In Baltimore, some 60 percent of the young people under the supervision of the Department of Juvenile Services started out as wards of the state, placed in the Department of Social Services’ care due to abuse or neglect.
Emily Schappi, 25, was one of those young people.
Hardships at home led Schappi into the juvenile justice system at age 12. By the time she was 14, Schappi was a ward of the state and remained one until she turned 21. She bounced around from group home to group home, from Hagerstown to Baltimore. Along the way, she continued to act out.
“By the time I came into foster care, I had a history with the juvenile justice system. No foster homes wanted to take me in,” Schappi said. “So I stayed in group homes almost my entire childhood. It was really hard. I felt like I had been rejected by my biological family, and now I was being rejected by the system.”
By the time she reached her final home at age 17, Schappi was so far behind in school, she was ready to drop out. But a woman took a chance on her, welcoming her into her home in Baltimore County. Thankfully, finally, the two forged a bond. Schappi tried harder than she had before not to disappoint her new foster mother. In turn, the foster mother refused to give up on her.
Eventually, Schappi graduated from high school and was accepted by Stevenson University, where she took up paralegal studies. She is now living independently and is a part-time student at the University of Maryland, School of Law.
And she is making it her life’s work to advocate for youth who are involved in both the juvenile justice system and in foster care.
“There are so many gaps in services. It’s not fair to the child,” Schappi said. “And then they get put back out into the community with nothing.”
Schappi witnessed firsthand the many holes in services and programming for youth in foster care who are also involved with the juvenile justice system. For example, Schappi notes that when incarcerated young people take school courses, their credits often aren’t transferrable when they finish their sentences and go back to public school.
“I knew a kid who was 17, and when he got out, the school said, ‘Well, you didn’t take anything you were supposed to take. So we’ll start you in the 9th grade all over,’” Schappi says. “So the kid said, ‘Forget it. I’ll just get my GED.’ And even after that, there was this all this arguing between DSS and DJS over whose responsibility it was to pay for the GED. So the kid was home for three months with no schooling, nothing to do. What do you think is going to happen with that kid? He goes right back to doing the things that got him in the system in the first place.”
Through her fellowship, Schappi will work with the Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center—a nonprofit organization launched and operated by former foster youth—to act as an advocate in such situations. Fostering Second Chances, will connect about 50 youth—initially only girls—to community resources, provide structured support groups and mentoring, and help young women successfully transition back into the community after getting out of detention centers, therapeutic group homes and residential centers. Schappi also will use her legal background to train law students to become liaisons between the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system.
“A lot of the kids I’m talking about are in the system because of their home lives or circumstances. They are victims. I don’t think victims should be punished. But that’s what’s happening. And it really hurts the kids,” Schappi says. “But I think this is a solvable issue. It just takes common sense—and a caring heart.”