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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Trauma, Broken Promises, and Aloneness

Written by David Kelly

That we allow young people to leave foster care without the relationships and sense of belonging that every person needs is clear evidence that we must change child welfare in the United States. It is a glaring and perennial failure that we have come to expect. We've attempted to recast that failure as a natural process. We've created a lexicon for it—couched in the language of coming of age. We've done this as a field for our own comfort—not for the well-being of young people.

The outcome of "aging out" is demonstrative of a system that serves itself more than it does children, youth, and families.  It provides an option we invoke when we fail to meet our responsibilities or keep our promises. It is reflective of a larger need to purposely transition away from the system we know.

We've become accustomed to speaking about youth "emancipating" from foster care and "transitioning" to life on their own just as we've become comfortable with separating families without making sincere efforts to help them remain intact. 

In my experience as an attorney working with young people leaving care and from the countless conversations I've had with them, this "transition" can be a cause of great trauma. It can involve hastily stuffing everything a young person owns into a garbage bag—an act of despair and utter aloneness. It can result in a young woman living in her car. It can result in young people couch surfing, living on the streets, facing unspeakable exploitation, and worse. Aging out is a pipeline to poverty and poor outcomes.

A few thousand dollars for a housing stipend and life skills classes—at best—are what we arm young people with to face these dangerous realities. This is not so different than handing an inmate leaving prison a bus ticket and a referral to their parole officer. Some luckier young people may have had a transition plan that was marginally more helpful.

How is it we've come to expect and accept this?

It's time to aggressively interrogate the option of aging out. It's time to examine deeply the root causes of how we reach the point where a young person's best or only option is to leave care for life on their own. It's time to interrogate how we've arrived at a place where programs such as Chafee are needed in the first place.

Rather than interrogate aging out, we've institutionalized it.

We are seeing the pain and challenges of disconnection in high resolution during the pandemic, but the pain and challenges have always been present. The recently passed relief funds are desperately needed and will help many young adults.  But the financial support and flexibilities it provides is a temporary Band Aid for deep and grievous wounds that we inflicted.  They should be made permanent and viewed as the floor of what young adults need and not the ceiling.

The truth is no amount of money or training can replace the need for family and belonging, however a young person may choose to define them.

Any of us who have direct experience in the field have met and known young people who transitioned in the hard ways—without the supports they needed and suffered greatly.  I am constantly astounded by the strength, resilience, and optimism so many young people possess, especially against all odds and in situations more difficult than I will ever know.

Many of us who have spent time in the field have also known young people who did not overcome the odds and were incarcerated, struggled with poverty, experienced homelessness, or died.

There's one young person in particular who stands out in my mind. I was 26 and fresh out of law school when he appeared in my office at the shelter program. He was a soft-spoken kid, slight, and a bit guarded with jaundiced eyes. He was 18 and had just become a new dad. He was trying hard to pull his life together to be there for his son and needed some help. 

Two years later, he was dead from uncontrolled hepatitis.

His death, as far as I'm concerned, was entirely preventable. It was the result of not having the connections, relationships, resources, or supports he needed—after spending years in foster care. He became homeless soon after aging out. Without a stable place to live and regular access to health care, he could not always get his medication or have a place to safely keep it. He died from a treatable disease that many people live full lives with when they receive proper care.  

With nowhere to go after turning 18 in his group home—one of many places where he passed his teenaged years—he bounced around and stayed with friends but sometimes stayed in places and with people he did not know. Other times he slept in parks or abandoned buildings. The story is familiar.  How could it not be? A small city's worth of young people—20,000—age out of foster care every year in the United States.

Twenty years later, I still have his memorial card.

Although reasons for entering foster care vary, we know neglect is the most common reason and that poverty is nearly always present. We know that Black youth, like the young person I'm remembering, are twice as likely to enter care as White kids.

