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Successfully age out of foster care and begin life on your own

Each year, between 20,000 to 25,000 foster children age out of the system and attempt to begin life on their own. For many foster children, foster care is a temporary service before returning home to a parent, moving in with a biological family member, or even beginning a new life in an adopted home. Yet, for thousands who do not find reunification with family in their lives, reaching 18-21 years of age (depending on their state) and finding themselves no longer part of the foster care system, can be a tremendously frightening experience. 


Do

Do teach children living skills

Simple independent living skills are lacking for many children who age out of the foster care system. Skills such as cooking meals, driving a car, finding housing, keeping appointments, managing a bank account, shopping for groceries and household items, and taking public transportation are missing in many children who age out. These basic, yet necessary, independent living skills are very often not taught, whether by parental figures and adults, or while in school. As soon as your foster child is ready, begin teaching the fundamentals of personal financial responsibility by helping to develop simple money skills. Help your child open and manage a personal bank account, as well as make and balance a budget. Allow your child to learn how to cook for himself. Teach your child how to clean and take care of a household. Use public transportation with your child. Practice filling out job and college applications. 

Do consider kinship help

For some former foster youth, housing with kinship carers may be an option. Kinship care is the practice of placing youths in home of extended relatives and family members, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and others related to the youth. Kinship carers can be very helpful to those who age out, providing a home, a family, and general support and assistance. Though housing with kinship carers may provide more stability, research does indicate that many of these former foster youths often live in poverty with caregivers who are elderly, single, or poorly educated and not entitled to the same financial support systems and resources that licensed foster parents have. Thus, kinship carers often provide only partial assistance to youths after they age out.

Do help envision life options beyond foster care

Stress the importance of education and encourage your child to graduate from high school, with the possibility of college, technical school, or military service as important options beyond secondary school.

Do be an agent of change

Perhaps the biggest impact one can make for those who have aged out of the system is to become an advocate of change. By contacting lawmakers, politicians, and publicity agents through emails, letters, phone calls, website postings and other means, you can bring attention to the needs of these young adults who are facing a series of challenges after leaving the foster care system. By lobbying for change, you can inform the general public and push authorities to enact needed new laws or administrative changes to assist youths aging out of the foster care system.


Don't

Do not ignore medical care needs

Proper health care also remains a problem for former foster youth. Many simply do not have someone to care for them when they fall sick or face medical emergencies. In addition, many suffer from health problems related to maternal substance abuse, parental neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. While under the foster care system, foster children do receive free health care through Medicaid. Yet, when a youth ages out, this healthcare is no longer provided, leaving as many as 55% without any type of insurance or care. Access to mental health and additional support organizations is also difficult to come by, with only 25% of former foster children on Medicaid. To help, consistently talk to your foster child about the importance of regular medical and mental check ups. Help your foster child register for Medicaid, or other forms of medical insurance before they age out. Look for signs of physical or emotional illness in your foster child, and see that they are getting the care they need before they age out.

Do not ignore issues of trauma

Countless former foster children have untreated mental health needs. Recent studies have found that adults who have spent time in foster care suffer from the ravages of post-traumatic stress disorder, at rates double those of US combat veterans. Many youths who leave foster care also suffer from a number of other mental health disorders, including depression, high anxiety levels, and mental illnesses. Look for signs of trauma in your foster child on a consistent basis, and report any you might see to your child’s caseworker. Talk to your child’s doctor about how to best address the trauma. Schedule appointments with an approved counselor. 

Do not downplay education

Only 45% of children in foster care will graduate from high school with a diploma, while only 2% will receive a four year degree from college. Those who do not graduate from high school find it difficult to obtain a job that will be able to provide for them financially. This leads some foster children who age out to turn to drug dealing and other criminal activity for financial support. Up to 70% of those incarcerated at any given time in the United States have had some experience with foster care in their lives -- often because they aged out of the system without adequate educational and life skills. After school and college tutoring programs are helpful to those who have aged out, as they not only help the young adult with the material being studied, but also help develop stronger study learning skills. Make sure your child is receiving all available help while in high school. As they age out prepare them to seek out college tuition scholarships and assistance sources, as well as agencies or programs that may help with school supplies.  

Do not forget about sex education and family planning counseling

Females who have spent time in foster care are at greater risk for early age pregnancy. Indeed, nearly 40% of girls are pregnant by age 21. Young men who age out of the system may unexpectedly find themselves fathers and be unable to properly provide for the child. Tragically, for many former foster youth, the cycle continues from generation to the next, as 19% of parents who were former foster children reported having their own children removed from their home and placed into the supervision of foster care. Talk to your foster teen about the realities of being a parent, and do so on a consistent basis. Encourage them to choose options and activities that will focus their attentions elsewhere and point them towards a positive future, such as school clubs, sports, music, and theatre. Be consistent in their lives on a daily basis, and make yourself available for conversation on this topic, and any other topic they might wish to discuss.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

Most teens, when leaving home for the first time, are able to still rely on their parents or family members for advice, assistance, and support. For those foster teens that age out of the system, this is not the case. Instead, leaving care is often a time of anxiety, fear, and danger, as the state and their former foster families are no longer required to help them or provide assistance. Instead, foster teens are expected to fend for themselves; sink or swim, so to speak, with many sinking quickly in dangerous and uncharted waters. With some skills and knowledge taught beforehand by foster parents and agencies, mentoring and assistance after they age out, foster teens will be better equipped to succeed as they enter into the adult world.


More expert advice about Adoption and Foster Care

Photo Credits: Teen driver in car by State Farm via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Dr. John DeGarmoLeading expert in the foster care system

Dr. John DeGarmo has been a foster parent since 2002, and he and his wife have had over 40 children come through their home. He is a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system, and travels around the nation delivering pass...

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