You welcome him into your home, spend time building a relationship based on trust and acceptance and together you overcome hardships. You both fight and persevere through the inevitable setbacks that come with changing a life.
But then he turns 21 in NJ and officially “ages out” of the foster care system and he leaves, never to be heard from again.
You hear he’s fallen back into the very crowd you helped pull him out of but he won’t return your calls. You know this time there’s nothing you can do to stop him. He’s an adult, and he’s no longer in your care.
This is a harsh reality some foster parents who take in older teens are forced to face. Despite a heavy investment of time, effort and care, situations sometimes end in sorrow. But unlike the typical foster care ending where a child is reunified with a rehabilitated parent, a youth aging out of the system doesn’t offer the same sense of potential closure. The child you cared for might not necessarily be returning to a loving home.
While the situation is undeniably difficult, it’s important to remember that you are not alone in your grief.
There are more than 23,000 young people who aged out of foster care in 2013 because they were too old to remain. And as these adults aged out of the system, many loving and care foster parents were left behind in despair.
But there are resources available to help those foster parents get through this difficult time.
FAFS offers an online course, called “The Empty Seat at the Table: Resource Parent Loss and Grief,” that focuses on understanding and managing the heartache felt by foster parents and family members after the child in their care leaves their home. The course, which is free to all licensed resource parents in NJ, explains how foster parents can prepare themselves for inevitable loss.
It’s also important to remember that, although the youth you cared for hasn’t spoken to you since he aged out, it doesn’t mean he never will. Growing up is a difficult time for anyone, and often young adults, whether they were in foster care or not, will want to stretch their wings and be on their own. That doesn’t always mean forever, even if it feels that way.
As a former foster parent and a positive influence in the youth’s life, you can keep the lines of communication open. Even if he doesn’t initially respond, just knowing that someone is there could make all of the difference later on.
There’s no question that being in a situation where you feel helpless and hurt might make you question ever opening your home and your heart to a foster teen again.
But even though it might not feel like it now, you made a difference and that matters.
You might not have been in the youth’s life for long, but like a favorite teacher, your impact will be felt and remembered. There might be a point in your former foster youth’s life when he chooses to do the right and difficult thing because of a piece of advice you offered while he was in your home. It’s true that you might not be there to see it, but that’s the reality for any parent.
While your grief at watching a foster youth age out is justified, never forget the difference you make is immeasurable.
Lloyd Nelson is the Digital Media Manager of Foster and Adoptive Family Services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.