Foster care is a complex system designed to provide care and support for children and adolescents when their parents or guardians are not able or willing. Unfortunately, for many of the over 200,000 youth currently in foster care who are over age 14, being in foster care can also mean missing out on what most in America would consider rites of passage for an adolescent, such as school sponsored activities, learning to drive a car, making social connections, and having a part-time or summer job. An additional 23,000 young adults who “aged out” of foster care in 2013 also likely missed out on at least some of these opportunities. (“Aging out” means they left foster care because they became too old to continue receiving services, rather than exiting to a permanent, stable home.) This is cause for concern, since these opportunities provide the developmental milestones important for a successful transition to adult life.
For example, participating in extra-curricular activities is challenging for youth in foster care due to systemic barriers such as multiple placement moves, especially if some of them are in group facilities known as congregate care. Each move can necessitate changing schools, which makes involvement with school sports or clubs difficult; group homes often do not have the time or staff resources to coordinate, transport, or encourage such participation of every young person in their care. Even for youth in care that do get the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular activities, barriers remain. Can you imagine having to get permission from the local government office each time you were expected to participate in an away soccer game or a band competition that takes place half an hour away but is still considered out-of-town travel?
Even simple things like sleepovers with a friend can present enormous obstacles for youth in care. For a young person in foster care, spending the night at friend’s house doesn’t just take a phone call and a promise to not watch an R-rated movie, like it did for me. Sleepovers require lots of advanced planning in order to get the appropriate level of approval and have the friend’s parent(s) complete a criminal background check. This process can be embarrassing for a teenager, and requires the youth to self-disclose their foster care status.
Recently, to ensure that youth in foster care are afforded opportunities to develop as other adolescents, Congress passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (2014) that has specific references to the supervision and treatment of young people in foster care. Part of this Act refers to the support of “normalcy” in which states are required to implement “reasonable and prudent parenting” practices for youth in foster care and “support participation in age-appropriate activities.” To help young people have more fulfilling relationships and activities, foster parents and other caregivers, with appropriate training, will be able to make day-to-day decisions in the best interest of the children in their care, this including participation in extra-curricular activities, social and cultural events. This will hopefully eliminate some of the barriers youth in foster care currently experience when trying to find employment, participate on sports teams, and form natural friendships with peers.
Without opportunities to develop essential life skills, like learning about how to appropriately budget money and the process of building credit, foster youth can experience negative outcomes. Young people who leave foster care without permanent connections to a family and community are at greater risk of not achieving educational goals, becoming pregnant at an early age, being homeless, and facing incarceration. The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, currently active in 18 states, has been advocating for system improvements and assisting young people to make successful transitions to adulthood for over a decade. The Jim Casey Initiative uniquely involves the voices of foster youth and young people formerly in care, many of whom have opportunities to participate in decision making, talk with legislators about foster care policies, advocate for system improvements, and gain valuable skills that are essential for adulthood.
The need for connection and support during the transition to adulthood is incredibly important. If you think back to your own transition or of someone you know – a child, student, or friend who might currently be in this phase of life – most of us had stable connections to at least one adult. I recently went through a big transition myself: leaving home to pursue my career goals. I am a first-generation college graduate, and while I grew up in a loving and supportive home, had it not been for the mentorship and connections to people in my community, I would not have been able to pursue the opportunities that brought me to the Washington D.C. area from Texas.
I am thankful that I have forever connections, people who I will always be able to call on for help. All young people need these connections to successfully transition to adulthood. There are countless ways in which you can help young people in foster care transition successfully to adulthood in your community. Below are some suggestions of ways that you can learn more about becoming involved:
Lacey Morris, Research Analyst