by Kristi Rector
Imagine today is your 18th birthday. Yes! You made it to adulthood! You wonder how you should celebrate this milestone birthday. There’s a knock at the door — it’s your social worker, telling you to quickly put all your stuff into a garbage bag, say goodbye to your foster family, and get in the car. They pull up to a homeless shelter or rescue mission in a nearby city and drop you off — alone — then drive off, waving.
Federal data shows that each year approximately 20,000 young adults leave the foster-care system through emancipation. “Though child welfare agencies strive to find a ‘forever’ home for every young person in foster care — whether with their birth family or another permanent supportive adult — the reality is that some never find that. For these teens, their path out of the child welfare system is called emancipation, which some young people commonly refer to as ‘aging out,’” wrote Sara Tiano in a Fostering Families Today article.
Most are left to fend for themselves, without a job — and, therefore, no way to pay for housing — without basic life skills, and without knowing how to get a job and financial assistance or how to take care of themselves.
The link between foster care and homelessness is undeniable. According to the landmark study, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago:
Data shows that about 20 percent of foster youth become homeless the moment they turn 18, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. As in the scenario above, social workers take some youth directly from a foster home to a homeless shelter or rescue mission on the day they age out. “Unfortunately, this ‘dumping’ has happened to Open Door Mission one too many times,” said Candace Gregory, president/CEO of the Omaha, Nebraska, mission. “It’s a terrible injustice to treat people in such an inhumane manner.”
Other youth aging out move from a foster home into a bad housing situation, then find themselves homeless shortly thereafter. They spend a few nights sleeping on a friend’s couch, or they end up sleeping in a car, at an emergency shelter, or in a park.
“Unfortunately, many of our aged-out teenagers in our community are served through our street ministry and never enter the Open Door Mission Campus. They are safe in numbers, couch surf, provide sexual favors for basic necessities, and have very little trust in others,” Candace said.
Youth who have special needs and are exiting foster care face an immense challenge as mental health problems or cognitive challenges can restrict their entry into a transitional-living program. LGBTQ+ youth often have even fewer community resources and support to help them avoid homelessness. And among the many dangers these young adults face, homeless foster youths are at high risk of human trafficking.
Youth who have special needs and are exiting foster care face an immense challenge as mental health problems or cognitive challenges can restrict their entry into a transitionalliving program.
The activist group Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 63 young people who were removed as children from their families because of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. They were placed in the custody of the state of California, and after leaving foster care, they became homeless. The study’s report said: “One of the statements we heard most from interviewees was that no one really cared what happened to them, before or after emancipation. They expressed despair and fear about having no one to turn to after they left foster care; this lack of social support and guidance leaves young people particularly vulnerable to homelessness.”
Reporting on the Chapin Hall study, HRW explained that former foster youth were more than three times as likely to have been unable to pay the rent in the last year as their peers who had not been in foster care. They were also more likely to have had utilities shut off, phone service disconnected, and to have faced eviction.
According to the website for Atlanta Mission — which works to walk alongside emancipated youth and guide them into adulthood — “After aging out of foster care, these kids, though over the age of 18, are now required to live on their own with nowhere to go, no job, and no relationship or family — all things they need to be able to support themselves. They do not have a stable foundation to start their new journey, so half of them find themselves experiencing homelessness and unsure of what to do.”
The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 allowed states to extend foster care and adoption assistance to age 21. The Act also allowed youth ages 18 to 21 to live independently but with supervision, such as living in an apartment, with monthly caseworker check-ins. Now, extended foster care is offered in some form in almost every state, with most capping benefits at age 21. As of this writing, legislation is being considered in California to raise the age in that state even higher.
California has the largest number of children and youth in foster care of any state in the nation with approximately 50,000 children in care. Some have been in care since they were young, and most have had multiple foster home and/or group home placements. On average they have had six placements.
While keeping kids inside a support system longer is definitely helpful, the issues go deeper than that. More than half of America’s homeless population spent time as foster children. The correlation is so high that the child welfare system is sometimes called the “highway to homelessness,” according to the National Foster Youth Institute.
While keeping kids inside a support system longer is definitely helpful, the issues go deeper than that. More than half of America’s homeless population spent time as foster children.
“For many of these young people the outcome of public parenting is unemployment, under-education, homelessness and prison. Studies show that about two-thirds of the incarcerated population were foster youth at some point in their lives. For all of the youth, the effects of their years in foster care are lasting. The state removes these youth from their homes and becomes their parent. As a parent, the state has failed,” according to Our Children: Emancipating Foster Youth Community Action Guide by the Cities, Counties and Schools Partnership.
It becomes a spiral of trauma. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that nearly 4.3 million maltreatment allegations involving 7.2 million children are reported annually. If those allegations have merit, children are removed from the home and put into foster care.
These early traumas restrict foster youth from being able to form secure attachments to trusted adults. They learn to not seek supportive relationships to help with distressing situations, but that they can only rely on themselves. So it’s no surprise that these youth have a general mistrust of adults and programs. This creates insecurely attached foster youth who are vulnerable to a variety of interpersonal and mental health problems.
“Mental health is among the biggest challenges the youth … face. The years of unstable housing while bouncing around to different foster homes takes a mental toll that can be compounded when they’re again faced with a sense of insecurity around their housing as newly minted adults,” said Kamela Stewart, the housing and coaching manager at Beyond Emancipation.
Wendy Buttacy, chief operating officer of Adult & Teen Challenge explained: “This group of young people are traditionally more challenging to reach as they are working out of the ‘invincibility’ stage of adolescence and walking into the hard realities and responsibilities of providing for oneself, often without the tools necessary to do so effectively. Internally this can create feelings of anxiety, depression, disillusionment, and hopelessness, which increases vulnerability to substance abuse.”
The problems may seem too big and the system too broken for rescue missions to be able to make a difference for emancipated foster youth. But you can make positive impacts on these individuals who could likely use your services at some point.
These early traumas restrict foster youth from being able to form secure attachments to trusted adults. They learn to not seek supportive relationships to help with distressing situations, but that they can only rely on themselves.
For example, Atlanta Mission has steps in place to address these young adults’ deepest needs. An article on its website explained: “What these young people need is relationships with people they can trust. They need a place to go and someone to lean on. There is a lot of work to be done to help these kids as they age out of the system to ensure they have what they need to be successful.
“For many who have experienced the disruption of foster care, Atlanta Mission offers a first taste of unconditional love and support. We build accountability into one-on-one relationships through our Ambassadors program, and we teach new healthy rhythms in our residential services. Atlanta Mission seeks to offer the family encouragement that former foster children need to build new lives upon.”
Wendy agreed with a partnership kind of approach. “Providing a consistent, safe environment [with] peer support and mentoring … is key. I would emphasize the importance of building safe environments where this age group is encouraged to connect with peer counselors and mentors, with a focus on spiritual growth, practical and relational life skills, job preparedness, and GED tutoring/services.”
She also suggested partnering with local churches that provide young adult classes and ministries. “And, of course, for those who are struggling with life-controlling issues, ATC is always a great resource for referral!”
“What these young people need is relationships with people they can trust. They need a place to go and someone to lean on. There is a lot of work to be done to help these kids as they age out of the system to ensure they have what they need to be successful.” —Atlanta Mission
Kristi is the former managing editor of Instigate and a freelance writer. She also owns KnotSense, a small business she started to provide calming support for people with sensory needs. Kristi and her family live in Colorado.
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This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email email@example.com for additional permissions.