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Life without a safety net: what happens when kids age out of foster care?

March 06, 2013

Like many parents, I could hardly believe it when my son turned 18. “How could he be this old already?” I thought and then “Why is he so different than I was when I turned 18?” My son Brandon, who is now 20, is still living at home, and we are gently pushing him to learn about living on his own. He is part of the generation of kids who are experiencing an extended adolescence. He’s been a little less mature than his peers and this decision makes sense for us and for him. We have some clear steps outlined and he’s following them.  And I’m sometimes tying myself to a chair so I don’t “help” too much.

Young adults like Brandon are described by one sociologist as experiencing “youthhood,” a period of time where they aren’t adolescents but aren’t independent adults either. Sometimes called the boomerangs because they keep showing up back home (if they leave home at all), these 20-somethings are taking longer to be responsible for themselves. To each their own, I say, but there are 18-year-olds who don’t have a choice—ready or not, they are on their own as soon as they turn 18.  Some of those kids are the youth who are aging out of foster care.

The foster care system has a plan for teens. Beginning as young as 13 and before they age out of care, teens are offered classes in independent living skills. Workers teach kids about budgeting and money management, life skills such as cooking & housekeeping, nutrition, even how to safely use over the counter medication for minor illnesses. There are also scholarships available for kids who age out of foster care in case they want to move on to higher education. There are stipends to provide kids with a monthly income if they stay in school. Case workers can provide some emotional and instructional support after the child turns 18 as long as they stay in what is called the independent living program.  In Florida, teens can receive support of one type or another until they are 21.

Unfortunately, the last thing many graduates from foster care want is additional contact with case workers or “the system.” Like many older teens, they sometimes think they know more than they do, and they desperately want to be free of having to do things someone else’s way. But unlike teens whose families will be there once the teen realizes they need some help, the kids leaving foster care have no safety net. In the past, once a foster care teen rejected assistance, there was no option to change his/her mind. The result is that young adults aging out of foster care have had dismal outcomes when it comes to success in early life. Over fifty percent of teens who age out of care experience one or more episodes of homelessness according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Only twenty-five percent obtain a high school diploma or GED. Only two percent graduate from college. Thirty percent are incarcerated at some point.

In addition, these youth often have difficulty establishing healthy relationships and they are therefore more vulnerable to exploitation when they are on their own. Having been abused or neglected, they are at higher risk for additional abuse.  Predators have an uncanny ability to find vulnerable individuals, and they take full advantage of the situation. Even if they have had counseling while in foster care, these youth may need counseling again as they face the different challenges that come with being responsible for themselves. They tend to be hard on themselves when they make mistakes but sometimes hide their emotional pain and fears that they really can’t succeed behind a wall of “I don’t care anyway.”

Florida and other states are trying hard to broaden the definition of foster care and find foster families who specialize in caring for teens and who are willing to maintain contact into the child’s adulthood. There was a rally in late January in Orlando to recruit this new kind of foster parent. The number of children who age out of foster care without being adopted has risen sixty-four percent since 1999.  One reason is because more and more children do not enter care until they are teens, and teens have a much lower adoption rate than younger children.

And yet, I know children who were in foster and who are very happy and successful as adults. There are kids who are brilliant students, musicians, artists and athletes. Michael Oher from the Baltimore Ravens played in the Superbowl last month. He is an adopted child who found his forever family as a teen. Their story was told in the movie and book, “The Blind Side.” There was a Miss Teen USA, Charlotte Lopez, who spent 13 years in foster care. There are kids who began taking care of their younger siblings as soon as they turned 18. There are teens that have started foundations to help other kids in similar situations. There are many, many others living happily in their own families, working at something they enjoy and raising their children with love and security. Wouldn’t it be great if more kids had someone who believed in their potential and their resilience and who stuck by them as they started their adult lives?

Some years ago I watched a TV show on adoption and there was an 18-year-old boy and his younger brother who were adopted together. When the interviewer asked the 18-year-old why he wanted to be adopted, the boy looked at the interviewer incredulously and said, “Well first, I want to make sure my brother is OK. And I might be 18 but I still need parents. I need them for advice and love and a place to go for Christmas. I want somebody in my life who remembers my birthday and cares that I’m alive.”  

His words have stayed with me for years. I don’t think he’s asking for too much.

How can you help?

If you’re interested in being a foster parent, especially for teens, visit www.cbccfl.org, the website for Community Based Care of Central Florida. They offer a 10 week class called PRIDE to train and prepare foster parents. It’s offered on weeknights and Saturdays. You can call them at 1-866-90-CHILD. You can also visit www.fosteringflorida.com, a special website DCF has launched for recruiting additional families. You can mentor a teen in foster care. If you are an employer, you can consider employing kids who are in foster care. Employers who understand the needs of this group of young people can provide income and stability.  You can volunteer at a youth shelter or group home. You can donate household items or even quarters for laundry to an independent living program.

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