The latest trouble at Becca Griffey's home came to light the day before her 16th birthday.
Placed into state custody for her own safety, she spent the last two years of her childhood trying to complete high school while bouncing between a pair of foster homes in East Tennessee and a group home for girls, all the way across the state, in Memphis.
"I didn't have anybody to hold me accountable," she said. "In school I just slid by. I did the minimum work."
The same attitude wouldn't be good enough in college. Griffey knew enough about herself to accept that she might need some extra guidance to make it through.
It just so happened that a small college in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains, close to where she grew up, was looking to recruit students just like her -- teens who had "aged out" of foster care at age 18 and who might benefit from a tight-knit campus community that offers extra help for young people from broken homes.
Griffey this fall became one of the first students in the Hiwassee College HOPE Scholars program, part of a promising new push across Tennessee to do more for teens who age out of state custody.
She gets one-on-one mentoring from college staff, scholarship money from a federal program and ongoing assistance from the state Department of Children's Services -- all of that as long as she stays on track in school.
"Now that I'm in college, I have to keep up with it," Griffey said. "Especially with the state holding me accountable."
More help for foster kids
A lot has changed in the past two years for former foster youth in Tennessee. Funding has increased for "extended" foster care services, allowing the state to better help teenagers move into post-secondary schooling, housing and work.
The state legislature's adoption of the federal Fostering Connections program also can pay foster families to keep teens in their homes until age 21.
And in October, Gov. Bill Haslam and nonprofit Youth Villages announced a joint investment that they said could provide help to every foster youth who ages out, making Tennessee the first state to put up such funding.
It's a group of young adults who face particular difficulties, said Stephanie Bosson, DCS independent living program coordinator for East Tennessee. Like others who help foster youth move toward independence, Bosson notes that any 18-year-old -- from foster care or not -- could struggle with the responsibilities of adulthood.
But those from foster care often don't have parents to pick them up when they stumble. National studies of foster teens have found that 45 percent drop out of high school and half can't find jobs. A quarter end up homeless, and more than that spend time in jail.
Bosson sees how relatively small life challenges add up. Manyfoster youth miss classes and fall behind in high school. Few take on even part-time jobs. A lack of transportation can limit their choices.
With the push on for foster youthto continue their educations, DCS leaders have searched for ways that colleges could be more accommodating.
Allowing foster youth to register early for classes can help them get the courses they need when they need them, helping those who rely on public transit or rides from friends meet the demands of their schedule. Keeping dorms open during holidays and school breaks also can help.
"Where are you going to spend Thanksgiving," Bosson said, "if you don't have family nearby?"
Just having a trusted adult on campus can help, as Griffey knows all too well.
Her father died when she was an infant. An abusive stepfather was barred by restraining order from the family home, but he didn't stay away, prompting the state to remove Griffey in 2009. Her mother signed away her parental rights soon after that.
Griffey said she didn't always make things easy for her foster families, sometimes harming herself and refusing to take medications. She knows some families tried to help her, but many of her relationships with adults were filled with friction.
"It was difficult because I always felt like nobody wanted me," she said.
That hasn't been the case at Hiwassee.
It was by chance that Hiwassee leaders took interest in the foster care system.
Two of the college's board members had, independently, adopted children out of foster care. Discussion about those adoptions led college leaders to realize that two former foster teens were already on campus and doing well, said college President Robin Tricoli.
"We had discovered that not many schools were actively recruiting them," she said. "I thought, wow, we've got such good success stories with our students."
Hiwassee also has a key ally in Jim Henry, a graduate and former chairman of the college's board of trustees, who was named DCS commissioner in early 2013. He has pushed for stronger relationships between the state foster care system and colleges, and he frequently speaks publicly about what has been started at Hiwassee for former foster youth.
Tricoli said creating a special scholarship came naturally for Hiwassee.
"It started out as a school that served those students that were more economically disadvantaged but academically ready," she said. "Our HOPE program is really just keeping in touch with the roots of the mission."
Looking over the campus from a hill on a recent fall day toward the mountainous backdrop, 20-year forestry professor Bill Edwards said it another way.
"This college takes people under its wing," he said. "All sorts."
Alan Eleazer runs the new program, officially called Home Opportunity Possibility Education but known as HOPE to most everyone.
An annual hot air balloon rally fundraiser is building up a fund that participating students can tap into for books and supplies. But the essence of the effort is giving each former foster youth a personal connection to Eleazer and to a local mentor family from the community.
Eleazer is almost always around. He regularly text messages with the HOPE scholars, and he knows almost all the students by name, whether they're in his program or not.
"It literally feels like a family here," he said. "I think (Commissioner Henry) realized that a lot of these students needed that environment or would flourish in that environment."
At the same time, Eleazer has learned to give the former foster teens their space. Although he sees Griffey almost daily, others have kept a bit more distance. Some are struggling academically. One arrived on campus pregnant.
"I'm not your parole agent," he tells them. "I'm just a friendly voice over your shoulder if you need someone to talk to about anything."
From what she has seen and heard so far, Bosson considers Hiwassee a success. Her staff, which works with aged-out teens across East Tennessee, is encouraged to share information about the small college.
"Hiwassee just understands the needs of our young people," Bosson said. "Our students tell us they feel comfortable here and they feel supported. They know who to go to when they need something."
When Griffey first visited the college, one of the things she noticed was the college's horse stable, just across the parking lot from the student center on a campus where everything can be reached in a short walk.
The core of campus consists of a dozen mostly brick buildings surrounding a central lawn. There's one dorm for men and one for women, about 400 students in all. The college owns the surrounding 400 acres, rolling and wooded, that afford scenic views of the mountains that divide Tennessee and North Carolina.
Griffey said she took the views for granted at first, having grown up nearby.
But they provide a peaceful backdrop as she hangs out each week at the stable, utterly comfortable, alongside the community mentor who boards her horses there.
That relationship is just one type of help that Griffey has embraced as she has plunged into college life.
An English major with aspirations of going into journalism, Griffey takes seven classes and works most mornings at the front desk of the administration building. She goes to at least an hour of tutoring each week, sometimes more for math. She meets with her mentor, and Eleazer, and regularly meets with a faith group on campus.
It's been hard for her, at times, to know who will be there to help her in the long run. At Hiwassee, support comes her way at every turn.
"If we decide to let those people in, and pick through those who we think might be pretending, it gives us a chance to maybe make connections," she said. "That may be brief, or that may be lifelong connections."
She has missed out on those before. But she has a new chance now, with four years of college, to experience something different, something that will last.
An idea with potential
Although Hiwassee College has just gotten started with its program for former foster youth students, DCS leaders have already been pushing for similar efforts at other institutions and holding it up as an example. Spurred on by Commissioner Jim Henry, DCS leaders have been meeting this year with university presidents, the state's association of independent colleges and the heads of a half-dozen small colleges, including Cumberland University in Lebanon. They have asked the colleges to accommodate their foster youth in little ways while also searching for institutions like Hiwassee that might really embrace the role of educating foster youth.