Jessica Reese

Jessica Reese, 25, of Vicksburg was bounced in and out of 14 foster homes after years of neglect and abuse. A graduate of Vicksburg High School, she’s struggled to continue her education in college but is determined to keep trying.

JACKSON — By the time she turned 6, Jessica Reese had been sexually abused repeatedly.

Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services took Reese and her younger brother out of the home and placed them in the custody of a female cousin. That produced more nightmares.

“I found out later my cousin had a history of mental illness,” Reese

said.

Reese, 25, still has a dent in her head from being struck by her cousin with a walking stick. Reese was held at gunpoint during an argument. And she and her brother were fed only when they asked for food — all before Reese was 11.

“I definitely had anger issues,” she said. “I soon trusted no one. If I couldn’t trust my family, how could I trust anyone else?”

She and her brother bounced in and out of 14 foster care homes.

“I was 15 before I finally woke up and really started trying to build a life for myself,” she said. “I was dealing with a lot of stuff, and school hadn’t been a huge priority.”

But she graduated from Vicksburg High School in 2012 and pursued a college education, first at Tougaloo College and then at Holmes Community College in Utica.

“I wasn’t ready or prepared,” she said. “I can look back and see that. But now I want to go back, but I can’t.”

She has an outstanding fee at Hinds CC she can’t afford to pay. Until it’s paid, she can’t enroll in any Mississippi public college. Because she wasn’t in school at 21, she is not eligible for education assistance through the state.

Reese lives in Vicksburg and works at Warren Central Middle School as a substitute teacher, earning $70 to $80 per day.

 

• • •

Reese’s post-high-school story isn’t uncommon in the U.S. Estimates of what proportion finish college with a bachelor’s degree range widely, from 1 to 11%, because the tracking of students in foster care in higher education has been inconsistent and, in some cases, nonexistent.

As of 2017, 19% of Mississippi youth in foster care had attended a post-secondary institution by the age of 19 compared to 52% of nonfoster kids, according to the National Youth in Transition Database and the American Community Survey.

Forty-two percent of Mississippi youth in foster care had a high school diploma or GED at age 19 compared to 84% of nonfoster students in the state.

Twenty-two percent of youth who were in foster care in Mississippi were unemployed and not in school at age 17 compared to 6% of their peers not in foster care.

The focus on education and transitional services for Mississippi’s foster care youth arose from the March 2004 Olivia Y lawsuit  filed by Children’s Rights Inc., alleging that the state foster care system was failing to adequately protect children in its custody and provide necessary services. A settlement was reached.

In 2016, the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services was created as a separate agency.

“Getting this right is important to all of us, but we’ve had to try and do it on a shoestring (budget),” said Lea Anne Brandon, director of communications with the new agency. “But things are improving.”             

One program responsible for that improvement is Youth Transition Support Services, which is funded by a federal grant.

“We are charged with serving kids 14 to 21 and connecting them with life skills — communication, decision making, how to wash their clothes, how to cook, all sorts of skills that will allow them to be independent,” said Mario Johnson, director of the program.

“We help the case worker build a transition plan for each of these youth. We identify what the needs are, what sort of connections they have as far as relatives or friends. We want to build them a support system that will help them get a college education.”

• • •

The program added transition navigators in 2017 to work with  youths individually, along with their social workers.

At least two of the navigators grew up in foster care and went on to graduate from college.

Bennie Smith, 35, graduated from Mississippi State University in 2006 with a degree in social work. He lives in Columbus and works with about 60 young people each month.

Bennie Smith

Bennie Smith, 35, was 14 “poor and just trying to survive” when he and his two siblings went into foster care. He is among the small percentage of young people coming out of foster care to graduate from college.  He has a degree in social work from Mississippi State University and lives in Columbus, Miss. A “navigator” with Youth Transition Support Services,  he works with about 60 kids each month.

“It’s an intense job. I know the importance of it,” Smith said. “But that makes me love it.”

Jaszmen Hawthorne, 28, graduated from Jackson State University in 2013 with a degree in social work and then earned a master’s degree from Louisiana State University in 2018.

