Do you consider yourself a successful adult? If so, there was probably someone who helped you along the way. Someone who helped you to bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood. Perhaps your parents, grandparents, a neighbor, a coach, a teacher, or a family friend. Maybe it was even a probation officer, police officer, correctional officer, a youth pastor, or a social worker. If you had difficulties growing up, but are now successful, I guarantee you have an adult to thank for that. Regardless of who it was, there was someone who was there to support you, encourage you, cheer for you, and to guide you. A teenager in foster care who is approaching 18 years of age needs that same guidance and even more so!
Consider this: out of the over 400,000 children in foster care, 20,000-30,000 of them will turn 18 years old this year and will “age out” of the foster care system! Aging out means that they no longer have to stay in foster care but have the option of living on their own. This may seem like a breath of fresh air to many kids who feel like they no longer need to abide by any rules, but the reality is that those foster youth who “age out” of the foster care system are at greater risk for homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, human trafficking, and crisis pregnancy. An 18-year-old who does not get adopted and has no permanency is at greater risk for instability in society. Older adolescents need to be prepared to live independently and must know that they have someone to turn to when times get tough.
Why do foster youth need help transitioning into adulthood?
Let’s face it, adulting is hard! Even if you didn’t grow up in foster care and grew up in a stable, loving family, it’s not easy to be an adult. Between the expectation of parents, your friends, and of society in general, things like supporting yourself, controlling your emotions, and becoming a responsible adult are difficult for any 18-year-old. It’s not that easy to act like an “adult” and expect to gain maturity, wisdom, discipline, and experience in a day. Here are some reasons why a teen who has grown up in foster care needs some assistance.
- There is a difference between chronological age and developmental age. Many foster children are delayed in one area of growth or another. Whether it is physically, socially, emotionally, or morally, they are behind their peers in many areas. So, when a foster youth turns 18, he may not be mature enough to live on his own. On the calendar, he is 18, but developmentally, he is about 16 or 15 or even 14. Would you trust a 14-year-old to move out and live on his own? Neither would I. That’s why a foster youth transitioning into living on his own needs guidance.
- Many foster alumni are still suffering from trauma. Foster children are in foster care through no fault of their own. In many cases, they have been abused, neglected, and abandoned by their biological parents. Therefore, trust does not come easy for them. This type of trauma is similar to PTSD and does not easily go away, even within a stable, loving foster home. When they turn 18 and are preparing to age out, they bring many of their past hurts with them, to college, to the workplace, and to adult relationships. It is unfair to ask these young people to simply flip a switch that says, “healthy, mature, and trauma-free” simply because they hit their 18th birthday. It doesn’t work that way. The trauma may be lifelong, and there may be many adult situations that trigger past trauma.
- Many teens in foster care have experienced many different placements. The instability of foster care is nowhere near the permanency that was promised them when they entered. I have met foster teens that have gone through 6, 7, 8, or even 9 different foster homes! Sometimes, they are so used to moving from one foster home to another that they cannot break the vicious cycle of the honeymoon, stability, sabotage, and a new home that they learned while as a foster kid. They bring this learned dysfunction into adult relationships and soon find themselves in desperate situations. The stress of adulting exacerbates this instability. They need someone to guide them through these tough times.
What skills do foster youth need to live independently?
Many of us who did not grow up in foster homes were taught many of these skills by our parents. But for teen foster kids, many of their caregivers are expecting they were either taught these things by a previous placement or by the next one. It is not good to assume they have or will ever learn these skills. So, if you are a foster parent of an adolescent, pick a few of these skills to pass down to your kid. Be patient and don’t expect your teen foster kids to be receptive the first time.
1. Open a savings account. Saving takes discipline. Spending, not so much. Delayed gratification is a lost art that needs to make a comeback. Whether they want a car, an apartment, or an iPhone, saving money is the best way to get what they want. Credit cards and title loans are something they need to avoid at a young age.
2. Learn how to write a check. Writing a check is a lost art. Balancing a checkbook, even more so. Though most people rarely use checks anymore, there are those rare occasions when a check is needed.
3. Help them apply for a job. Let’s face it: everyone needs a job. If you do not work, you will not eat. Getting a young person a job may be a generous thing, short-term, but she will need long-term skills. Teen foster kids need to know how to create a resume, how to search for a job, how to interview successfully, and what to do if they lose a job. Most importantly, they need to learn patience and perseverance. Don’t give up!
