In 1999, when Congress passed the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act, policy makers were extending a life buoy for me and my peers exiting foster care. At the time, there was little, if any, attention paid to what youth like us said we needed to be successful.
We know now that the help offered by Chafee was important, but not nearly enough, especially as youth navigate a current journey to adulthood plagued with grave anxiety and uncertainty. We also know that if we want to make a real impact, we need to let young people who have lived in this system set the path for the future.
Like so many other Black and brown teenagers in foster care, I had exited years of institutional foster care placements to homelessness, with no family, no high school diploma and no idea of how to make a good life for myself as an adult. Systems were failing youth as we exited care, and there was no family or community ready to provide a safety net.
While Chafee funded programs provided some much-needed financial resources, those resources did not address the most devastating result of our foster care experiences: the utter and complete disconnection and isolation so many youth experience.
I’m now an adult, but I still remember the painful loneliness of my first Christmas after I aged out of foster care. I felt like I must be the only person in the world who had no family to spend the day with. I volunteered to work double holiday shifts at my job as a hotel room service worker so that I wouldn’t be alone. Nothing made me feel more like my life did not matter.
Those first years after I left foster care were full of struggle, pain and lonely holidays and birthdays coupled with unhealthy relationships, trying to survive on public assistance, parenting with no support, and living on the edge economically. I blamed myself, believing that I was not loveable or worthy of the same kind of connections and opportunities that other young adults seemed to effortlessly manifest.
Several years later, when I became involved with youth advocacy, I started to learn about systems and understood for the first time that my experiences were not a result of being less intelligent, savvy, or loveable than other teenagers. They were actually the predictable results of a deficient public policy directed at teenagers and young adults exiting foster care.
Listening to other youth like me critique public policy and share their ideas and vision for change, I realized that it might be possible to construct public policy so that not a single youth would have the kind of experiences I was living. If only those who were most deeply and personally impacted could lead the development and implementation of policy, youth might have drastically different futures.
This kind of youth involvement in policy was a novelty 20 years ago. Today, in many spaces, youth are leading the way and lawmakers are slowly beginning to understand the critical importance of learning from their experiences and applying their knowledge so that all those in foster care will have a meaningful chance of healing from trauma, connecting with family and thriving in adulthood.
Since the Chafee Program was enacted in 1999, updates and extensions have been approved on a national scale nearly half a dozen times. The last temporary updates were made in 2020, of which I am most proud — not because I was involved with it, but because directly impacted youth across the country led the reform. The Consolidated Appropriations Act provided an additional $400 million for COVID-19 relief for youth in and from foster care.
We are at yet another critical moment when youth need adults to listen and take major action to help build a different future for youth in foster care. Our country is still failing teenagers as they exit foster care and struggle to make their way as adults. The resources we have provided have not kept up with the rapid changes in the world around us and with our growing understanding of adolescent development and transition to young adulthood, brain science and the importance of family and community.
I was ultimately able to achieve stability as an adult through subsidized housing and child care, free medical care, full scholarships through college and law school, and second chances to leave my experiences in systems behind me. Youth today must grapple with exorbitant college and housing costs, the decreasing value of a college degree, potential regular displacement due to climate disasters, and the knowledge that so much of their struggles are captured for eternity on the internet. And far too many youth are still, like me decades ago, navigating these challenges completely alone without the security of family or community.
These crises are felt disproportionately by youth in foster care who were also subjected to some of the greatest instability, disruption and isolation as they weathered the pandemic with government agencies failing. For example, despite decades of evidence about the harm of institutional settings, when agencies caring for youth became stressed during the pandemic, large numbers of young people were not supported in family settings and many ended up in facilities and other inappropriate settings like office buildings and hotels. The most effective intervention to support in navigating these crises are relationships and family, but these became less available to youth across the country as agencies experienced staffing shortages and turnover.
It’s time for drastic action to provide youth what they need to heal from trauma, to provide resources and support for families who want to parent youth, and for policy to position youth for success as they enter adulthood. Federal policy change can drive a new generation of supportive services to help youth succeed in young adulthood, recognizing this transition often extends through age 26 for most young adults. Our problem now is not a failure of ideas, it is a failure of action.
Young people with lived experience have spent the past two decades identifying the kind of support that would be most effective in helping them thrive as adults. Their ideas about interventions such as basic income support, practices to ensure that every youth is loved and connected to family, a sense of belonging in their community, and leveraging enrichment activities such as arts, culture and sports as holistic healing tools are both realistic and sustainable. Youth want to be part of co-creating a better future with policy makers and the public.
In 1999, when Chafee was passed, the field focused on giving youth a voice to share their experiences and ideas. Today, we can and must do better. We must give youth real power to co-create better futures rooted in family, love, opportunity and justice for themselves and for their peers.