Daily News 6-25-08

Ex-foster kids no longer alone

A story bout Rene Howard by Dana Bartholomew


June 25, 2008

It was bad enough that Rene Howard had to hopscotch through eight foster homes in one year.

But when the football powerhouse quit school at 16 to scour the streets of Phoenix for his ailing birth mom, he thought he'd given up the gridiron for good.

"I was basically homeless," said Howard, of Granada Hills, a foster-care kid for 13 of his 18 years. "I found her and tried to help her, (but) that didn't really work out."

What has worked out, however, is that Howard has joined a growing number of Los Angeles County foster children able to pursue lifelong dreams.

Thanks to support from the Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council, other advocates and coaches, Howard has won a conditional football scholarship next year to the University of Miami.

On Wednesday, the council hosted its first Countywide Resource Fair in which an estimated 800 foster kids and probationers joined advocates and agencies downtown to find help landing a job or getting into college.

"Howard is a success," said Councilman Jose Huizar, chairman of the Education Coordinating Council, formed four years ago to help close the widening education gap of foster kids and young probationers. "These kids are talented and smart. We just have to develop their talents so they can reach their God-given potential."

In the past decade, the county's once-troubled Department of Children and Family Services reduced the number of foster children from 52,000 in 1997 to 18,000 this year - a 65 percent drop - through speedier family placement. In the San Fernando Valley, there are 2,000 children now in foster care.

Though fewer kids languish within the system, foster kids who "age out" at 18 still face a cliff with few handholds to stop their fall. Many become unemployed - and worse, homeless.

Within two to four years after aging out, more than 50 percent of former foster children don't have jobs, according to a grand jury report released this week on Los Angeles County social services. Also, seven of 10 state prison inmates once lived in foster care.

While 60 percent of foster kids want to go on to college, according to the Education Coordinating Council, only 2percent ever graduate.

"If not working, they're homeless, they're in jail, they're couch-surfing," said ECC Program Director Carrie Miller. "But there is hope."

Among the report's recommendations: County departments should work together to offer foster children better mentoring, vocational, on-the-job and educational opportunities.

"There's always hope," said Vinny Daverso, mentor director for the Alliance for Children's Rights, one of dozens of agencies that met with kids at Wednesday's Resource Fair. "We encourage people to join some kind of organization to be mentors of our youth. These kids need advice. They need people in their lives."

It was a cold Christmas Eve in 1994 when Jenny Serrano, 18, an aged-out foster teen, checked into the last bed of an L.A. foster transitional home.

The child of drug addicts, she'd lived in five foster homes and attended six high schools in three years and had no one to turn to.

"I had no plan. No means. No adults. I ended up on the street, completely homeless," said Serrano, now 31.

Fourteen years later, Serrano has two degrees from California State University, Northridge, and coordinates foster transitions for the county Chief Executive Office.

"Stability is great. Permanence is great," she said. "But kids become their own safety net with a good education."

Howard harbored a dream of being the best defensive back in the nation. In 2005, he played for Birmingham High School the year it won the city championship. That season, the free safety broke a record with five interceptions.

But having lived in a dozen foster homes, the Pacoima native lost ground after he went on a four-month search for his mentally ill mother.

"He's been through a lot of doo-doo," said Di Di De Witt of Granada Hills, who has adopted Howard. "We're (now) family for life and are going to make sure that he'll reach his destiny."

It took the backing of the ECC, Probation Department and Alliance for Children's Rights to persuade school district officials to let him play football as a fifth-year senior at Granada Hills High.

But he still needs more time on the field.

Rene Howard Photo

Rene Howard


This fall, the 205-pounder will study at the Milford Academy in New York to qualify for the University of Miami. Tuition is $19,000, of which he has raised $4,500.

To encourage foster kids like himself to head for college, Howard founded Think BIG, a nonprofit advocacy group, while in high school.

To wear a Miami Hurricane jersey, he said, is a dream come true.

"I've been wanting to play football since I was 5," he said. "I'm very excited."