Campus & Community

‘Aging out’ can be a life crisis for foster kids

5 min read

Former foster children who’ve “aged out” of the child welfare system are an all-but forgotten population with few services and fewer statistics to show researchers how they’re doing, according to speakers at an all-day Kennedy School forum on their plight Friday (Jan. 11).

The little data that is available is sobering, however, showing high rates of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and single parenthood. The shame, one researcher said, is that there are few troubled populations as easy to identify as children who’ve been in state care – often for years – before leaving the system.

“If you want to identify a population in need of intervention, here it is,” said Mark Courtney, author of a study of Wisconsin children who left state care after turning 18. “As a field, we just don’t have evidence to say we’re doing a good job, and that’s indefensible.”

Courtney’s study provides one of the few looks at this population of children who were taken into foster care, never adopted or reunited with biological parents and, at age 18, sent out on their own. The study doesn’t paint a happy picture. Though none of the 141 foster children who entered the study at age 17 or 18 had problems with delinquency, 30 percent reported having been in jail in the first four years after leaving their foster placements, Courtney said.

In addition, nearly half were victim of a rape or other serious assault and 14 percent reported having been homeless. Unemployment rates were near 20 percent, corresponding to the 20 percent who, at age 21, did not have either a high school or equivalency diploma.

“There’s successes, but a whole lot of these folks are struggling economically,” Courtney said.

The daylong forum, “Aging Out: The Foster Care Crisis,” was co-sponsored by the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Malcolm Weiner Center for Social Policy and the private, nonprofit human services organization Cambridge Family and Children’s Services.

“Our mission is to prepare leaders for service to society and to contribute to the solution of important policy issues. And I can’t think of anything more important than the future of our children, particularly this group of children that particularly needs our help,” said Wiener Center director Julie Wilson.

Denise Maguire, executive director of Cambridge Family and Children’s Services, said the organizers’ intent was that the forum would just begin work on the subject. Three working groups – on housing, employment, and relationships – were formed at day’s end to continue to look at the problem and work out solutions.

“We really want this to be the impetus for action,” Maguire said.

The program was attended by more than 100 social workers, administrators, students, and service providers. Also in attendance were several people who know the foster system firsthand: former foster children.

In a morning panel discussion, five former foster children described their experiences, both inside and outside the system. They painted a picture of children moving from foster placement to foster placement, never able to feel secure or permanent in the family they lived with.

Jim, one of the panelists, entered the foster system at 4 years old and was placed with his grandmother, who couldn’t care for him long. After that, he bounced five times between his biological mother and foster homes.

“I wasn’t part of any family, I just drifted from home to home to home,” Jim said. “Every time the social worker said ‘This will be your family, it never was.’”

Though he was a teenager, Jim was eventually placed in an adoptive home at 16, but it took the family sticking by him during some serious troubles a year later for him to believe his placement was permanent.

As children get older, they become harder to place, and state welfare systems focus on giving the teens life skills so they’ll be able to get a job, balance a checkbook, and keep an apartment. That approach, while practical, ignores the fact that many 18-year-olds out on their own – even with training – aren’t ready for the world. The children, panelists said, still hunger for a family. Even if they go to college, they long for a place to go on Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

“We should concentrate on getting older children families. We shouldn’t say they’re 16 or 17 years old so let’s just teach them life skills and send them on their way,” Jim said.

Despite the call for action, panelists said that Massachusetts has some of the most progressive laws in the country concerning its former charges. Though they also said much more needs to be done, they praised a Massachusetts’ law that provides state college tuition waivers for children who’ve spent time in the foster system. Recent federal legislation also provides more funding to help former foster children.

Still, reforms are needed, they said, to provide more services for young adults who’ve aged out of the system. Panelists also said it was important to ensure that the system runs on parallel tracks with teens so that preparation for independent life happens while – rather than instead of – continuing the search for a permanent family.

“Every year 500 leave those (foster care) settings with no plan of where to go,” said Robert Gittens, Massachusetts secretary of Health and Human Services. “Those young people find themselves very often in very desperate situations. There are far too many young people who reach that point … without housing, without employment, without the skills to do well.”