4. Help them apply for college. Less than 3% of all foster children who have aged out of foster care will graduate college. Whether it is a lack of funds for college, lack of discipline, lack of study habits, or a lack of support, it is not a priority for many foster youth. They need to learn how to choose a college whether it is a community college, a state college, or a private college, they need to decide what is best for them. If they have no savings, which is probably the case, they need to learn how to fill out a financial aid form.
5. Help them apply for an apartment. Most young adults have no idea what it takes to get their first apartment. “Security deposit” and “first and last months’ rent” are phrases that are foreign to many young people. Many young people prefer to “couch hop” rather than go through the application process most landlords require.
6. Prepare them for dating/marriage. Most young people don’t have a plan for how they will date, who they will date, or if and when to get married. They mostly follow their hormones. The fact is this: many females who age out will end up pregnant soon after they leave the foster care system. They not only need to learn about birth control, but also about true love, dating a person who respects you, saying “no” if you feel pressured to have sex, how to know if you are pregnant, and how to prepare for marriage. Having these conversations on a regular basis will go a long way in developing self-esteem and teaching foster youth to make good choices rather than reactionary choices.
7. How to beware of human sex traffickers. Many foster runways and females that age out of foster care are victims of human sex trafficking and prostitution. As a matter of fact, 60% of runaways and former foster children end up in this terrible situation. They need love; they need a home they can go back to. They need someone to speak to, without judgment, when they find themselves in a tough situation.
8. Help them buy their first car. Most high school graduates don’t have a good credit score let alone a credit record of any kind. You can help them by purchasing a car on their behalf and having them pay you back. Cosigning may not be realistic, especially if the youth is not responsible. But they will also need someone who knows what to look for such as cost, mileage, defects, warranties, etc.
9. Teach them how to drive. (Scary in any situation!) Teach them to stay off the sidewalks, haha! Teach them how to drive a manual (stick shift); that way, they will be ahead of their peers. The bottom line is many young people may live in areas that do not have public transportation, so learning how to drive is an invaluable skill.
10. Teach them how to change a tire. This is another skill that many of their contemporaries will not know. Why wait hours for roadside assistance to show up when you can do it yourself?
11. Teach them how to cook. There’s only so much ramen a person can eat in a week. Learning how to cook from scratch is a lost art that will save lots of money. Pass down one of grandma’s recipes. This will not only be useful information, but will also create a bond between you and the teen.
12. Keep a spare bed open for them. Many foster children aging out of the system hit lots of bumps and potholes in the road we call life. Between getting evicted, getting kicked out of college, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, etc, there are many unknowns in adulting. Keeping a spare bed open for them lets them know they are loved and wanted and not alone. Keeping an open bed will keep them from calamities such as homelessness, sex trafficking, staying in an abusive relationship, or going back to a dysfunctional biological family. They know they have somewhere to go during holidays, special occasions, or just to visit.
13. Independent Living Programs. Most states have independent living programs that help foster youth transition into adulthood. These programs start before the young person turns 18 and continues until age 21. It provides stipends for the youth and helps after they leave the foster home. Check for programs in your state.
14. Adult foster care. In some states, foster children can voluntarily remain in their foster home as a foster adult until their 22nd birthday. This definitely helps to bridge the gap and gives the youth a safety net. Check the regulations in your state.
15. Adopt them! Yes, 18-year-olds need to be adopted also! In most states, adults can be adopted up until they are 21 years old. This not only provides a forever family, but also provides legal status, their adoptive parents’ health insurance, and permanency that kids who normally age out do not have.
The bridge between the teen years and the adult years and be frightening. Crossing that bridge can be a scary endeavor. But having someone cross with you is not that bad. One motivational speaker, Josh Schipp, tells of his experience in foster care as a teenager. He recounts the discouragement of moving from foster home to foster home. He had no trust in anyone. Until he came to the foster home of a man named Rodney. He describes his endeavors in trying to get kicked out of Rodney’s home. Josh would do poorly in school, set fires, and get arrested. But as hard as Josh tried, Rodney would not disrupt the placement. Josh realized that Rodney believed in him, would stand by him, and would support him through good decisions and bad. Josh obviously became a successful motivational speaker and helps foster parents all over the country. Josh’s motto is this: “Every kid is one caring adult away from a success story.”
It’s true. Will you be that one caring adult?