The average length of time spent in foster care in 1999 was 32 months. By 2014, the average time had dropped to 19.5 months. Progress, but still unacceptably high.
Much more unsettling, however, are the statistics on emancipation. In this same time period, the number of children aging out to a life on their own has increased from 18,964 to 22,392, despite a smaller foster care population. We have tried to soften the transition with courses on how to manage details of everyday living. Nevertheless, the new “graduates” are alone, their problems compounded by the lack of a supportive family in an unforgiving world.
The transition is cloaked with euphemisms like freedom and independent living. More bluntly, emancipation is a fancy term to cover up our failures.
We have glossed over our failures by accepting long-term foster care, permanent legal guardianship and independent living as permanency plans. These terms are misleading, a way we lie to ourselves. How can long-term temporary care be considered a permanency plan? A guardianship can be dissolved at any time no matter what we call it.
Independent living would be a joke if it were not so tragic. No one lives independently. The newly minted adult may be seduced by the attractive notion of freedom, but he or she will soon discover that we all need others on whom we can unequivocally rely. The following story is all too common.
Mike was in seven foster homes before being emancipated. Like many foster children, he had been taught the required skills for independent living: how to find a job, rent an apartment, balance his checkbook, cook and so on. He was happy to say goodbye to his final foster home the day after his 18th birthday, but he left with no place to go.
Mike lived in the park for two weeks, and then went to live with his aunt. She helped him find a job. He left again when she was arrested. He lost his job, and went back to live in the park. By coincidence, he met up with his second foster family and they took him in.
They helped him find another job and a new apartment. Unable to pay the rent on his minimum wage job, he was evicted. Then he lost his job due to erratic attendance. Once again, he was adrift and alone in the world.
Mike had a high school diploma with no real job history, no place to live and no family. He tried to get himself arrested at one point so he could get a good meal. By the time he was 24, he had spent all but 18 months dumpster-diving and living in the park and in shelters when there was an empty bed.
We need one another. What can be done to reduce the number of foster children who “age out” with no permanent home? Here are five suggestions:
- Recognize that there are only two true permanency resolutions: reunification and adoption. Have a plan in place for reunification as soon as a child is taken from his home.
- Minimize delay. Don’t wait until Plan A fails. Always have Plan B ready, a contingency plan.
- Encourage innovative approaches for the adoption of children over ten. For example, You Gotta Believe works backwards. Instead of first locating an acceptable home, they ask the child whom he or she likes. It might be anyone: a teacher, neighbor, probation officer. Then they contact that person and offer a meeting to discuss ways to help.
- Cut the red tape on inter-state adoptions. It should not be easier to adopt a child from Moscow than from another state.
- In all cases, a permanent home is the first objective. If a permanent home has not been found, explore any workable alternatives that offer some ongoing attachment. Commitment of some kind is the key. The possibilities are many, including guardianships, mentors, an interested employer, renting a room from a friendly family….