(Last Updated On: November 14, 2020)
Aging Out of Foster Care

Hello, dear reader. I want to bring awareness to, and open a dialogue about, a subject that currently stands to affect nearly 500,000 children in the United States alone. Right now, approximately 20,000 of these children face are facing an impending crisis. They are aging out of foster care. If they are able to successfully navigate the choppy waters they are facing now, they’ll have a decent chance to create for themselves the type of future that many of us would consider reasonably secure, or maybe even just adequate, If they are not able to find the necessary resources that will enable them to make the best possible decisions for themselves at every moment over the next two to three years, their future is likely to include incarceration, poverty, and poor overall health.

There are 500,000 children who are living in foster homes in the United States today. Each year, approximately 20,000 of these children will reach the age of 18; a birthday that for most of us is celebrated as a milestone, marking the end of childhood and the beginning of legal adulthood. Finally, we get to live by our own rules!  Go to bed when we want and eat ice cream for breakfast!

But for 20,000 foster children, the 18th  birthday means the end of whatever fleeting stability they may currently enjoy, and they will find themselves facing a crisis that they have very little, if any, means to prevent or endure.  (Not for the first time, of course,) These 20,000 individuals, who are children today, will be adults tomorrow. “Aging out” means that, having reached the age of majority, yesterday’s child is no longer the responsibility of the state. And having been estranged from whatever family they may have once belonged to, they now belong only to themselves.

“Oh but that’s great! Right? No more caseworker visits, no more review hearings! No more changing schools, no more dragging a trash bag full of your belongings from one stranger’s house to another! That’s fantastic, isn’t it?”

“It is, yes. Almost all of it is a huge relief. But not everything gets better immediately.  I’m still dragging my belongings around in a trash bag, and I still have no idea where I’m going, but now, nobody is legally mandated to care…and so, maybe nobody does.”

A real and serious consideration of the challenges faced by these young people is critical; assuming, of course, that we want them to be successful, that we believe in creating at least some measure of equal opportunity, and that we care enough of our own accord to follow the conversation with real action that leads to improvements in the lives of these youth, who cannot, and should not be expected to, change the world on their own.

When considering aging out of foster care, the discussion generally centers on everyday practical tasks like making money, making and achieving educational and career goals, and avoiding homelessness and jail.  I do want to talk about those things, but I also want to talk about the more personal struggles, like the particular loneliness that the foster care experience, and more specifically, the experience of aging out of foster care, leaves in the hearts of these newly minted adults.

For the purpose of this writing on the subject, I’m going to provide some statistical information and review some of the research findings that have been published on the subject.  After that, I’ll share with you some of my own experience as a foster kid, and discuss my own transition to adulthood. Most importantly, I want to share my current experience as a full-grown, I guess technically middle-aged, adult. This is important because the impact of my foster care experience has remained with me, and some of the effects of that experience are still evident even 25 years later.  For example, it never occurred to me, and certainly nobody warned me, that my ability to develop and maintain intimate relationships might be affected. I will tell you now that it most certainly is, and so I plan to talk about some of that in detail.

I will cover the subjects of romantic relationships, platonic friendships, and a big one…the parent/child relationship. Being a parent is anxiety-provoking for pretty much anyone who endeavors on that path, but it can be especially challenging for those who have spent many years in foster care, and particularly so for those who have been in multiple placements, which is almost everyone in foster care.  Finally, I hope to include a post with resources, helpful checklists, ideas, and advice to help those who are preparing to move from foster care into adulthood.

Aging Out of Foster Care: Outcomes

Since you are reading this, you may already be aware of the dismal statistics as far as outcomes for foster kids who age out, but  let’s spend a minute reviewing the numbers before we go a bit further in-depth; then we will review some of the findings from researchers who have made it their mission to objectively study the impact of foster care placements.

45% of foster youth who age out of foster care do so with a high school diploma.

2% -6% of foster youth who age out of foster care earn some type of college degree.

Less than 1% of foster youth who age out of foster care attain a graduate degree.

25% of foster youth who age out of foster care are incarcerated within two years of aging out.

One study, conducted by Children and Youth Services Review, used a nationally representative sample of adolescents who had been investigated by the child welfare system during 2008 and 2009. Some of those investigations had resulted in a child being placed in foster care and some had not. Of those who were placed in foster care, some were returned to their families after a short placement, while others remained in foster care until 18.

The researchers conducted follow-ups at 18 months and 36 months to assess rates of homelessness among the study participants. They found that those who were placed in foster care experienced a similar rate of homelessness as those who remained with their families. The study also found that, of those who were placed in foster care, those who reunited with their families after a short placement, were less likely to experience homelessness than those who remained in foster care until aging out.  The researchers concluded that exposure to extended foster care and independent living services did nothing to prevent homelessness among youth transitioning to adulthood. (Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 77, June 2017, Pages 27-33 Patrick J. Fowler, Katherine E. Marcal, Jinjin Zhang, Orin Day, John Landsverk).

