TOPICS > Education > Making the Grade

Former foster youth defies odds, determined to change the system

March 29, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Only about half of all youth in foster care in the U.S. graduate from high school, and just one in 10 enroll in college. But 19-year-old James Turner, raised in foster care since he was 18 months old and now a second-semester college student, is not only defying the odds -- he wants to use his education to help other foster youth overcome the same hurdles he did. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports.


James Turner had a chance at a “forever family” when he was 8. Placed in foster care at 18 months, Turner was nearly adopted by a Jamaican family he’d been living with, after bouncing between 17 other foster families in the Orlando, Florida, area before the age of 5.

But then he learned it would mean moving with the family to Jamaica.

“I would be leaving not only my school and the neighborhood that I grew up in, but also now my country, and I was old enough to know the different countries. So I was like, there is no way, you know, there is no way I could do that,” said Turner, now 19.

Turner didn’t realize right away that decision would mean he’d be separated from the only family he’d ever felt part of. But it soon became clear.

“As soon as I saw the mother with saddened eyes as she was packing my bags I [knew] I made a wrong decision.”

After moving between still more foster homes — some violent, according to Turner — he was living exclusively in group homes by the time he was 12. After the frequent moves, many adults with varying degrees of caring and compassion coming in and out of his life, and some cruel treatment, Turner is now on a mission to change the foster care system for the better.

But first he must get through one of his greatest challenges thus far: college.

Turner has already achieved what few foster children have: going straight from graduation to a four-year college, in his case Florida State University in Tallahassee. He is studying both business and film; business to learn learn how to improve the child welfare system, and film so he can tell his own story on the big screen.

He is no longer looking for a forever family in the traditional sense, though he does plan to marry and have children one day. Right now he feels he has created his own.

“To me, what a forever family is, is whatever you make it,” Turner said. “Every kid that was in foster care, every kid that I could relate with, they are my family now, they are adopted into me and I’m adopted into them.”

Read the full transcript of this segment below:

GWEN IFILL: Only 2 percent of children living in foster care will earn a college degree by the time they turn 25.

We have the story tonight of a student in Florida working to defy those odds and to change them for others as well.

The NewsHour’s April Brown has our profile, the second in a series of stories on foster care.

It’s part of our weekly series on education, Making the Grade.

APRIL BROWN: Last year at his high school in Orlando, Florida, James Turner was known by many for his blazing speed in the 400-meter dash. He was dedicated and driven, and several college track coaches had taken notice. But what many didn’t know was that James was running a far more difficult race off the track.

JAMES TURNER, Former Foster Youth: You know, before 5, they said I had 17 — I lived in 17 different foster homes.

APRIL BROWN: James Turner has never really had what most people take for granted: what they call in foster care a forever family. Placed in care at just 18 months old, James was separated from all three of his siblings by the time he was 5, and has had little contact with any of his family ever since.

At 8, he almost was adopted by a family he loved that was moving to Jamaica, but, at the last minute, he decided he couldn’t leave his school, his neighborhood and his country. It’s a decision he still regrets. James says the next foster home was a violent place.

JAMES TURNER: The dad of the home, he beat me a lot and his kids also and other kids that he took into the system. And he said — his excuse was — and I remember he was always telling us, “Well, my foster mom did it, so I’m going to do it to you.”

APRIL BROWN: In another foster home, James says the father set mousetraps in front of the refrigerator after he caught the children sneaking extra food.

JAMES TURNER: And I remember, the guy, he showed us with a carrot. He said, if you come out here at night and take food from the refrigerator again, this is what will happen to your finger. And we watched the carrot get broken in half.

APRIL BROWN: By the age of 12, James was mainly living in group homes, something that often happens, according to Betsey Bell, who runs Orlando’s Foundation for Foster Children, an organization that has helped James since high school.

BETSEY BELL, Executive Director, Foundation for Foster Children: As kids grow older, if they are not adopted out by age 9, then their chance of being adopted and being part of a forever family are much smaller. And so what we see, though, is, at that same time, when kids are getting older, they are in group homes, because there is just not enough foster homes.

APRIL BROWN: As he grew up, James changed group homes and schools several times. But he learned how to advocate for himself and for other kids in care.

BETSEY BELL: He was the big brother. He was the one that kids would go to, that they knew James would help them.

APRIL BROWN: However, James found few adults he could really trust.

JAMES TURNER: I find myself always examining people and observing things. I think it scarred me for the rest of my life, because I cannot — I cannot go throughout a day without having to — trying to figure somebody out who is directly involved in my life.

APRIL BROWN: That slowly began to change when James arrived at Orlando’s Boone High School. He wanted to go out for track, but didn’t have track shoes. The staff at the Foundation for Foster Children got him a pair.

