Sunday, May 20, 2007
Too Old For Foster Care? What Happens Now?
Foster care is designed to provide homes for children until they are able to either go back to livew with their birth parents or other relatives, or be adopted into a permanent family. But what happens when a child reaches adulthood, and still hasn't been placed in a permanent home?
In the past, when foster kids turned eighteen, they were simply released from foster care. They could go back to their birth families, they could join the military, or they could just strike out on their own and try to find a job and a place to live.
Unfortunately, simply turning kids out when they reached the age of legal adulthood has never worked too well. Many kids who are still in foster care by the time they turn 18 don't have any family members they can turn to for help. They may not want to, or be able to, join the military. And striking out on their own is harder than it seems, especially for teenagers who haven't had much job training or life skills training.
Studies show that, for kids who age out of foster care at the age of eighteen, four years later 36% are or have been homeless; 25% of males are or have been in jail; fewer than half had graduated from high school; and most of them were living in poverty.
This shows us that kids aging out of foster care need a lot more than a few dollars, a word of good luck, and a push out the door!
After all, how many people would send their own eighteen-year-olds out into the world and expect them to completely fend for themselves from that point on?
There are many ways that society can adjust to help children in foster care continue growing up before they are launched out into the world forever!
One thing some states opt to do is give kids the option of staying in foster care past the age of 18, and up until the age of 21. Usually in order to stay in foster care for an extra few years, kids must be going to school or a vocational program, or must be deemed unable to live on their own. Staying in foster care means continuing to live in a foster home or another facility run by the foster care system.
There is also a push to provice teenagers in foster care with more life skills training. In the past, because of liability issues, many kids under the state's care were not permitted to go through the usual rights of passage that most teenagers go through, such as getting part-time jobs or getting their driver's licenses. Now, most states allow foster kids to do these things. Also, many foster care agencies are working harder to teach independent living skills to kids in foster care. Independent living skills taught include communication, daily living, job training, self-care, social relationships, and housing and money management.
It may be wise for kids aging out of foster care to apply for an independent living program. Some independent living programs are run by the foster care agency or the state and are specifically for foster kids, while others are run by private agencies and are open to any young adults who need the service. Young adults may move into these programs as early as 17 years old. Usually in an independent living program, several teens or young adults live in an apartment or house together, along with staff members, house parents or "life coaches". They may be responsible for doing chores around the house, buying their own groceries and fixing their own meals, and paying a low amount of rent. Usually they are required to either go to school full time and work part time, or work full time. Staff members work with them on budgetting, getting along with room mates, etc. There are usually some rules to follow, such as a curfew, but the rules are less strict than the rules in regular foster care, allowing the young adults to feel more independent.
One such independent living program is Youth Quest Village, in Richmond, VA. KIds ages 17 to 21 live in furnished condos, and they work intensively with life coaches to learn different life and work skills. They also recieve help in saving up money for their future. Upon their discharge from the program, each kid will have found an apartment, signed the lease, and moved into their apartment. They will pay for the security deposit and buy furniture for their apartment out of the money they have saved up. They also continue to recieve services from their life coach.
Another option for kids aging out of foster care is college... although only 13% of kids from foster care go through four years of college. The reason for this low percentage is not that foster children aren't capable of finishing college, but that they aren't often expected to go onto college. While in high school, they don't necessarily get the guidance and encouragement that other kids do. Not only can foster children go onto college, but federal and private financial aid programs will often pay for most of the tuition and fees for kids who are aging out of foster care. The problem is that many kids don't know about this. The first step is to fill out a FASFA form, and on it, they must check that they are an "orphan" or "ward of the state", which will ensure that their "expected family contribution" is zero. Financial aid can even cover the cost of a dorm, food, living expenses, etc! Also, The Orphan Foundation Of America provides more than a million dollars in scholarships each year to kids in foster care, and also sends "care packages" to kids in college who otherwise wouldn't get much.
Just because 18-year-olds are legally adults, doesn't mean they are ready to completely live as adults, with no help or assistance from anyone! There are many ways that society can help kids in foster care transition to life as successful adults. In future posts we will learn some ways that individuals can help with this transition as well.