“Aging out” is a term that we do not like to use in the child welfare field. The higher ups would prefer we use terms like “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement” or that our 18 year old foster kids are “utilizing the benefits of the independent living program”. We begin planning when they are 13. We teach them how to balance a check book, how to apply for a job, how to make grilled cheese sandwiches, how to rent an apartment, how to apply to college….all great things that people should know. All great things that usually our kids in foster care don’t realize that they should take seriously.
There have been so many times I have talked to “my” teens and stressed the importance of learning these life skills and truly understanding how tough it is once you are on your own. They nod and then ask me to turn my radio up or ask if I can get them something to eat. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I was very lucky. I was 18 when I “left” home. I moved to Florida for college but I knew that I had somewhere to go home to, I had a place to be at Christmas, I had someone help me move into my dorm room, someone to call and talk to when I was overwhelmed. This is something that our teenagers do not have. When discussing adoption with my teenagers, one of the first questions I ask them is “Once you are 18, where will you go for Christmas?” A majority of teenagers will shrug their shoulders or hope that they can still call their case manager. In reality, our kids ARE aging out of foster care. They are turning 18 with nothing.
The first teenager that I had as a case manager was assigned to me when I started working for my current agency. I will refer to him as “D”. I had not dealt with a teenager before. He was a great kid and I saw so much potential. Because of some of the issues he was facing, I spent a whole lot of time with them. We had lots of trips to Jacksonville, lots of trips to new foster homes, lots of long hour talks about him being responsible and taking responsibility for his actions, and being the one that told him his father passed away from a drug overdose. D just held a very special place in my heart from day 1. I would advocate for him to go to a family foster home rather than a group home, I would take him to all of his appointments, and drove to Tampa to watch him get baptised. I cried with him and laughed with him. He loved singing LMFAO in my car. D turned 18 on September 23, 2011. He “aged out” of foster care. I tried. I tried everything I could…and I know I wasn’t the only one.
Yesterday I had a wonderful “social worker” day. I had a beautiful adoption and I was elated. I had waited a long time for that adoption. A. Very. Long. Time. I then had to drop off some paperwork for a child being placed tomorrow. It was just a good day. Cases moving in a forward direction. Then as I was driving home, I passed D. I haven’t seen him since he turned 18. I noticed him walking down the side of Ridgewood Ave (for those of you not familiar with Daytona, it is not a great road to be walking down in the day or at night). I noticed D immediately because of his crooked arm that we never were able to get fixed. He also had his little walk that I could always recognize. I slammed on my brakes and yelled out my passenger window. At first I think he was terrified but then quickly yelled out, “Miss!!” He always did call me that. I pulled into an adjacent parking lot and hoped he would come over and talk. I jumped out of my jeep and hugged him. Immediately, I realized I was hugging an extremely thin, hungry, homeless, little child. I stepped back and looked at him. He was trying so hard to smile. His face completely bruised and bloody – a black eye, busted lip, cut up face, gashed arms…I held back the urge to absolutely break down right there. We talked for a bit. I asked about his mom, his sister, why I had seen his mug shot on our daily arrest records, what he’s been up to. I turned into “mom mode” and asked him where he was staying and what he was eating and what drugs he was using and if he was safe. I guess I knew all the answers.
D is homeless. He was excited because he talked to someone who said he was getting a bus ticket up North to do a travel agent job. He has a son now that he can’t see. He has a backpack with all of his belongings. He got jumped a couple days ago for “something he didn’t do”. He lost all his money. He was hungry. He was heading down to the coalition to get dinner. He had to be there by 4:30 to get served. With every word, he winced. With every movement, I stared at his cheek bones that jutted out way too far. I can’t seem to forget that image….his cheek bones. He looked so hungry. I was scared to drive him but I could tell he wanted a ride. I told him he could always call my work phone if he needed someone to talk to. He had it memorized and immediately said it. He apologized for never listening. He told me that he knows I did everything I could and still would do that for him. He told me to tell Ms. Michelle that he was sorry for not listening to her and to tell her hi. He commented that I got a new car. In a way, I almost felt guilty. D deserved so much more. It wasn’t fair. How could I expect him to have a job, stay in school, make car payments, and make responsible decisions when his parent was the Department of Children and Families. He said that he saw me on the news and it would make him smile. He said that he sleeps on the street a lot and he wished he had a jacket because he was scared it was going to be cold in North Dakota. He looked lost, defeated, and broken. Completely broken.
As he walked away, I snapped a picture and then broke down. I cried for probably half an hour before I could finally drive home. I know I can’t “save them all”. But I want to reach out. I want people to know to adopt our teenagers. Do not give up on teenagers. Become a mentor, look out in your community to see what you can do for our teens in foster care, be the place where they can come home for Christmas. We can’t keep letting kids like D slip through the cracks and walk up and down the streets. Deep down I know he isn’t a bad person. Most people would probably not give him a second glance. Yet, they have no idea. And all I can go back to is how hungry he looked, how empty and hollow. Just one more kid aging out of foster care.
According to various studies across the country of young people who have aged out of foster care without a permanent family:
- 12-30 percent struggled with homelessness
- 40-63 percent did not complete high school
- 25-55 percent were unemployed; those employed had average earnings below the poverty level, and only 38 percent of those employed were still working after one year
- 30-62 percent had trouble accessing health care due to inadequate finances or lack of insurance
- 32-40 percent were forced to rely on some form of public assistance and 50 percent experienced extreme financial hardship
- 31-42 percent had been arrested
- 18-26 percent were incarcerated
- 40-60 percent of the young women were pregnant within 12-18 months of leaving foster care.
A great agency that recruits for teenagers in foster care.