And then he met the school’s college counselor, Weeze Cullen. He told her he wanted to go straight to Florida State University after graduation and earn a business degree.

WEEZE CULLEN, College Counselor, Boone High School: I think it’s much more common for students in the foster system to be working on just graduating high school.

APRIL BROWN: In fact, national studies show only about half of students in foster care in the U.S. graduate from high school. Fewer than one in 10 enroll in college at all, fewer still in four-year schools.

But James drove himself to beat those odds, and he and Cullen began outlining a plan to get him to FSU. However, some unexpected hurdles emerged, because it seemed few case workers were familiar with how to apply for college and financial aid.

WEEZE CULLEN: I think they were unfamiliar because they don’t send students to four-year schools. And so I’m not sure that that’s something they spend a lot of time doing because it just doesn’t happen.

APRIL BROWN: But, for James, it did happen.

JOHN THRASHER, President, Florida State University: I wanted to take this opportunity to offer my congratulations to James.

APRIL BROWN: And even university president John Thrasher wanted to congratulate him.

MAN: Your sense of self really is shaped by powerful forces you may or may not think about.

APRIL BROWN: Today, the 19-year-old recently began his second semester and says he wouldn’t have made it if not for Cullen.

JAMES TURNER: FSU, I thought, was out of reach. And she made it more reasonable, and she made it seem a lot more possible.

APRIL BROWN: James’ tuition and fees are paid for by the state because he went through Florida’s foster care system. He also was admitted into a program specifically designed to ease the transition to college for first-generation students.

FSU’s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, known as CARE, helps with financial aid and has dedicated advisers and other resources available for the student’s entire college career.

SALLY MCRORIE, Provost, Florida State University: There are so many needs that they have that the typical college student doesn’t have.

APRIL BROWN: Sally McRorie is FSU’s provost.

SALLY MCRORIE: We have students in this group who are food-insecure, so we have had a food bank, a food pantry. We have students who have nowhere to go on break when the resident halls are closed down.

APRIL BROWN: That’s frequently a problem for foster youth like James. When he decided to return to Orlando for winter break, he didn’t know at first where he’d stay. But then two families he met last spring at a fund-raiser for the Foundation for Foster Children opened their doors to him. James spent his holidays visiting both.

JAMES TURNER: It’s so weird to be in a family setting again after being in group homes for so long. So, these families that are opening up their home to me, they don’t know that they’re serving a great — they are doing something so great.

APRIL BROWN: On our way back to Tallahassee and FSU, James shared his most ambitious plan yet. He wants to use his business degree to reform the state’s foster care system and hopes to develop an app and a Web site specifically for the kids.

JAMES TURNER: That they can relate and share their experiences at different group homes. They can even rate group homes. They can rate caseworkers. They can rate staff. They can rate all this stuff. They can rate their judges. They can rate their experiences that they had in different foster homes and foster parents, and talk about how different caseworkers are doing different things, making other people aware.

APRIL BROWN: But he says, above all, he wants to help make sure kids in the system get one thing they all need.

JAMES TURNER: Just someone to care. It’s as simple as that, someone who cares, at least one person who cares.

APRIL BROWN: Today, James has given up on running competitively, focusing his free time instead on speaking to both large groups…

JAMES TURNER: At age 1-and-a-half, I was entered into foster care, but didn’t know until the age of 6.

APRIL BROWN: … and smaller ones.

JAMES TURNER: We’re already ahead of the game. We just got to get there.

APRIL BROWN: Like here at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home outside Orlando. James never lived in this group home, but he offered their foster youth guidance on life in college.

JAMES TURNER: You get into college, and people have to live with each other. You hear these little people, these little girls and these guys complaining about their roommate. And I was like, dude, I lived in group homes my all my life. I had roommates worse than this. Like, this is nothing. You know what I mean?

APRIL BROWN: His story has also inspired many at Florida State.

SALLY MCRORIE: These students deserve our help. They will be great, just like James. They will be great spokespeople. They will be movers and shakers in their future communities. And all they need is the chance and a little bit of help to do that.

APRIL BROWN: That’s a sentiment James couldn’t agree with more.

JAMES TURNER: These kids will be driven because they want to make a name for themselves. You know, foster care and the group homes and foster homes are gold mines for our nation.

APRIL BROWN: And, at this point in his life, James has found a different kind of forever family.

JAMES TURNER: Every kid, you know, that was in foster care, every kid that can relate with what I can relate to, you know, they are my family now, and they are adopted into me, and I’m adopted into them.

APRIL BROWN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m April Brown in Florida.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.