Children who age out of foster care at 21 instead of 18 have better outcomes and lead happier, more productive adult lives. Here’s why.
Remember when you turned eighteen? You were probably thrilled to be an “official” adult and happy to (finally!) be in control of your life. Whether you were starting college or learning a trade, it’s likely you were excited about striking out on your own and all the fun and challenges ahead of you. Sure, you may have been a little nervous about the choices and responsibilities that came with the territory, but if you were like most people your age, you knew you could always call someone – mom or dad, your brother or sister, or your best friend you’ve known since fifth grade – to help you out.
Now imagine you’ve been in foster care since you were fifteen, having been abused by your parents and removed from their care. You’ve bounced from house to house and from school to school, never being able to settle in and make close friends or catch up with the classes that you’ve been forced to miss. You worry about your parents and your siblings, even though you don’t see them much, if at all. And even though you won’t admit it to anyone, you also worry about yourself.
Your eighteenth birthday is coming up. Your caseworker told you that when you turn eighteen you age out of foster care. There’s a part of you that can’t wait to be done with the system, but there’s another part of you that’s unsure. You’re finally old enough to be on your own, but are you ready? Do you know how to open a bank account, balance a checkbook, or even write a check? Have you learned to drive? Have you had a part time job, or will you be entering the work force with less than stellar skills and grades? How will you compete? How will you survive?
Imagine if you were forced to be on your own when you turned eighteen, with no one to call for help or go home to if things got rough. Think how different your life may have turned out, and what you might have done to get by.
In most states, youth age out of foster care when they’re eighteen years old. In others, youth remain in foster care until they turn twenty-one. More states are now extending foster care until age twenty-one; this is a positive trend. Here’s why children shouldn’t age out of foster care until they’re 21:
Like most young adults, eighteen year olds who age out of foster care are anxious for their independence, but it’s important they understand what that really means. The facts about closing their case are not always explained effectively, or sometimes at all, by their caseworkers, which can lead to poor choices and lasting negative consequences.
Youths getting ready to age out of foster care should be made aware of what they will lose if they close their case at eighteen (medical benefits, housing provisions, tuition assistance, etc.) and also be made to understand how keeping their cases open until they turn twenty-one, when an option, can help them be better prepared to successfully live independent lives.
Society’s Unrealistic Expectations
In today’s economy, it’s challenging for any eighteen-year-old, no matter what their background or education, to live on their own. We live in a time where adults in their twenties, thirties, and even forties, are moving back home with their parents because they can’t make ends meet. Yet, in many states, we expect children who age out of foster care at eighteen, who in many cases have never experienced a stable and safe home, to live independently!
This unrealistic expectation leads to disenfranchised youth who go from the foster care system to the welfare system or the criminal justice system. By allowing youth to stay in foster care until they are 21, we give them a better opportunity to make a successful move into independent living. While those who are in a good foster home can continue to receive the support and encouragement they need, those who are not can move into a transitional home where they can receive life skills coaching and other needed preparation.
As tweeted by former foster youth and successful country singer Jimmy Wayne’s ProjectMeetMeHalfway @ProjectMMH, “It’s important for youth aging out of
#fostercare to connect with at least 1 caring adult who becomes a lasting presence in their lives.” If you can’t be a foster parent or a mentor, why not consider donating to foster care scholarships or signing a petition to extend foster care until age twenty-one in all states? No matter when children age out of foster care in your state, you have the power to make a real difference in making their lives turn out for the better.