Giving Foster Kids a Chance

Capitol Police Officer Steps In to Lend Extra Help

Posted November 4, 2009 at 4:58pm

Lily Dorman-Colby’s story is the kind you should listen to with tissues handy. A foster child since age 12, Dorman-Colby was shuffled through five homes in two years and was subjected to the kind of instability and abuse that can permanently damage a child.

Through a few lucky breaks and her own hard work, though, she has become a success story, as a Yale student, former Hill intern and foster youth advocate. She attends classes full time and works with the Child Welfare League of America thanks to financial support from the Lazarus Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Capitol Police Special Agent David Lazarus. His organization specializes in providing mentoring and financial support for foster children attending college.

“They just need someone who is willing to give them an opportunity,— Lazarus said. “The best opportunity to give back is to give back to kids in foster care.—

The foundation provides an invaluable service to students who have come up through the system the way Dorman-Colby did. And her first experiences in foster care are, unfortunately, not uncommon.

An early foster mother in California emotionally abused her, telling her that her opinions didn’t matter and threatening to have her moved to a new home, away from her friends and her school. That experience caused her to become obsessed with memorizing bus routes so she would always know how to get to her friends or to school, which she considered her safe place and her true home.

Laws set up to “protect— foster children were no help to Dorman-Colby. Because of strict regulations in place at the time on what a foster child can and cannot have, these children can be subjected to embarrassing and painful invasions of privacy. When Dorman-Colby moved into this particular home, her foster mother told her to empty all her belongings on the living room floor to be documented, a humiliating experience for a 12-year-old girl.

“She said, ‘We have to go through your things so when you leave, you can’t say I took anything of yours and you can’t take anything of mine,’— Dorman-Colby recalled. Even showering was a process. She was told at the time that the law mandated foster children were not allowed to be alone in a room with more than two chemicals, so they had to choose between having soap and shampoo, shampoo and conditioner, shampoo and body wash — but never all at the same time.

In some instances, these regulations extended to not being allowed to attend sleepovers or going to the movies without adult supervision. However, in most places foster parents have no obligation to their charges as of the child’s 18th birthday and are often turned out on their own the day they are of legal age. Going from not being allowed to cook for themselves to living completely on their own is often what leads former foster children to homelessness and incarceration.

“My foster mother was nice enough to let me stay until the end of the month after my high school graduation,— Dorman-Colby said. “I was lucky enough to have friends and friends’ families to rely on. But if I hadn’t been able to crash on a friend’s couch until I left for school, who knows what would have happened to me.—

Dorman-Colby said she and other foster children are presumed suicidal and criminal before they even enter a placement home. When Dorman-Colby first entered foster care, she was an honors student but was treated as though her thoughts and opinions counted for nothing. During her experience at the early home where she was belittled, she said she was the most depressed she’s ever been in her life. She was soon moved to a home where her foster mother was supportive and warm, and Dorman-Colby said the move was the best thing that could have happened.

Dorman-Colby was moved for the last time in the middle of ninth grade, and her commitment to school led her to Yale University. She is now a senior economics major there, has interned with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and the Child Welfare League of America and is a full-time advocate for other foster youths. She is applying to law schools and hopes to become an advocate for at-risk youths.

The Lazarus Foundation began providing financial assistance to Dorman-Colby at the beginning of this fall semester. Hers is a unique case, as the organization typically reaches out to students in their senior year of high school in the hope of seeing them through college graduation. But the Child Welfare League appealed to the Lazarus Foundation on Dorman-Colby’s behalf. She had been interning with the CWLA, and they asked her to continue working with them while taking classes. However, Dorman-Colby said she had to take a job at school in order to pay tuition and could not maintain her intern duties while working. That’s when the Lazarus Foundation stepped in, making up the difference so she could focus on school and advocacy work.

The foundation aids students in various capacities and has seen about 25 foster children move through the program since it was founded six years ago. Only 15 percent of foster children in the United States enroll in college and only 2 percent graduate. When he founded his charity, David Lazarus drew on his gratitude for having a stable and supportive family and the emphasis his parents placed on education.

Lazarus grew up in Jamaica as one of 12 children. His entire family now lives in the United States, and both of his parents, his five brothers and six sisters are all involved with the foundation.

Lazarus’ commitment to charity work quickly becomes clear in his conversations. Asked about his own career path, he frequently mentions a desire to give back to the community and help people. After leaving the Marine Corps, he took a staff position with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). It did not take long for Lazarus to realize office work was not for him. He joined the Capitol Police force, where he is now assigned to House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) security detail, which helps satisfy his need to work among members of the community. But that still wasn’t enough.

“I realized that for me to really be effective, I’d probably need to start my own foundation so I can really be immersed in it,— Lazarus said.

The demands of working full time and running his nonprofit can become a challenge, but Lazarus is dedicated to his cause.

“It requires a lot of discipline and a serious commitment. But when you’re committed to it, you find a way,— he said. “It’s actually really fun. I enjoy it. It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done.—

All of the proceeds from fundraisers and donations go to participating students. Lazarus and his family cover the costs for all events, although he said that model is becoming increasingly unsustainable. He said that moving forward, they will be looking for more corporate sponsorship so all funds raised can continue to go to the students.

Dorman-Colby has been active on a range of issues related to foster youths. As an intern with the American Bar Association in 2008, she and other former foster children interning in Washington, D.C., made recommendations to Dodd’s office on the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which he is pushing to reauthorize.

Lazarus fellows are generally recommended by the CWLA or other social service programs. Terri Braxton, a business development specialist with the CWLA, has been working with Lazarus for several years, and she said she usually sends only those students who are connected to a second service organization as well.

“Kids who have been abused or neglected, they’ve missed out on a lot of developmental processes that someone who hasn’t been dealing with that has had,— Braxton said. This can make the already-challenging transition from home to college nearly insurmountable for students who don’t have families to call or visit for holidays or ask for help with buying books and applying for financial aid.

“They need way more support than your average kid,— Braxton said.

It is an unfortunate truth that as long as the system exists as it is, many foster children will in fact slip through the cracks and never make it to college or into a profession they truly enjoy. But the work of the Lazarus Foundation and survivors such as Dorman-Colby will ensure that at least some of them will have a fighting chance.