When Justin Pasquariello was only 7 months old, his birth father died, leaving his mother to care for her newborn while battling schizoaffective disorder.
"She tried really hard to be a good mother," Pasquariello, now 35, told The Huffington Post. "Sometimes, she was able to do a really great job. Other times, she couldn't really take care of me or herself."
Pasquariello has been told that his mother often behaved erratically -- she once tried to take him trick-or-treating at the wrong time of the year and ended up in an argument with police. His grandfather, who felt he was too old to be the primary caregiver for a little child, arranged for someone to help his mother with housekeeping and child care. But when Pasquariello was 4 years old, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families removed him from his home and placed him in foster care.
There were two foster care placements and a brief stint with a half-sibling in England before Pasquariello returned to his mother's care at age 7. When her mental illness worsened again, he stayed with a friend before moving in with the foster care family who would adopt him two years later.
Despite his tumultuous childhood, Pasquariello has done well. He attended Harvard University for undergraduate and graduate studies, earning a dual master's degree in business administration and public administration in 2010.
One thing that separated him from many other foster care kids, Pasquariello said, was financial resources. His birth family had the money to send him to England, for example.
But far more important was that he had consistent, loving relationships with adults in his life. Pasquariello's new family gave him a sense of security, he said. They also made sure he kept in touch with his birth family, and his grandfather, aunt and mother, to varying degrees, stayed in contact. Both families attended his wedding.
Most children in foster care don't get that kind of happy ending.
Kids who age out of foster care are usually left without a college education, a job or a place to live.
There are some 400,000 children in the United States living in the foster care system. Many experience multiple placements. Only about a quarter of them are eligible for adoption, and they will wait an average of three years to find permanent families. Others will end up back with their birth families or age out of the system at age 18 without stable, ongoing relationships or support.
There were 23,439 children in foster care who turned 18 in 2012. According to the Children's Advocacy Institute, less than 3 percent of those aging out are headed to college, 51 percent are unemployed and 65 percent don't even have a place to live.
"There are tremendous losses as they're emancipated into adulthood and leave a professional set of support," said Stephanie Berzin, associate professor at Boston College's School of Social Work and co-director of its Center for Social Innovation. "There's been a lot of work trying to be done around how do we build more stable, caring adult supports into a foster child's life."
Pasquariello is one of those trying to help. During his senior undergrad year at Harvard, he set up Adoption & Foster Care Mentoring, a Boston-area organization that pairs youth in care with volunteer adult mentors.
"The sad irony is that because they're moving frequently, [youth in foster care] are actually meeting more adults than a lot of other youth would meet," said Pasquariello, who now chairs AFC Mentoring's board. "They often have a lot of people who would want to be supportive in their lives, but because of the way the system works and how overworked people are, a lot of times those relationships are lost with each transition."
He said that having consistent people in his life helped him to feel more secure and taught him that people could love him without his having to earn it. This's why AFC requires all mentors to commit to at least a year, preferably longer, with their mentee. The average match length is 26 months, according to AFC, and mentors must spend eight hours a month with their match.
Mentors trained to deal with the specific challenges facing foster kids can make a difference.
AFC mentors undergo an extensive screening and interview process. Only about half of those who apply are accepted, said Pasquariello. They then receive nine hours of intensive training on topics like trauma, attachment, diversity, and abuse and neglect. Throughout their mentor relationship, the volunteers can also turn to AFC's clinically trained social workers for advice and support.
Berzin said it's critical to prepare mentors to deal with the specific issues burdening foster kids.
"Mentors don't have social work degrees," she said. "They don't understand the world these kids are living in. They don't understand the challenges of moving. They don't understand the legal ramifications. But in a foster care mentoring environment, those mentors have been trained to some extent on these systems."
The original AFC model relied on mentors who had themselves been in foster care -- because, Pasquariello said, he wanted to show the children that people like them could be successful. However, while there are many former foster care kids who flourish, he said that AFC had trouble finding enough volunteers from that demographic. AFC now accepts mentors of all backgrounds, although it has a particular need for those with foster care experience as well as male and non-white volunteers. Eighty percent of the youth AFC serves identify as people of color, and the group would like to give them the option of a mentor with a similar background.
"Although we definitely need everybody," Pasquariello added.
Children in foster care are referred to AFC by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. Currently, the group serves Boston-area youth ages 7 and older who have lived in foster care at some point and are considered "at-risk."
Various mentoring programs operate in other cities, including Mentoring USA in New York, the Adoption Network in Cleveland and the Wonder Mentoring Program in Sacramento, California. The Adoption Mentoring Partnership in Amherst, Massachusetts, matches adopted children with mentors who were also adopted, and Foster Care To Success provides mentors for foster youth in college across multiple states.
Unfortunately, Berzin said, mentoring programs designed specifically to help foster kids are much less prevalent.
In fact, mentors are one of the best weapons in the battle to give foster kids a better life.
Kelly Baker, a 26-year-old who works at a nonprofit in Boston, is one of AFC's mentors. She was inspired by her own experience with the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston when she was 7 and her parents were getting divorced. She said she wanted to "pay that experience forward."
Two years ago, Baker was matched with a then-14-year-old boy, and she said the two instantly hit it off. They spend their eight hours a month watching scary movies, going out to eat, playing laser tag or just walking together and catching up. She gives him advice about school, friends and, recently, girls.
"What really I've been struck by is how our conversations will go to that next level -- the meaning of life and what he wants to see for himself over the course of his life," Baker said.
On average, a child in foster care changes placements more than three times over the course of three years. Baker's mentee has been moved around the state a few times, but Baker had kept traveling to see him -- by bus since she doesn't have a car. AFC covers the cost of travel if one of its charges is moved out of the Boston area.
Studies have shown that the presence of nonparental mentors like Baker can help improve the emotional well-being of foster care youth and reduce the likelihood of various negative outcomes, like adult homelessness or incarceration. In fact, there's a wealth of research that cites mentoring as an effective intervention for foster care youth. Of course, the research also suggests that a mentor is not a magic cure-all and that foster children would benefit from broader system reforms that reduce the instability they face.
"Legislation and policy research continues to find evidence that what matters for youth is a stable, caring person in their life, and mentoring programs are part of that puzzle," Berzin said. "They’re not 'it' -- ideally we want youth to be adopted and to have a permanent household and a permanent family." But she said mentoring can provide "an alternative support structure to have that stability and caring adult while the foster care system is hopefully finding permanence for that child."
The benefits of mentoring aren't all on the side of the child. Baker said her time with her mentee means a lot to her, and she gushed about how much he's grown up in just the last two years. He spends much time talking about the future and has started asking about college. He's considering becoming a police officer or some other job in criminal justice, she said.
Baker, who is well over her one-year commitment, doesn't see this as a short-term relationship -- it's a lifelong friendship.
"One time, he was saying he wanted to buy something for an apartment that he was going to have when he's older," she said. "He turned to me and was like, 'Something tells me you're going to be around to see that apartment.'"