At the start of her senior year in high school, Lily Colby was at a loss. Her classmates were taking tests, planning campus tours and compiling their resumes. She just knew she wanted to go to college. Any college.
It seemed unlikely. Her parents, who both struggled with mental illness, could not help, and since she was 12, she had lived in a succession of foster homes— including one where her foster mom forbade her from phoning any friends who were not on a pre-approved list and disparaged her at every turn. Eventually, to protect herself, Colby stopped speaking at home.
But she had a handful of teachers and a counselor who would not give up on her. The counselor, assigned through the child welfare system, urged her to apply to an array of top schools and helped her brainstorm an essay about her experience as a foster child and how she wanted to devote her life to social justice. No one was more surprised than Colby when 14 colleges, including Ivies, admitted her. She chose Yale for her undergraduate degree, and then moved on to UC Berkeley.
Today fewer than half of California’s foster children graduate from high school and a fraction of those go on to any higher education. But tomorrow Lily Colby—or more officially, Lily Hera Davida Carly Eagle Dorman Colby (her mother gave her multiple options because she wanted her to have at least one name she liked)—will graduate from Berkeley Law.
And then she will begin a job at the nonprofit Youth Law Center in San Francisco, on a project to improve foster parent training.
It is a subject she has pursued academically. She studied foster care and family law at Boalt Hall and, as an intern at the American Bar Association, helped draft legislative language. But foremost, she knows the terrain from her own Berkeley childhood.
“I wouldn’t have moved so often if there were a plethora of foster parents or if the ones I had had gotten the support they needed,” says Colby, who lately has been splitting her time between planning for graduation, the bar exam and her upcoming wedding.
She graduates at a time when the state’s foster care population has declined by almost 50 percent over the past 15 years, primarily the result of policies aimed at keeping families together. But the problem of finding enough high quality foster parents still dogs the system. Some of the obstacles are political. While the goal of preserving families is laudable, Colby says, there should be more emphasis on recruiting and supporting foster care providers. State figures show there are fewer licensed foster parents now than five years ago. The shortage means that kids get placed in whatever homes are available, she says. Foster parents too often don’t know how to advocate for educational needs or help kids succeed in school.
Colby looks younger than her 27 years, but there is a seriousness and directness in her gaze. She is unafraid to share how her early life unfolded, how she was taken away from her parents and placed in foster care.
So, why was she able, against all odds, to come through it with a desire to reform the system rather than to get away from it entirely?
Perhaps, she says, it is because she had parents who loved her and always told her so. Her parents had mental health problems—her father suffered from schizophrenia and her mother from bi-polar disorder and drug addiction—but they were not abusive. “My mother didn’t take care of herself but she never hurt us,” says Colby. “She told us we were wonderful and could do anything.”
She remembers the mountains of clothes, old toys, food and junk piled in the South Berkeley house where she and her brothers, two younger and one older, played. To them it seemed normal, even magical. Colby describes how they felt it was their “kingdom,” a fanciful place to play. At night they slept wherever they landed. No one assigned them bedrooms.
But social workers deemed it hazardous: They removed her from the house temporarily several times as a young child.
At 12, after missing more than 50 days of school, she was separated from her brothers and put in the first of five long-term placements. She counts them off on her fingers as she speaks. Three, luckily, were with friends’ parents, but she also was dispatched for a time to Albany and East Oakland, where she had to spend an hour on the bus each way to get to school.
She was determined to stay at the same middle school where she had friends, even if she no longer lived with her parents. The continuity meant a lot to her. “Kids have the right to stay in their school of origin,” she says, “But usually they can’t because of transportation problems. When they have to keep transferring they fall behind.”Of course this is something she learned afterward. At the time she knew only that she liked her school, teachers, friends and math class, where she was a top student. She worked hard to overcome dyslexia, but she had no one at home to oversee a special educational plan, to which, by law, she was entitled.
“Home” was difficult. She recalls the foster mother who monitored her use of soap, shampoo and anything else deemed a “chemical” and refused to sign her math tests, which was obligatory in the 8th grade.
She credits some of her teachers—including one from that 8th-grade math class—and a counselor with encouraging her to keep working hard. She finished middle school with her friends and went off to Berkeley High, where she took advanced classes and was an All-American in wrestling (“I used to pick people up for fun,” she says), and served as the student representative on the city’s school board.
Her counselor helped her sign up for SAT’s and get an accommodation for her dyslexia. “I didn’t expect to get in anywhere,” she says. “But my mentor said to put my name out there and just apply.”
Scholarship funds paid for a trip east, where she visited each school and made a point of interviewing low-income students about their experiences. At Yale she studied economics and later landed internships in the congressional offices of Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She also continued racking up honors, including being named Glamour Magazine’s “Top 10 College Women” in 2009 for her social justice advocacy.
The summer after her freshman year at Yale, she became a licensed foster parent so she could care for her 13-year-old brother. She lived with him in Daly City—working as an intern at the American Heart Association during the day, then making dinner and spending time with him at night. She arranged to have him tested at a community college, which confirmed what she suspected: Although he was autistic, he was a math prodigy. So she enrolled him in an advanced math class and summer camp.
“He was in a class with 20-year-olds,’’ she says. “He didn’t talk until he was 5, but he was multiplying in his head. He is a math genius.”
His progress proved to her what she’d seen in her own life: Having someone help with school and summer enrichment programs can make an enormous difference to the kinds of kids who can be easily overlooked otherwise. “His social worker didn’t encourage him to go to college,” she says. “I had to fight for him to take an SAT prep class. I paid for it, but his foster parents wouldn’t drive him there.” Even after she returned to college, she continued to be his advocate, participating in phone meetings about his individual educational plan and helping him apply to college and for scholarships.
Her brother is now studying physics at Cal and wants to go to graduate school to work on clean energy technology.
Although that brother made it to college (her other younger brother works in Berkeley and her oldest graduated from art school), her foster siblings did not. Most struggled in high school. One is behind bars. She is in touch with many and says she offers support when she can.
Colby and her fiancé plan to foster children together. Her face lights up when she talks about the man she will marry two days after graduation: He works in law enforcement and is, she says, the kindest man she’s ever met. “We say I’m law and he’s order,” she says, laughing. The two will be married at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, surrounded by friends, teachers, mentors, two of her former foster parents and her own parents, who she sees about once a month and remain an important part of her life, even if they cannot help steer her through it.
Her work at the Youth Law Center—funded by an Equal Justice Works fellowship sponsored by the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman—will focus on ensuring that foster parents are trained how to help kids succeed in school. All too often, she says, they don’t realize they need to advocate for special needs, meet with teachers, check homework, and help kids plan for the future. She contends that foster parents should be required to understand state laws and how to help navigate through the school system.
Colby has “a unique combination of professional and life experiences,” says Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the center, which has named Colby as an Unsung Hero. “Any time someone has experienced the system with all its challenges and feels a responsibility that other children not have the same negative experiences, that’s an incredible opportunity. She takes that obligation to heart, deeply and personally.”