Friday, January 7, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part VIII

In response to Improving the Foster Care System - Part VI, LK wrote:
This is a good post, but you leave out a lot of factors. For example, about half of the girls become pregnant. A quarter of these become homeless, and foster care has contributed to 35% of the US homeless population, a quarter get incarcerated. Less than half have a high-school diploma.

Many states are addressing this issue by keeping the kids in care until age 21. Supposedly this helps to prepare them a bit, but many choose to opt out of this when they turn 18 because they're sick of it.

To me...

This issue is the ultimate hypocrisy because you have all of these foster parents out there talking about how they provide loving homes and care so much for these kids, until the money is cut off and they get booted out on their butts.

LK brings up a valid point here, which is that kids are tossed out of the foster care system at 18. I see this as a huge problem, though I don't agree with LK's conclusion that kids are being tossed out because their foster parents don't love them and they aren't getting a check.

Yes, I will agree that not getting support money is part of the reason that kids get tossed out, but it's not the only reason.

In our county, anyone living in a foster home who is over the age of 18 must pass a background check. This means that adults in the home have to be completely free of recent criminal history. Unfortunately, many foster kids have a criminal record. Even if their crimes are relatively minor, such as shoplifting, or drug possession, that's still enough for them to be prohibited from living in the home if there are other foster children present.

Even if a foster child manages to make it to adulthood without a criminal record, issues of housing still remain. Our county also has a rule that prohibits anyone over the age of 18 from sharing a bedroom with another foster child. So, if the soon-to-be-adult is living in a typical foster home where children share rooms, he has to move out of the bedroom on his 18th birthday.

If a family's house is small and there are no free bedrooms, where is the young adult supposed to sleep? The living room sofa? The garage? Where is he supposed to stash his stuff, once the bedroom is closed?

This puts foster parents in an untenable situation. Either they can stand by their adult foster child, or they can continue to care for the minors in the home. Under many circumstances, they are not allowed to do both.

It's a stupid situation, and foster parents are forced to make very difficult choices.

I think that it's absolutely imperative that our foster care system provide better help to foster kids who are making that important transition to adulthood. When a kid hits his 18th birthday, has he really changed all that much from the previous day? If he was sharing a room with his foster brother when he was 17 years, 364 days old, does it makes sense that he cannot stay there a day later? If he had a criminal history, it's the same one he carried with him the previous day. Nothing changed in terms of the people, personalities or situations involved, but a magic date on the calendar makes everything different.

I don't think, though, that foster families put their young adults out just because of silly rules. Some of those reasons are because of the kids themselves. If you have a young adult living in your home who is verbally, emotionally or physically abusive, you aren't necessarily going to want him to stay past his 18th birthday, regardless of how much you love him. If stealing, fighting and disrespect are part of his regular menu of behavior, are you going to want him to stay once he reaches adulthood?

Probably not.

Although I don't think that money is the sole reason foster kids get booted, it is a contributing factor. Most fostering families that I know are not wealthy, and supporting a young adult who has no job, no income and no prospects is very difficult. As so many foster kids "graduate" from foster care without a decent education, job skills, or even the prospect of a job, it's a tough situation. It's very hard from a financial perspective to indefinitely support someone who can't or won't contribute to the household finances. If you add to that behavioral or substance abuse problems, it would be hard for any parent to endure for very long.

Even for states who have decided to extend foster care until age 21, the problem still exists. Many kids, when they reach the magic age of 18 are simply done with the system. They don't like being told what to do, having to follow rules, or comply with restrictions. They resent having to follow behavioral rules required for a continued stay in the household, and so they split.

"I'm 18," they say. "You can't tell me what to do."

The problem of kids aging out of foster care is a more complicated problem than cruel foster parents pitching kids out on the street for lack of a monthly support check. Rather, I think it's a systemic failure.

So how do you make it better?
  • Extend foster care to age 21 in all states - Even if kids don't avail themselves of the additional help, it should be made available to everyone.

  • Remove the requirement of a clean background check for kids remaining in their foster homes - Kids shouldn't be mandated to leave their homes because they did something stupid. If the foster parents are willing for them to stay on, they should be allowed to do so.

  • Remove the "no sharing bedrooms" rule for former foster kids - Again, if a kid shared a bedroom when he was 17 years, 364 days old, why should he be forced out on his 18th birthday?

  • Create educational/job training programs for foster kids - Although there's no guarantee that anyone will graduate high school with a diploma, every effort should be made to ensure that happens. Likewise, kids should be placed into job training programs once they hit their teen years to ensure that they have marketable job skills as young adults.

  • Ensure that foster children have adequate mental health care - I've said this before, and I will say it again: if children do not receive adequate mental health, medical and dental care, they do not not have a fair chance at success. We have got to stop making excuses about how there is no money and there are no resources to help these kids. If the state sees a need to take the kids into care in the first place, they owe them the proper supports.


  1. I just happened upon your blog and I have to say thank you!
    We adopted our son through foster care. He's still a little guy - he'll be 3 next month - but we long to adopt again.

    I appreciate your blog greatly! Would you mind if I linked to it from mine?

  2. I agree.

    My experience is that the teenagers can't wait to get out of the system. They count down the days until they turn 18 or graduate high school. Here just because they turn 18 doesn't mean they get to leave foster care. If they are still in high school, then they have to wait until they graduate. And they can choose to stay in foster care while going to college, this means their tuition and books are paid for plus they still receive ILP funds each month for allowance. I had one teen petition the court to be emancipated when she turned 18 even though she was still in high school. She had to have a job, car, insurance, apartment (which you have to be 19 to obtain, but her fiance put it in his name) and still maintain good grades in school. She was successful but CPS wasn't happy about it (the emancipation).

    I just don't see many foster parents kick kids out just because they turn 18.

    I have seen foster parents adopt a teenager with a criminal record and then no longer be allowed to foster. They could have foster kids in the home with the teenager so long as the teen was also a foster kid, but once she was adopted then the other foster kids were removed and the home closed down. Which doesn't make sense. The teen's no more or less a criminal as an adopted person than as a foster kid.

    I think the whole Independent Living Program needs to be overhauled and streamlined. Each state is allowed to do with it what they wish, essentially, and because of that, teens do leave the system without proper skills and resources UNLESS the foster parent teaches it to them. The ILP should universally teach these skills.

    I love this series, by the way, and look forward to further installments.


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