04 Jul Independence Day
I’ve always loved July 4 and what it represents –gratitude for all those who have fought for our freedoms, remembrances of the best of our country, and a day of celebration with family and friends. Since I’ve spent the last seven years learning more and more about the harsh realities of “being independent” when you age out of foster care — at age 18 in most states – the concept of “independence” has taken on a whole new meaning for me.
Last week I was with 350 teens during the Boys and Girls Clubs Georgia Alliance GREAT Futures Teen Summit in partnership with Orange Duffel Bag Foundation. Today as I think about freedom and independence, their faces are still fresh in my memory. I wonder what their lives will look like once they turn 18, and what will become of the 30,000 kids who will leave the foster care system this year?
In most states, at age 17 ½ teens in foster care are presented with a paper to sign that asks them to officially declare to the state whether they intend to go their own way once they reach age 18 or sign themselves back into the system. If they haven’t met certain educational criteria – again the rules vary by state – signing themselves back in often isn’t an option.
Most teens are itching to experience freedom and independence by age 18. They want to be “on their own” without fully understanding what that really means. This desire for independence burns especially hot for teens in foster care, many of whom have spent a long time having virtually every decision made for them and whose status in state custody severely curtails their social interactions. For example, a teen in foster care cannot spend the night at a friend’s house unless that family is registered with the state to provide “respite care.”
Everything is difficult – like getting a caseworker’s permission to participate in school field trips or a career/college readiness workshop like we put on last week. One girl didn’t get to participate, because her caseworker didn’t complete the paperwork. A teen in a group home has to surrender personal care items – like toothpaste, a favorite cologne and soap — to a houseparent who dispenses them as needed. (Anything with a warning label falls under this rule.)
Without a caring adult there to explain the benefits of signing back into care – being part of an independent living program that helps with the transition to being an adult and getting assistance with higher education – it’s no wonder that most sign out of the system. In the past decade, the number of kids aging out who do not have one safe caring adult in their lives has skyrocketed by more than 40%.
I don’t know hardly any 18-year-olds who would be equipped to make it on their own – and especially not one who has either grown up in a child welfare system or in a dysfunctional family. Our sons are 22 and 19. My husband and I speak to both of them on almost a daily basis to help them navigate some issue they are facing, and these are smart young men who are attending college and grew up in a stable, middle-class home.
A few states have recently extended the age that a young person can remain in care to age 21, but even then a young person who has been abused and neglected will likely have a lot of gaps in his or her decision-making processes. Expecting a teen or even a 21-year-old who has been bounced from foster home to group homes and school-to-school to be equipped to get a job, secure an apartment and start living a productive life is magical thinking.
The latest numbers show that one out of every four kids who age out are incarcerated within the first two years of leaving the system. In fact, 70% of the people in our prisons report either having been in foster care or homeless shelters as kids. Only half graduate from high school or obtain a G.E.D, yet a recent study showed that now 90% of all jobs in the U.S. set that as a minimum requirement. With little or no support and no connections within the communities where they live, our nation’s most vulnerable young people too often wind up the targets for drugs traffickers, prostitution and sex slavery rings. The unemployment rate among youth who were formerly in foster care is exceeded only by those with disabilities.
The Orange Duffel Bag Foundation (www.ODBF.org) works to help kids take a hard look at their life plans, to make those connections that will help them navigate the bumps that they will inevitably encounter and to provide ongoing advocacy after they’ve completed our 12-week coaching course. We must invest our time and love in kids who traditionally haven’t had many choices. These are America’s kids, and they deserve a future filled with hope. Get involved today. Something that seems small to you can make all the difference