Much of the current research supports the conclusion that aging out youth between the ages of 18 and 21 struggle economically more frequently than their residentially stable peers.

In the first longitudinal study of employment outcomes of former foster children, (in 2014!) researchers  reviewed child welfare, wage, and public assistance data in three states, and determined that those who aged out of foster care experienced lower earnings  compared to the general low-income population and that suppressed wages continued through age 24 for youth in all three states.  Work experience prior to age 18 was associated with better employment outcomes during later adulthood among youth in all three states, and in two of the states, extended stays in foster care were positively correlated with employment success in the subjects’ late 20s.  (Former foster youth: Employment outcomes up to age 30 Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 36, January 2014, Pages 220-229 C. Joy Stewart, Hye-Chung Kum, Richard P. Barth, Dean F. Duncan),   

Going beyond an analysis of the first two or three years into adulthood, researchers reviewed data from the California Women’s Health Survey to determine the long term functioning of women with a history foster care placements. They found that, as compared to women who have no history of out of home placement, those who had experienced out of home placements fared worse on measures of mental health, educational attainment, subjective health, and economic self-sufficiency. The researchers suggest that routine screening for mental health issues, early intervention efforts should be targeted to individuals who are in, or who are transitioning to, an out of home placement, suggesting that this may prevent the poor long term health outcomes discovered in their analysis.

Interventions: Problem Creating Solutions

Perhaps rather than suggesting yet another intervention to mitigate the harm done by the initial intervention of removing a child from his/her home, we could create some sort of intervention that would result in decreasing the likelihood of an out of home placement in the first place. It is my opinion that further intervention immediately after initial removal from the home, which seeks to discover a child’s possible impairments, however well-intentioned, is likely to leave the child feeling at fault for the situation. The thought process of the child may go something like this:

“I was removed from my home and placed with strangers and now they are evaluating me to see what is wrong with me.”

Interventions of this type and at this stage generally require the child to endure invasive evaluations, which in all likelihood will result in a mandate that they attend regular counseling sessions. This mandate is then perceived by the child as confirmation that they are the problem. Unfortunately, these thoughts are not necessarily held consciously by the child. Rather, these thoughts form the basis of unconscious negative beliefs related to self-worth that the child will unwittingly carry on into adulthood.   

I’m not suggesting that children removed from their homes do not benefit from counseling. I am suggesting that there is a better time to initiate this sort of evaluation than immediately upon removal from the home. All children who are removed from their homes and placed I foster care will necessarily need counseling services, due to the trauma experienced by the removal itself, even if they would not have required counseling for issues related to their original home environment.

In all likelihood, the child will not be afforded an opportunity to influence treatment or placement decisions, and this fact is likely to instill in the child a profound and enduring sense of powerlessness, which can result ultimately in the formation of an external locus of control in the later adult. In other words, the child is set up to become an adult victim, a person to whom things happen, rather than a person with a healthy sense of personal agency. When we understand this, the outcomes of incarceration and poverty are in no way surprising.

~Bureaucratic interventionists prescribed for us new plans of change at any moment’s notice. We found, in the chaos of consistent upheaval, structure, and predictability.~

Aging Out of Foster Care: Adult Children of Foster Care and PTSD

As far as I can tell, the data that is available on young people who age out is data that is collected within four or five years after these kids are sent out into the world. I have not yet been able to locate any information pertaining to what happens to these kids 10, 20, 30 years later. One of the things I’ve found is that there are relatively very few videos on the subject overall, and I’ve found few former foster kids who are now adults speaking on this or any other subject. There are a FEW, and recently I’ve discovered Quora, which holds a lot of promise as a platform for adult children of foster care to find and connect with each other. There seem to be plenty of opinions from social workers and psychologists, and some young kids who are currently aging out or about to age out…but where is the longitudinal data? Where is the perspective of a person who has experienced aging out first hand and then had 20+ years to reflect on the experience?

According to a study released by the Harvard Medical School (HMS), the University of Michigan and Casey Family Programs, foster children are twice as likely as U.S. war vets to be afflicted with Stress Disorder, PTSD.

Did they collect the data from young adults who had been out for 2 years or 20? I didn’t start to feel serious symptoms of PTSD until after my son was born and it got worse as he got older, and as I began to realize that I had and would continue to have less control over his experience. I became completely overwhelmed with anxiety which led to irritability., which led to guilt and….a vicious circle. And when I lost my job in 2016? More on that later. I encourage you all to read the comments section of the Harvard Crimson article. It had me in tears this morning.

It’s looking like this topic will require several separate posts. I have much more I want to post, but I get distracted by my emotions with this, which slows me down considerably. Check back soon for more!

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  1. Pingback: Musings About Love, Delusions, and Aliens, of course.

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