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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State program drives foster children toward teen milestone

Robel Kahsay, left, a junior at Lewis and Clark High School, is being helped toward graduation by Treehouse education specialist Janelle Smith, right, including assistance  with getting a driver’s license and monitoring his grades. Robel is originally from Eritrea, East Africa. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

After he aged out of foster care in California, Patrick Nickell got a plumbing job. Unable to drive to work, he ended up taking the bus two hours each way, carrying his tools alongside him.

“It was not fun. And that would have been difficult to sustain,” he said.

Teenagers in foster care often have trouble getting a driver’s license along with their peers, thanks to the high cost of driver’s ed, insurance and other expenses.

That can put them at a disadvantage for commuting to school, keeping a job or getting to activities like sports. Nickell said he repeatedly ran across jobs where “reliable transportation” was a requirement.

In an effort to close the gap, Washington is funding a statewide program to help young people in foster care pay for car-related expenses, including licensing and insurance.

The program was approved by the Legislature during the 2017 session, and the Department of Social and Health Services granted $500,000 to Seattle-based nonprofit Treehouse for a pilot program that started in January.

Nickell, who runs the program, said 200 teens in foster care have already applied for funds.

Foster parents receive a small stipend to take care of children in their care, but it’s often barely enough to cover basics like food and school supplies.

“Teenagers are expensive. They need stuff. They need a lot of stuff. And they have wants, too, on top of the needs,” Nickell said.

While driver’s education was once a part of school curriculum, offered for little or no cost, it’s far more common now for teens to take classes through private companies, Nickell said. Those classes typically cost hundreds of dollars.

Treehouse operates statewide programs designed to help improve foster children’s high school graduation rates and pay for extras like summer camps that children might otherwise be left out of, so the driver’s assistance program was a natural fit.

Janelle Smith, an education specialist with Treehouse in Spokane, said foster children often feel left out of experiences their peers are having, including getting a license in high school.

“A lot of youth look to getting their driver’s license as a really exciting thing,” she said.

It’s easy to think young people should just take public transit, but many live outside of cities where that’s an option. Even in places like Spokane that do have a bus system, working jobs at odd hours or being in school can make that a less-than-ideal option.

“A couple of my students right now are in high school and they have jobs,” Smith said. “If they have to take the bus an hour, that cuts into time they could be doing homework.”

The assistance program also covers the cost of state ID cards for young people who need a form of identification that isn’t a driver’s license.

Any young person age 15 to 21 who’s in foster care, extended foster care or under tribal court jurisdiction can qualify. There’s a short application for funds on the Treehouse website,

The pilot programs runs through mid-2019, but Nickell is hopeful the state will provide permanent funding.

Robel Kahsay, a junior at Lewis and Clark, is among the teens hoping to benefit from the program.

He’s been in foster care for three years and said he’s not sure if his foster parent would be able to help with driver’s education. Using Treehouse funding, he hopes to take driver’s ed this summer so he can learn the rules of the road.

“I just want to start doing it right now,” he said.

With a license, he’d be able to drive to soccer practice and matches with his friends. He would also be the first person in his family to have a driver’s license.

As for a car, he’s not picky.

“Just, you know, any car,” he said when asked what he’d like to drive.