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The big leap: Aging out of Arizona’s foster care system

PHOENIX– “Every year, hundreds of young adults age out of Arizona’s foster care system. It is a big transition that comes with very little support, but there is new legislation intended to lighten the load, though it may only help a little.

At 12 years old, Monique Gilliam was put in foster care after her mother overdosed on prescription drugs and alcohol. She mostly lived in group homes and shelters. She never got a foster family.

“I always had something to prove,” Gilliam said of life in the system. “I had to prove I was tough enough not to get beat up. I had to prove I was independent enough that they didn’t have to do everything for me and tell me how to live my life.”

But in school, Gilliam was in control. Other girls would skip class, but Gilliam would go, even if it meant begging for bus fare. It was her way out of life in a group home.

“The sooner I enrolled in college, the sooner I could leave,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam graduated early, at the top of her class. When she turned 17, Gilliam had herself declared independent from the foster care system.

“I had no bed. I had no furniture. I had no kitchen supplies,” Gilliam said. “I didn’t have a vehicle. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t have insurance cards. I couldn’t take myself to the doctor. I couldn’t even sign a lease for an apartment.”

Still, she figured out how to get by. She went to college full time, took out loans and worked two jobs – 75 hours a week. At one point she took in her younger sister who had a new baby.

“I don’t think I slept for years through school,” she said. “I just graduated last year, and I don’t think I slept until that point.”

Gilliam’s experience should have been easier, according to Arizona Senator Adam Driggs. He sponsored a bill that would set up a five-year pilot program to ensure foster care alumni pay no tuition at Arizona state schools and community colleges.

“It’s an additional safety net for them to say you can plan on college,” Driggs said. “If you’re in the foster care system, start planning now when you’re 12, 13, 14, start planning now because college is attainable for you.”

The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting a formal vote in the House.”

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