentations on state and community issues, and engaged in discussions with representatives from Congress on specific legislation. The event culminated in live lobbying on three separate bills: SB54, a state sanctuary policy for immigrants; SB219, which criminalizes discriminatory practices toward LGBT patients in nursing homes; and SB8, which empowers courts to order mental health treatment rather than jail time for minor offenses.  

“We all left feeling enthused and ready for action,” Cyrus says. “And it was interesting watching the students start out a bit shy and uncertain of really speaking their opinions. But as the weekend went on, I think we all realized that it’s within our power to make a difference on a broad-scale level.”