Human Services Outstanding Grad brings her own experience to helping former foster kids

Emily Stochel, the 2017 Outstanding Graduate in Human Services, is now working in her dream job as a case manager for teens and young adults navigating the foster care system.

Right after Winter Commencement in March, Stochel went to work with four other case managers at Youthnet’s Independent Living Skills Program in Mount Vernon, serving current and former foster youth in Skagit, Whatcom, San Juan, Island and Snohomish counties. Stochel loves mentoring 15- to 21-year-olds, helping them plan for higher education, apply for jobs and housing, and prepare for their own independence.

After just a few months, Stochel has already seen some of her clients graduate from high school, start their first jobs or move into new apartments. But she won’t take credit for making a difference in their lives. “It’s really their work,” she says.

It’s work Stochel knows all too well.

Stochel herself went into the state’s foster care system at 16 when she was removed from her Bellevue home by Child Protective Services. At that point, she joined a group with grim educational attainment statistics: The college graduation rate for students who have lived in foster care is 3 percent, according to researchers at the University of the Pacific. That’s among the lowest of any demographic group in the country.  

Foster kids in Washington may stay in the foster care system to receive some financial support until they’re 21 if they stay in school, among other conditions. Western’s Scholarship Manager Dina Murphy, who works on-on-one with many former foster youth at Western, says they may also be eligible for the Washington Student Achievement Council’s Passport to College scholarship, the Governor’s Scholarship for Foster Youth, as well as the state need grant and federal Pell grants.

But while Stochel is living proof former foster kids can get college degrees, she says that overcoming childhood trauma, combined with an absence of family support, can be an even bigger barrier than finances in completing a college education.

It’s no accident that Stochel is now in a position to help others along the path she’s travelled. She says she has been working or volunteering with youth since she was 16. “I’ve never had a job not working with youth,” she says. “I’ve been very intentional in the work I’ve wanted to do. As soon as I got removed from a bad situation I knew I wanted to be a support system for kids and an agent of change.”

Stochel lived in group homes while she was in foster care, before she was able to return to relatives. With more than 9,000 kids in Washington’s foster care system, there aren’t enough foster families for everyone, she says.

“I tried my damndest to be normal in high school,” she remembers. She completed six Advanced Placement classes and was a section leader in the school’s jazz choir. She captained the gymnastics team that went to the state championships while she herself competed in nationals.

School was her support system, she says, where she found caring adults she could trust. But all that activity left her little opportunity to reflect on her past.

“I spent a lot of my life trying to avoid it, but you can’t,” she says. “Trauma has long-lasting effects. The only way I’m going to get through is by facing it.”

At Western, Stochel immersed herself in learning about psychology, social systems, and the long-term effects of childhood trauma. She was constantly applying what she was learning to understand her own past. She felt a shock of recognition, for example, at the perverted power dynamics brought to light in the famous Stanford prison experiments – dynamics she recognized from her months in a residential treatment center that turned out to far less than therapeutic, she says. “The staff got off on control,” she says.

She also learned about how law enforcement and social services are ill-equipped to support those with mental illness. And she sought out stories of other survivors of childhood trauma to try to understand how people can move on with their lives. Learning more about the world helped her contextualize her experience and understand how the abuse she suffered wasn’t her fault.

Meanwhile Stochel thrived at Western and learned more about child welfare systems. She studied abroad in South Africa, where she interned at a drop-in children’s center and worked with kids on the concepts of substance abuse prevention, peer pressure, love and acceptance. Back in Bellingham she did two more internships: with Secret Harbor in Burlington working one-on-one time with foster youth, and with Child Protective Services in Bellingham helping social workers with investigations and documentation.

She also got research experience with Assistant Professor of Health and Community Studies Brett Colman to study the effect of funding of non-profit agencies – she and Colman are preparing to submit an article to an academic journal.

Stochel doesn’t think she’s through with school. She wants to go to graduate school and perhaps become a child welfare attorney. But for now, she’s happy working with foster teens and young adults at Youthnet. She tells them about the foster care self-advocacy group Mockingbird Society, which lobbies the state Legislature to improve services for foster care youth.

She also wants to be a foster parent someday, she says, especially for teens.

“It does get better,” she tells her young clients. “I hate the phrase, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ I don’t believe I was meant to go through this and I don’t think I should have gone through it. But because I’ve had these experiences, I’m stronger.”