Teenagers in Foster Care Get a Lesson in Finance

Jennifer Abel of Virginia Cooperative Extension teaches financial literacy to Northern Virginia teenagers in foster care.
Jennifer Abel of Virginia Cooperative Extension teaches financial literacy to Northern Virginia teenagers in foster care. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

A dozen teenagers gathered their swivel chairs around a conference table on a recent afternoon and talked about the credit crisis, or more specifically, how to avoid one of their own.

After agreeing that too much debt could lead to a life of deprivation and dog food, they practiced reading the fine print on credit card bills. Conversant in the language of truth-in-lending disclosure statements, they evaluated an assortment of "Super Preferred!!" credit card offers and decided which would be the best, or the least bad, given a tangle of variable interest rates and fees.

Many young adults get little or no financial education and make mistakes, learning lessons the hard way. This class is meant to make money matters a little easier for some teenagers who, as foster children, have already experienced their share of hard lessons.

The weekly class is taught at the Adolescent and Family Growth Center in Springfield, a place where children in foster care come after school for therapy, classes and companionship with other kids who can relate to their complicated schedules and lives.

The class, funded through the state Department of Social Services, serves teenagers who live throughout Northern Virginia. It's part of an effort to teach skills necessary to live independently and to graduate successfully from foster families into the real world.

"Money is such a big pressure," said Sherri Brothers, an Arlington County social worker who organized the class. "They do not get enough natural education around it, since they are in foster care, and they often won't get it in school."

About 7,300 youths live in foster care in Virginia, including about 450 in Fairfax County, about 200 in Alexandria, about 145 in Arlington, about 100 in Prince William County and about 90 in Loudoun County. Most are teenagers, who are less likely than young children to reunite with their parents or find adoptive families. Without intensive training and support, research shows, those teenagers face a higher likelihood of homelessness and unemployment.

Brothers hired Virginia Cooperative Extension in Arlington to teach the class. Cooperative Extension trains more than 4,000 people a year in financial management skills. Extension agent Jennifer Abel also works with inmates preparing for release and conducts workshops, such as "Going Green Can Save You Green," for middle- and upper-class audiences. Thursdays, she teaches financial literacy to children in foster care.

In addition to lessons on credit, banking and budgeting, the Thursday class gets some lifelike practice. Each student has a class job, and they take on the roles of clerks, police officers, audiovisual specialists, bankers and janitors. The first Thursday of the month is payday. On the same day, rent is due.

"If we have nothing, we sit on the floor," said one student, not joking.

The high school junior picked the job of police officer because he aspires to work in the FBI. For now, his responsibilities include blowing the whistle on any rowdy classmates and making sure everyone stays on task.

Nicole McGarry, assistant director of clinical services for the Adolescent and Family Growth Center, said the simulation is timely. "Many of these guys are trying to get their first jobs. It's an opportunity to get in the career game."

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