Every day across the country children are separated from their families. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary. Other times it likely could have been avoided. In either scenario, state or county officials decide it is not possible for children or youth to stay with their families or caregivers. Professionals decide children would be better off in the temporary care of the government. When we separate families, our promise to children and parents is that we will get them back together as soon as safely possible and, in the interim, keep them safe with a relative or friend or a resource family when kin is not available. 

When we separate children from their parents, it causes trauma, even when necessary. Our promise is that removal is a path to promote the child's best interests and well-being.

In our hubris, we have believed systems can do better for children than their own families can.

In our myopia, parents are too often viewed as the problem.

In our thoughts and actions, families are too often viewed as replaceable.

After the young man I'm remembering died, his son went to live with his grandmother—the child's great grandmother. She was the greatest source of support in the young man's life. In the time I knew the young man, he visited her often but could not live with her due to public housing restrictions. Breaking those rules could have caused her to be evicted. The grandmother's ability to care for the child would be temporary. At best, she may be around to care for the little boy for a decade, maybe a little longer.

Over the years I've wondered about that little boy. He'd be 21 now, a year older than his father lived.

In some states, that little boy may now be a young person in extended foster care if the state provides that option and permanency was not achieved.

But everybody has people.

In child welfare, we have a history of failing to remember or failing to assign value to the people children have in their lives. We have a history of not looking hard enough for them and not supporting them when they are before us, whether they are found or step up to care for the child. Recent data tell us less than 50 percent of children who enter foster care are reunited with their families. Data also tell us that only 6 percent of children and youth typically exit foster care to live permanently with relatives other than the ones from whom they were removed. About 8 percent of all children and youth who enter care age out or are emancipated.

I met the young man I am remembering after he had turned 18. I don't know what the circumstances were that led to his placement in foster care so many years earlier. I did know he had a grandmother who loved him dearly and that he loved her. I know her life had not been easy and that she struggled with poverty. I wonder how different both of their lives could have been if support would have been available for the young man to go live with her as a child instead of entering foster care.

That we have a higher percentage of young people who age out than go to live permanently with other relatives is abhorrent; it is a tragedy.

These outcomes reflect our current system's lack of commitment to parents and relatives and ignores their capacities and desire to care for their children.

More equitable distribution and use of the billions of dollars currently spent on child welfare—which are spent mostly on foster care—would help to change this. Funding parity between foster care and kinship care and guardianship assistance would help change this. Investing even a fraction of those billions in families, relatives, and kinship care would make a difference. Helping families, kinship care providers, and guardians with costs associated with raising a child—just as we do with licensed foster parents—would go a long way to stemming the tide of children who enter foster care and never go home and those young people who leave care disconnected.

We should incentivize family preservation, reunification, kinship care, and guardianship instead of adoption alone.

We should never allow poverty and issues such as public housing restrictions stand in the way of a child living with a loving grandmother rather than entering foster care.

A young person who grew up in care should not die 2 years after aging out because of harsh and unstable life conditions.

We should not discharge young adults to lives of poverty and struggle after being their custodians for years.

We should not be so quick to give up on or discount what most children need most—their families.

An aunt or uncle, family friend, maybe even an older sibling may have been able to help had there been resources available to support them. Instead, those resources go to strangers.

People we wrote off long ago or never considered can or could now be viable options.

Of course we'd have less need for foster care and programs like Chafee if we were able to do more to address the conditions too many families are forced to endure—conditions they did not create but must face every day, conditions that exist and are sustained by our structures and systems in ways explicit and implicit.

We must not accept the inevitability of youth aging out of care.

It is a problem we have created.

We must stop viewing older youth as expendable. 

We can transition our thinking and our system to a place where aging out no longer occurs.

It begins by supporting families and ending unnecessary separation.

Most industries have byproducts. Child welfare is no exception.

To accept aging out as an unavoidable byproduct of the foster care industry is to perpetuate injustice.

To accept our failure to find permanence and connection for young people—after we have taken it from them and promised better—is unforgivable.

The time for a different way is before us.