The sad truth about kids in foster care is that many of them never quite find a “forever home” where they can live until they are capable adults. Older teens in foster care have the added worry that when they turn 18, the foster system is no longer a safety net for them.
What happens when a foster child turns 18, and what can be done to help these youngsters succeed?
Foster families step in and care for the needs of children who are unable to live with their biological parents for various reasons. Some children are adopted through the foster care program (after their parents’ rights have been terminated) and begin a new chapter of their life with a new family. Unfortunately, many children move through a maze of foster homes, residential treatment centers and kinship placements until they eventually turn 18 and age out of the foster care system.
Facing the challenges of adulthood
How many older teens are truly capable of handling adult life on their own, let alone a teen without the support of a network of family and community?
According to the National Foster Care Coalition, there are approximately 400,000 children in foster care in America on any given day. Over the course of the year, nearly 700,000 kids will spend at least some time in the foster care system.
Approximately 245,000 children will leave foster care this year with nearly 128,000 of those being reunified with their families. Another 52,000 will find new families through adoption and 36,000 will stay with a guardian or with their extended families through kinship care.
Another number that we can’t ignore is that this year approximately 28,000 youth will leave foster care because they became too old and aged out of the foster care system. Plus, another 1,500 will run away.
May is National Foster Care Month. Visit FosterCareMonth.org and FosteringConnections.org to find out how you can get involved to help these young people as a foster or adoptive parent, mentor, employer or in other ways.
Adam Robe, MSW is the CEO of Foster Care Alumni of America, an organization that provides support services to people who have been in the foster care system. “There are a number of challenges that young people face as they prepare to leave the foster care system,” Robe says. “First and foremost, is the emotional transition that they face. Many of these young people have been in foster care for a number of years, and they may not have been able to fully resolve the grief, loss and trauma that occurred prior to coming into foster care and/or what occurred while they were in foster care,” he shares. They may not have the maturity yet to handle the responsibilities of self-supporting life.
For young adults trying to make it on their own, this emotional transition affects all aspects of their lives. They may have difficulty building meaningful relationships and trusting people, and may have little to no experience in caring for their physical health. “I have heard from a number of alumni who stated that they took medication for so long while in foster care that they either forgot the purpose of it, or it was never explained to them in a way that made sense to them,” says Robe. “Once they left care, they often would quit taking their medication because they didn’t know how to get it refilled or because they decided on their own that they didn’t need it,” he adds.
Bridging the gap with support
Marianna S. Klebanov is an attorney who works with Family & Children Services, an organization that also provides support to young people transitioning out of foster care with a program called the Independent Living Program.
“We provide case management, career counseling and mental health counseling services to help the youth get on their feet,” she shares. “Our services support them in developing self-reliance, both mentally and economically.” They assist these young people in finding employment, securing housing and caring for their health. “We encourage them to further their education and a number of them do attend college. It’s very important for youth this age to feel that they have something to fall back on, just as youth do who have not been removed from parental care,” she adds.
Robe’s organization also provides opportunities for foster care alumni to connect with others who have been in their shoes, and they serve as an informal mentor. “Because they have faced and overcome many of the challenges they will face, older alumni can provide insight and direction to the young person,” Robe says. “We also provide an ‘extended family’ environment for young people who leave care,” he adds. Especially around the holidays, the absence of a true family can be very difficult for transitioning youth.