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Justin Flowers’ career as a social worker began on Friday, but the journey to get to his job as a caseworker at the Children’s Center in Detroit was long and perilous.

He and his brother were removed from the home of their biological parents when he was three after sexual and physical abuse and neglect. He bounced from foster to adoptive homes for the next 15 years until he was kicked out of his final foster care home when he aged out of the system at the age of 18. He didn’t have a high school degree or a place to live and ended up spending a couple of months living in the bathroom of a public park in Traverse City.

But he managed, through sheer self-determination and $89,000 in student loans to get a GED and attend and graduate from Marygrove College in Detroit as well as get a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan in June at the age of 30.

“God only gives hard lives to people he knows can deal with it,” he said. “ I can’t sit around and dwell about what happened to me, I just want to move forward.”

He credits Patricia Sparks, a foster care caseworker in Traverse City for helping him turn his life around and getting him on the track toward a fulfilling future. And now he hopes to emulate his role model and expand on it to help other kids aging out of the foster care system get through college without the staggering debt.

“One day, I decided I wanted to get Maura Corrigan’s job,” he said of the current director of the Michigan Department of Human Services. “I knew what I wanted in my life. I just want to make a difference in the foster care system. I want to be that one worker who really makes a difference.”

He could get some help from the Legislature, which is considering a bill that would create a permanent endowment fund to be used for college costs for foster kids who age out of the foster care system. The House Family, Children’s and Seniors committee unanimously approved the bill Wednesday and it could be taken up in the full House later this month.

Right now, many of those potential students are getting help from the Michigan Education Trust, but under the guidelines for the trust, all the money raised for the scholarships in a year has to be spent each year. The “Fostering Futures” endowment fund wouldn’t have that kind of restrictions.

“You’re all aware of the extremely difficult childhood many of these kids have gone through,” state Rep. Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford, who is the sponsor of the bill, told the House committee. “This gives them the opportunity be successful and self sufficient adults.”

According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 7,145 kids entered the foster care system in 2012 in Michigan, the last year figures are available, doubling the number of kids already in the system. The older kids get, the less likely they are to be adopted out of foster care. The average age for adoptions is 5 years old and by the time they reach 16, only 2.8% are adopted. Foster kids can continue to get services until the age of 21 if they’re in college or some sort of training program.

At least nine universities and colleges have programs to help foster kids with financial assistance, life coaches, housing and other basic needs. Some are funded through foundations and most rely on help through the Michigan Department of Human Services.

The latest state budget included $500,000 for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1 to kick start the endowment fund. But that was one-time money that won’t be guaranteed each year.

Private money also has been a key toward fueling the program. Fundraisers were held in 2012 and 2013 to raise more than $200,000 for the MET’s foster kids scholarship program. And this year’s event is on Sept. 25 at the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester.

“My desire would be to have both private and public money for the program,” said Robin Lott, the director of the MET program for the state Department of Treasury. “Seventy-five percent of these students who age out are interested in going to college, 10% of them end up on college campuses, but only six percent graduate. There is a dire need for this.”

Nationally, only 2-4% of kids who age out of the foster care system end up going to college, said Maura Corrigan, director of DHS. But the programs offered by higher ed institutions in the state and the scholarships offered in Michigan are beginning to reverse that trend.

About 800 kids aged out of the foster care system in 2013 and the MET program received 353 applications from students wanting to go to college and doled out $449,616 for college expenses.

“We’ve got more than 300 18 to 21-year-olds who are drawing down that money,” Corrigan said. “We’re moving the needle in Michigan.”

Corrigan became interested in improving the state’s foster care system when she was a Supreme Court justice dealing with a case of a foster child who was murdered in 2001. That grew into her mentoring four foster students over the years and becoming an outspoken advocate for foster kids.

“We were dumping kids out on the streets at age 18 and that just seemed immoral,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned you support children as long as you can, especially during their years when they’re trying to find their way.”

Studies nationally and in Michigan have shown that foster kids who age out of the system and who don’t get assistance are at high risk for homelessness, incarceration, drug abuse, unplanned pregnancies and domestic violence.

“When we provide for education and job training, we interrupt that generational cycle and give them a future,” Corrigan said.

While Flowers didn’t get to take advantage of the college scholarships, he knows he can help the caseload he expects to see grow quickly.

“This isn’t just a job to me,” he said. “It’s so much more.”

Originally published in the Battle Creek Enquirer on Sep. 18, 2014.

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