Legislation Will Help Foster Youth

By Sparky Harlan

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed a flurry of bills. One that missed the media’s attention was AB 194, authored by our own assemblyman, Jim Beall. As legislation goes, this was a simple bill—youth aging out of foster care (ages 18-24) will now have priority to register for classes in state community colleges and universities. There was no opposition to the bill. 

According to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 25 percent of youth leaving foster care at 18 will experience an episode of homelessness within four years. With no family to fall back on, foster kids hit the street and become part of the homeless adult population or commit crimes to survive and go to prison. 

There are about 60,000 children in foster care in California, and it is estimated that only 1,500 to 3,000 youth will be eligible to register early for college classes. In Santa Clara County, there are almost 1,000 children in foster care, and around 200 leave the system each year. The number of children in foster care is decreasing as we learn that providing child abuse prevention services in the home, or placing kids with a relative, has a better outcome than years bouncing from one foster home or group home placement. 

Last year, landmark legislation AB 12 passed. It allows foster youth to stay in the system up to age 21. Youth will be able to stay in their foster homes or receive a housing subsidy only if they are enrolled in an education program. According to the author, Jim Beall, “70 percent of foster youth say they desire to go to college, however, 20 perent actually do attend college and only two to three percent graduate with a four-year degree.” 

At Bill Wilson Center’s Transitional Housing Program, 62 percent of our former foster youth, some who are parents, are enrolled in college.  Most attend a local community college while working full or part time. We provide up to 18 months of subsidized housing and independent living skills training to help youth become productive adults. We are proud of our success, but having priority registration will help our working parents get the classes they need.  AB 194 will give foster youth a leg up on the fight to independence.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth. Under her leadership, Bill Wilson Center works to prevent poverty by connecting youth to employment, education, housing, and healthy relationships.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.


  1. Of all the places I had to stay during my troubled youth, Bill Wilson house was probably my favorite.

    I was homeless at 16. (Long story short, my parents didn’t know how to be parents) I had been in the county shelter a year earlier, but between the county shelter, and my social worker, I was always left feeling hopeless.  (For some reason, they always sided with my parents, despite them being wrong about everything)

    Bill Wilson house was different…

    I was on my 2nd month of living under the bridge by Delta Queen Classic car wash on Hamilton.  One of the leaders from my church youth group had turned me onto to Bill Wilson house.

    Bill Wilson had a plan to get me back to a sort of “regular” life.  When they called my mom to get her permission, she threatened them with lawsuits if they kept me another night (she wanted me shipped off to one of those outward bound type camps)

    The kind and wise folks at Bill Wilson saw through her smokescreen.  I can’t remember the name of my counseler there, but after being on the phone with my mother for over an hour (of which, you could hear her SCREAMING into the mouthpiece at this man) he had a meeting with the rest of the staff, then they called me in.

    “Robert, normally we don’t do this, but we think you have a special case here.  We can’t keep you here because your mother is going to throw the book at us, but we’ll help you survive any way we can.  Here’s a book of bus passes, $20 to eat, and if you run out of food, money, or bus passes PLEASE don’t hesitate to come back here for more”

    To me, that was really special.  They didn’t cave into doing the thing that created the least amount of liability, they took the right side and did what they could for me despite the risks.

    I returned twice for a bite to eat and some more bus passes.  Thanks Bill Wilson House.  Sparky, you run a top notch organization there.

    • Congrats to you, Jim Beall, Bill Wilson House, and to the many foster kids in the system.  I’ve always hated the bad rap that foster care gets.  Much of it is deserved, but much more of it isn’t. 

      My fost-adopt daughter just said at dinner the other night that she knows that if she hadn’t been adopted, that when she turned 18 next month, she’d be homeless.  Truth is, despite all of it’s short-comings, foster care saves lives.

    • Robert, times have changed a bit now at Bill Wilson House. Because parents sometimes refuse to give permission for their kids to stay with us, we now have a standing court order that allows us to keep youth under age 18 in our shelter for up to 10 days. After 10 days we can usually get parents to cool off and work with us. Our goal still is to work toward family reunification, although we know that doesn’t always work. We also now have a downtown San Jose Drop-In Center that provides meals, clothing, and other assistance for youth on the street that may not feel comfortable accessing our housing services. The one-stop center serves youth ages 14 to 24 with an array of services designed to help them get off the streets and into stable housing. You mentioned the old Children’s Shelter. You may want to read my blog on my feelings about putting abused children in an institution (http://sparkyharlan.wordpress.com/2009/07/31/santa-clara-childrens-shelter-quietly-closes/). I’m glad we could help you, at least a little, when you were younger. Our goal is to build connections with our youth and to do whatever it takes to help them.

      • Good read, all points I agree with.

        My stay was in the 1440 Roberts Road for about 5 months, before I was transferred to Eastfield/Ming Quong for a month (then fostered by my grandmother)

        I think the only reason you received so many criticisms in the comments was perhaps none of these kids ever realized with the county shelter, you had no choice or freedom.  With Bill Wilson there is.  You walk out the door of the county, an APB is put out for you, walk out the door of Bill Wilson, it’s your loss.

        Question about your standing order.. Kids still have the choice if they want to stay or not right? 

        For the readers,(if things are still run like this) it’s important to understand that sometimes kids have kids for parents.  It’s tough growing up in an environment like that, and I think one of the reasons for BW’s success is they don’t put blame on the kids, they don’t treat them like kids.  They educate kids, make them aware of their situation. 

        They basically put you in charge of getting yourself out of whatever mess you’re in, and give you all the help you need(legal, education, counseling)

        It’s effective.  Sparky maybe you can tell us your success rate of kids that actually got parents permissions to stay.  I’m sure it’s a pretty high number.

        Shame the county with it’s army of taxpayer salaried social workers can’t do the same for kids.

        • Yes, youth stay at Bill Wilson Center voluntarily.  They can walk out the door anytime, however, we do try and talk them out of it!  Over 85% of our kids return home, and we continue to work with the families. Our goal is to help families learn to solve their own problems without the need of our housing services. The other 15% who cannot return home, we find alternative places to stay like other relatives, family friends, or transitional housing, if they are older.  One of Bill Wilson Center’s (http://www.billwilsoncenter.org) guiding principles is to serve youth and families in the least restrictive setting.  If we can keep children and youth in their homes, with supportive services, that is best.  We all have learned a lot about helping families since your days at the Roberts Road location.

      • made personal attacks or went off topic

        I’m considering this comment “ontopic” for this thread.

        Josh I share Franks frustration.

        Just Curious wrote: And YOUR contributions to the world are…?

        In reply to my comment about Steve Jobs contributing little to the world.  That looks like it’s both a personal attack (why me?) and offtopic (what do my contributions have to do with Steve Jobs contributions)

        Quoting a favorite skittles commercial, “It’s a contradiction”

        Why don’t you guys switch to a meta-moderated system? (Reddit, drupal/joomla have nice plugins) At least that way folks won’t feel as though their comments just disappeared into a void where no one can see them.

        It’s a much more “democratic” system than what you have now.

        • Robert,

          For now, this is the best system we have. While someone asking about your contributions to the world may be off-topic, it’s not a personal attack. Feel free to engage in a lively debate with your fellow commenter.

          Thanks for reading,


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