A quick story about young-adult me: When I was in college, I got a scholarship and grants to cover most of my tuition. I worked the night shift at a grocery store to pay for insurance, transportation, and my phone, and I took my classes during the day. At one point, I got into a car that cost much, much more to maintain than I had anticipated. I was at a loss—I needed a car to get to campus, I was working as much as I could while still leaving time for class, and I didn’t have enough money to keep my car running.
Insert mom and dad. They helped me trade the car for something more reliable, and paid the difference. They stepped in so that I could have the transportation and the time I needed to attend class. I thanked them endlessly, stayed in school, and graduated on time. The end.
It’s not a terribly noteworthy story, and it comes from a person who has always had the security of a family backing me up. But, in researching for this article, I considered what the outcome might have been had I found myself in that situation, at 18, with no parents to help me. Honestly, something as ordinary as a high-maintenance car that I couldn’t afford could have meant dropping out of school and losing my scholarship.
But that’s the thing.
My parents helped me apply for that scholarship in the first place. They helped me study for my SATs, helped me decide on a school, and helped me apply for jobs. I lived at home to save on housing costs. I grew up knowing security and protection. When it comes down to it, it is impossible for me to imagine what my life might have been like at 18 without the influence of my parents, because they helped me, quite literally, all the time. I knew that if I failed, they would help me recover and move on. I just knew it. And I still know it. So how could I ever fully understand living without that?
It’s an impossible hypothetical for someone who has not lived with an utter lack of support.
In 2012 in the United States, 23,439 children in foster care “aged out” before finding a forever family.
That’s 64 kids a day who turned 18—a rite of passage that should be relished and celebrated—and found themselves alone. No support. No family to fall back on. No one to help with the bills or to bail them out of a bad situation like so many parents have done for so many young adults throughout time.
I think it might be easy, when considering adoption, to think “Oh, they’re 17 . . . they only have another year and then they’re out” and turn attention to a child with more time left in the system. It might seem to make better sense.
But whether or not it makes sense doesn’t much matter to the thousands of kids who face the world with no family, no support system, no security net.
Less than 3% of those “aged out” kids failed by the system will earn a degree, but 75% will deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
More than two thirds of the young women will be pregnant by their 21st birthday.
Half of them still won’t have jobs six full years after being emancipated.
The most unsettling statistic of all: 20% will find themselves homeless. 20%. That means that the emancipated teens of 2012 will result in over 4,600 homeless young adults.
That is staggering. Truly.
Imagine what help with college applications and SAT prep would mean to one of the teenagers in care. Imagine what it would mean for a parent to step in and say “I think you need help and we’re going to find it together.” Just think of what could happen if someone sat down with them and helped fill out job applications and practiced for interviews.
The difference a dedicated parent can make in the life of a child is no less significant if that child is 17 days old or 17 years old. And to a child who has endured the trauma of being permanently removed from the care of his or her biological family, who was placed into state care with the expectation that they would be given a more secure, safer situation, the need for that protection is all the more urgent.
Adopting a 17-year-old isn’t about giving them the childhood they never had crammed into one year; it’s about giving them a family to turn to for the rest of their life.
And we never, ever outgrow the need for a family.
Sources: adoptioncouncilblog.org and davethomasfoundation.org