Aging Out of Foster Care

I’ve spoken about this before on the blog, but it really deserves an in-depth discussion.  Aging out of the foster care system--what it means, and more importantly, what it means for the youth who have to endure it.  “Aging out” isn’t a part of most lexicons, but for those of us stuck in the system it was a term we looked apprehensively toward while we were in care, hoping for independence and success when we grew up.  As adults, it’s a sickening term that illustrates how little we were cared for and how poorly equipped for the future we were. “Aging out” is probably the easiest topic I can talk about to prove that the foster care system is disgustingly broken and an ultimate failure.

Before I start throwing those opinions around, let me give you a few statistics.  Read these carefully.

Approximately 20,000 teenagers ‘age out’ of the foster care system annually.  Either they are emancipated (parental rights are stripped and the teenager is automatically an adult) or in most cases, they simply turn 18.   

Within four years of aging out:

-25% have been homeless
-less than half graduated from high school
-More than 80% are unable to support themselves
-40% were on public assistance
-half were unemployed
-75% of youths in the criminal justice system were once in foster care
-38%maintained a job for at least 1 year, 
-60% of the young women had given birth to a child
-median weekly salary was $205

That’s pathetic.  Are you kidding me?  Pathetic.  And I’ve been homeless, and I just barely graduated high school myself.  I am the only foster alumni I’ve personally known who hasn’t had children yet. Many girls I was in foster care with were either pregnant or got pregnant immediately after leaving care, usually without a diploma.  It’s taken me the better part of ten years to support myself and I still have lingering debt, and I’m one of the lucky ones.

Why are these statistics so depressing?  Where does it go wrong?  Looking at that it would almost seem that foster care is prepping kids for disaster.  And it is.  I'll try to summarize how.

Furthering Emotional Damage
Foster care is a mad flurry of putting a kid somewhere away from the state’s wallet.  Best case scenario, it’s with a parent.  However, what these dense motherfuckers don’t seem to realize is that the entire point of the system is getting kids AWAY from damaging families.  Families are not inherently good, thus the whole “unfit to parent” dilemma that puts kids in the system.  This equates to a lot of failed reunions and repeat offenders--kids who enter, then re-enter, the system.  Even still, the goals of caseworkers are simple.  Get the kid out of foster care.  If a shitty family isn’t possible, the next option is a shitty foster family or a shitty family member.  I realize I’m being cynical here, but the truth is that very few family members or foster families want to take on the task of being a stable, “forever family” to any kid, much less a mentally and emotionally damaged one.  We’ve all been abused, probably physically, probably sexually, definitely emotionally.  By the time we’re teenagers it’s a far cry from a picturesque Little Orphan Annie story.  Nobody wants to raise that, much less help that transition into adulthood, which is hard as fuck for the most well-behaved teen.

Let me repeat this.  The statistics speak for themselves; most youth will age out without any type of future plan or security.  Whatever security they carve out for themselves will always include a broken family at its core--that is enough to ensure failure in most cases.  But then, to add, they are juggled around like hot diseased potatoes and abused even more by caretakers along the way.  Another depressing number:  the rate of sexual abuse within the foster-care system is more than four times as high as in the general population; in group homes, the rate of sexual abuse is more than 28 times that of the general population.  What the fuck, seriously.  I mean at the end of the day, the system is pretty much “let’s take these kids out of an abusive environment so they can all get raped.”  This is how we are prepared for adulthood.  Foster alumni sit around and talk about things like being starved as punishment and getting fondled by our caretakers the way other adults reminisce about playing sonic the hedgehog or getting lost in the park.

No Preparation During Care
So these hair-brained ideas of getting these teenagers a home that will put up with their emotional outbursts and PTSD and suicidal issues and self-harming tendencies are successful slim to never.    Nobody wants that in their family, blood or otherwise.  At this point the kid is just floating around waiting to turn 18 or get emancipated, whichever happens first.  And what are we doing to help them while they float around?  Not a goddamned thing.  I can tell you firsthand, NOT A THING.  I had to go to a few mind-numbing stupid seminars as a teenager where I did the most inane, stupid “life prep” skills in the world.  Things like a blank checkbook (yeah that turned out to be helpful) and a motivational speaker who had never even been in foster care and was telling us how to succeed.  Yeah, helpful.  Other than that it was just a slew of caseworkers and families, moving moving moving.  Different school after different school.  Getting physically and sexually assaulted by foster parents.  That was the preparation I got for turning 18, and my situation is a very average, mild situation in foster care.

No Independence In the System
What’s the one thing you need in America to get on your feet?  Unless you live in a substantially urban area, it’s a car.  You can’t work without a car.  And what do you think foster youth are pretty much guaranteed to not get when they turn 18? That’s right, a car.  Most states don’t allow foster youth to get licenses or learner’s permits unless a foster parent or relative signs them onto their insurance--yeahhhhhh, you can imagine how frequently that happens.  In the seventeen homes I was in, I never met a foster youth with a license, if that tells you.  So, there’s another tick on the box of leading us right to failure. Anything that helps wean normal teenagers into adulthood, like getting a job, a savings account, a car, a curfew--is usually completely neglected for the foster teens.  I was insanely lucky that my foster parents let me have a job waitressing for a few months, because I got used to the idea of having my own money, and liking it.  That was where the independence ended for me; I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was 26 and it was only my fear of drugs that prevented me from going absolutely insane heroin queen once I aged out.

Even the Perfect Formula Fails 
So let’s say a foster kid wins the foster care lottery and ends up with a scholarship and school funded and a program to help them graduate college?  There are grants aplenty out there for us poor souls.  I can’t speak for anyone but myself (though a whopping 4% of foster alumni graduate from a four-year college) but I was pushed by others and pushed myself to do everything in my power to get into college and made it--and still failed.

I will be talking more in-depth about why Thursday, but it boils down to not being prepared.  I mean, you take a kid who didn’t have indoor heating until she was in foster care, and then got juggled around the state of Tennessee changing families like most people change their wardrobe, battling things like physical abuse, sexual abuse, a prison mentality and hierarchy with the other girls, being the new kid in school, a head full of lice for years, and the lack of any stable and reliable adults--that pretty much spells it out.

So even if everything is done right and a possible “success story” is in the works, it’s pretty much like walking a tightrope.  I still feel like I’m walking it to this day, even though the system is behind me.  It is something that will never leave me, as I’m sure most alumni can agree.  I don’t think the general public understands that the system is so much more damning than helpful--it’s pretty much the same story as prison.  Prison takes people out of the world and puts them in a big dogfighting ring and does the opposite of life preparation.  Foster care is a mirror of that, except there are no criminals.  There are abused children.

Maybe that's why adolescents who had been in foster care were nearly two and a half times more likely to seriously consider suicide than other youth, and adolescents who had been in foster care were nearly four times more likely to have attempted suicide than other youth.

Too bad counseling isn't mandatory, and any counseling or therapy foster youth might be lucky enough to get is subpar.

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