How the foster care system fails so many kids—and how we can do better

The stats on teens transitioning out of foster care aren't good. Can we empower these young people to build futures to look forward to?

Sixto Cancel: I first entered foster care at 11 months. I found myself adopted at the age of nine. I remember walking into the courtroom and the judge smiling at me, asking me a very important question at the age of nine, and the question was: did I want to be adopted?
And I wanted to say no, but I was so afraid of what that “no” would mean that I said yes. And unfortunately it was a pretty abusive adoption. I found myself not being able to participate in the holidays—not being able to be part of that “forever family” idea. And so by the age of 13 I was couch-surfing quite a bit until I was able to reenter foster care. And when I reentered foster care the entire conversation was about how was it that I was going to survive after foster care? What would happen when I aged out? 23,000 young people have a similar story where they turn 18 or 21—depending on the state that they’re in—and they have to figure out how is it that they’re going to be completely self-sufficient.

I think every day people make choices about other people’s lives. And when it comes down to being a young person in foster care, before you are 18 every single choice is being made for you. And we see the results. We see 23,000 young people age out of the foster care system—20 percent will end up experiencing homelessness within the first two years; we see three percent being able to get a bachelor’s degree; and we see almost 50 percent of young people underemployed.

Part of being able to define your own story, being able to define your own journey, is that you really start to be empowered to take the actions that you feel are appropriate for your life.
For me, I was fortunate that when I was 15 I was able to participate in financial literacy programs. I was fortunate enough to be in a work-to-learn program where I got to have a job, practice what money management looked like. I went to asset trainings, which were these once-a-month trainings on how to buy a car, how to lease an apartment. And these things really equipped me to be ready for life after foster care.

But not every single young person gets that, and that’s what our commitment of action is about: supporting young people with a coaching platform on how they can get from being in foster care to life after foster care.
Many systems around the country have a social worker leading the case plan, leading what will happen in a young person’s life. And we need young people to be involved in what will happen to them.
When we think so much about nonprofits and what it means to be in service to the people that we serve, too many times people come to the table thinking about how is it that they can help. But Think of Us as not about saying “how can we help”—it’s really looking at the individual and saying: you are whole and you are complete, and how is it that the folks around you can support you and coach you through some of the obstacles that they may have a little bit of knowledge on? But at the end of the day the young person at the center is the only person who has to live with these decisions for the rest of their life.

Think of Us is an online platform that allows young people to create a transition plan where they are thinking about what is it that they want to accomplish, whether that’s a two-year college, whether it’s four-year. What type of job, car, etc. It empowers young people to build their own personal advisory board of already trusted adults in their lives and people who are working within the foster care system.

Together they all work to create a transition plan where a young person identifies: what is it that they want after high school? What is it that they want after foster care? They get to set goals, action steps, be able to access resources on the platform and be able to watch content that helps them think through what might life look like after foster care.

At the end of the day, all the research and everything that we know to be true about humanity is that the connection between humans is what really supports folks in their healing, what really positions folks to develop new abilities, to position them to thrive.

And so when I think about mentorship I think about how might we continue to make sure that young people are connected with those adults who can see their needs, can see how they can get involved and be there for them.

When it comes to life after foster care, there is typically not a lot of hope on the horizon, says Sixto Cancel, who has been in and out of the foster care system since he was 11 months old. He was lucky enough to take part in programs that set him up for an independent life when he turned 18—how to manage finances, find a job, apply for an apartment, buy a car—but his story is the exception, not the rule. The stats are not good: 20 percent of young people in foster care will experience homelessness within the first two years of leaving the system. 50 percent are underemployed. Only 3 percent earn a bachelor's degree. These negative outcomes are the reason Cancel founded Think of Us, a non-profit platform that gives vulnerable youths tools and resources to plan their life, and empowers them to build a network of adult mentors they trust. For more information about Think of Us, visit www.thinkof-us.org

Deep learning nails correlation. Causation is another matter.

Why do people with bigger hands have a better vocabulary? That's one question deep learning can't answer.

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  • Did you know that people with bigger hands have larger vocabularies?
  • While that's actually true, it's not a causal relationship. This pattern exists because adults tend know more words than kids. It's a correlation, explains NYU professor Gary Marcus.
  • Deep learning struggles with how to perceive causal relationships. If given the data on hand size and vocabulary size, a deep learning system might only be able to see the correlation, but wouldn't be able to answer the 'why?' of it.
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Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
Surprising Science
  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

Physicists solve a 140-year-old mystery

Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.

Credit: IBM
Surprising Science
  • Researchers discover a method of extracting previously unavailable information from superconductors.
  • The study builds on a 19th-century discovery by physicist Edward Hall.
  • The research promises to lead to a new generation of semiconductor materials and devices.
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