“This is the kind of job that made me want to do social work,” said Hawthorne, who lives in Biloxi and covers the Gulf Coast area. “I can tell these kids, ‘I’ve been where you are.’ And I mean that literally. I was talking with a young woman one night at a shelter that I had been in growing up. When I told her, ‘I’ve slept in this very room,’ I think it helped gain her trust on a new level.”

Smith went into foster care at 14, along with his two siblings. “My dad was on drugs; my mother was an alcoholic,” he said. “We were living with my grandmother. There were 11 of us staying in a two-bedroom apartment. I slept on the floor.”

Smith said that his family was “just trying to survive” but that he was “always able to see something positive.” The family was eventually evicted, and he and his brother were taken in by a foster family that owned a farm.

“All of a sudden, I’m a city boy with chores like feeding the cows and chickens and mowing a big ol’ yard,” he said. “Me and my brother started complaining — you know how teenagers are. The chores weren’t that bad at all, but we didn’t like them. We called our social worker and said we wanted to leave.”

They packed their bags, and the social worker came to get them.

“When we started walking out the door, I suddenly said, ‘I don’t want to go.’ My social worker asked, ‘Can he stay?’ The foster mom said, ‘I never told them they couldn’t.’

“That was the turning point in my life. I say it was God speaking to me. My brother left. And he’s been in and out of jail, and I’ve gone on to be a little successful.”

Hawthorne went into foster care when she was 5 or 6 “because my mom was on drugs,” she said.

Jaszmen Hawthorne

Hawthorne

She was placed in several foster homes that didn’t work out. At 14, she was placed with a family in Hattiesburg, with whom she remains in contact. Hawthorne’s foster mom helped her move into her dormitory at Jackson State.

“I wasn’t the perfect kid when it came to education,” Hawthorne said. “But there came a point when I realized I needed to do better. Even with my biological mom’s problems, she always talked about doing good in school. I’ve never lost contact with my mom; she let me know that all she wanted was for me to graduate high school and go to college.”

Hawthorne wants to have that kind of effect on young people now. “If they have no mentors, then they have nobody to push them,” she said. “When I see complacency about education, that’s when I really go to work. I’ve found most to be receptive. But when a kid shuts down on me, that’s when I really become determined.    

“I never leave the kids I’m working with without saying, ‘Love you!’ and ‘Make good decisions.’ Sometimes it’s just having an adult that you don’t want to disappoint that can make a difference.”

 

• • •

Mississippi Youth Voice is another new program established to help youth in care graduate college. It is part of First Place for Youth, established in Mississippi in 2017 in partnership with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.    

“We started Youth Voice in September 2018,” said Claire Graves, the Mississippi site director at First Place for Youth. “This is a way for kids who have been through foster care to talk with social workers and share with them ways they might be more effective in their jobs.”

Scentrellis Dixon, 22, and Andranella Lawyer, 23, are part of the Youth Voice team that will meet with social workers at eight sessions across the state in May. Both are scheduled to graduate in December — Dixon from Jackson State, Lawyer from Holmes Community College.

“I had one really good social worker, and I had some not-so-good social workers,” said Lawyer, who went into foster care at age 4 and lived in 15 foster homes. “I had totally shut down because of so many bad experiences. I wasn’t interested in education or anything else. There were times I didn’t care if I woke up the next morning. But one social worker opened up to me. ... And it made me really open up to her, which allowed her to understand how to work with me.”

Dixon entered custody at 16 when his mother suffered two debilitating strokes and he had no other relatives to take him in.

“When I was in foster care, I was told by my social worker I’d never make it,” Dixon recalled. “It hurt. It made me feel like I was nothing more than a few words she’d scribbled down about me on a piece of paper. I just don’t think they realize the impact they have.

“My main points will be that they need to remember that the kids they’re working with are humans. I think they get so caught up in their paperwork that they don’t take the time to build a relationship with that kid.”

This story was produced in conjunction with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. It is part of a Juvenile Justice Information Exchange yearlong project on youth transitioning out of foster care. It’s made possible in part by The New York Foundling, which works with underserved children, families and adults with developmental disabilities. The JJIE is solely responsible for the content and maintains editorial independence.   

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