Katrina Oglesby was 16 when she moved out of her abusive home in southwest Atlanta and into the Carrie Steele-Pitts group home on the west side of the city.

Oglesby said she was taken from her parents, who she said cut her and her siblings off from the outside world, when she paid a visit to the emergency room and staff noticed the bruises and welts she’d been given at home.

“(My parents) controlled everything I did and didn’t want me to be exposed to the outside world. I didn’t even know college existed, and I didn’t know that I could go to college. I felt like I didn’t have a future,” she said.

But Oglesby said when she was placed into the Carrie Steele-Pitts home, she learned she could work to receive scholarships to pay her way through school. She’d already earned her GED through homeschooling and said she felt a drive to keep learning.

She attended technical school in Atlanta before moving to Kennesaw State University, where for the first time she lived the life she had chosen for herself, studying biology and, in her words, being “spoiled” by the college’s cushy dorms. Oglesby said it was her support system, made up of staff at Carrie Steele-Pitts and KSU, that helped to motivate her to keep pushing through school.

Oglesby said, with that support, she graduated from KSU this year and she’ll move on to medical school at Southern Illinois University in the fall. To the thousands of others still in the foster system in the state, Oglesby said her advice is to build that support system.

“Find the people who are rooting for you. I was lucky to find those people. You’ve gotta lean on those people because you can’t do everything yourself. I learned that,” she said.

On Friday, Oglesby and a dozen other graduates of schools around metro Atlanta, including high schools, technical schools and colleges in Cobb County, were recognized for defying the odds of the challenges of their early lives. The graduates are all products of foster care who aged out of the state’s Division of Family and Children Services and foster system.

Cobb County DFCS Director LaSonda Howard-Boddie said those honored Friday don’t fit the foster care mold, but do show that mold can be broken. Howard-Boddie said less than half of the 521 foster youth in the county, about 40%, receive a high school diploma or GED. She said the number who go on to graduate from a technical school, college or university is unknown.

Dena Crim, a Cobb County DFCS attorney, estimated that the number is less than 3%. But Crim said the Cobb community is behind them.

She said because of an outpouring of support in the form of donations from Cobb residents, each college graduate received a $780 check, and each high school graduate received $600. Crim said she created a post on a few Facebook groups, asking for donations for the graduates and received $4,740, about $2,600 of which came from Walton High School’s boys lacrosse team.

“The rest of it was just people sending me money on PayPal, Venmo — it just blew up,” she said.

The graduates also received gift baskets with donated gift cards and household items to contribute to future homes of their own.

State and county officials, including Georgia First Lady Marty Kemp, Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell and State Rep. Bert Reeves, R–Marietta, also joined the members of the Cobb DFCS community in honoring the graduates at a ceremony at the Cobb County Safety Village.

Reeves served as the event’s keynote speaker. He encouraged the graduates, who he referred to as “heroes” to use the platform he said they have to make change for those who follow them.

Reeves said he is working to improve the foster system, and in the next six months, the state can expect to see a “significant effort” from state stakeholders and experts to try to come up with “game-changing” plans to get DFCS the help it needs.

“Every year, we come up with new laws here and there to tweak things. And it feels like we’re putting Band-Aids on something that needs surgery,” he said. “What we’re going to try to do is really get in and do some exploratory surgery and figure out what we need to fix to make significant change.”

Reeves said changes could include offering more judicial discretion, limiting regulation, increasing DFCS resources and working to reduce case manager turnover. He also said better supporting families who choose to adopt a foster child — children he said who have experienced a “significant level of trauma” — so that fewer children age out of the system without ever finding a permanent home.

“All these children today, they’ve either aged out or are going to age out of foster care. That means that they were never adopted. ... That is one of the greatest tragedies we see happening day in and day out in Georgia. And we have to reverse that,” Reeves said, adding that whatever changes are discussed should be made with long-term reform in mind. “We don’t want to just figure out what’s the next Band-Aid for next year.”

For now, Oglesby said, there are plenty of children out there who are waiting patiently for their situations to improve. She said she prays those children are as lucky and as quietly determined as she was.

“If you’re in an abusive home, I pray that you have a good case worker, and I pray that you have a good support system,” Oglesby said. “Be patient, and make quiet moves. Don’t give up.”

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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