The editorial section of last Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel included two articles under the heading “Foster Care’s Failure to Launch.” Both pieces address the situation of teenagers in foster care and the difficulties they face when they “age out” of the system: in other words, they are forced to leave foster care at age 18, even though they are still young, vulnerable, and lacking functioning families.
One article, written by Kathy Markeland, describes current efforts in Wisconsin to try to address the problems of young people who “age out” of foster care without ever returning to their families or being legally adopted into a new family. Wisconsin has made “modest steps” to help kids – and they are in many ways still kids – who must leave foster care, including funding individual post-foster-care planning, extended health care and some college scholarships. Markeland argues persuasively that Wisconsin should follow Illinois’s lead, and give foster kids the option of remaining in foster care until age 21. She cites statistics showing that 50% more young adults are living with their parents now than in the 1970s, and argues that failing to provide a similar option for foster kids means that they will be forced into adulthood before they are ready.
The other article, written by Greta Anderson describes the author’s own experience of aging out of foster care.
Removed from her family at age 15, Anderson found herself with “a lot left to learn” after she reached her eighteenth birthday, but says “the number of people willing to teach me drastically decreased.” She describes the pain and confusion of being a teen who receives “services” rather than long-term love and support. Her message is that every member of society – not just helping professionals – can work to help teens in (and aging out of) foster care by stepping up to help even when not obligated to do so.
The dirty little secret of foster care is that child protective services do a better job of protecting children from physical harm than they do at protecting the emotional well being of foster kids. There are many dedicated foster parents, and many kids end up being adopted into “forever families,” but the situation is bleaker for teens. The teenage years are rocky for even squared-away kids in fully functioning families, and the difficulties multiply when the kids have been traumatized for many years by dysfunctional family situations. Many foster parents would rather take on adorable babies and toddlers than moody teenagers, and the babies are more likely to be permanently adopted as well. Teens in foster care may feel that attachment to their foster parents is disloyal to their natural parents, and the attachment feels risky anyway, because teens are old enough to understand that the people who provide services, including the foster parents, are being paid to do so.
The truth is that for decades, the average age of attaining complete financial independence from one’s parents has been rising. Emotional dependence may last even longer for most people. Think of the myriad things that young adults learn, as if by osmosis, from their parents: how to write checks or apply for credit, how to drive a car through snow and rain, or how to dress for a wedding or a job interview. Those adults who are lucky enough to have parents living often continue to rely on those parents for advice or help when unexpected things occur. Teens and young adults who must face the world without this kind of support are disadvantaged in many ways.
Robert Frost said “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” There are no easy answers here, but this much is clear: we must, as a society, find ways to connect kids who are aging out of foster care with adults who will commit to providing them with the support of at least an emotional home that will take them in, whenever they have to go there.
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