We have known for some time that outcomes are not great for youth who age out of foster care. Several studies¹ conducted over the last decade or so have confirmed what most child welfare professionals have known for a while: the foster care system does not do well as a parent and is even worse in helping youth make successful transitions to adulthood. The Fostering Connections to Success legislation has offered some additional options for young people aging out, including extended care to age 21 years. We have yet to see what this will mean in terms of long-term outcomes for youth aging out. As we all know, there is no ‘magical age’ when every young person is able to be truly self-sufficient and successfully manage their lives. This is particularly problematic for young adults who essentially have no parent, as public child welfare systems did not get the memo about the life-long commitment of parenting.
This approach might be characterized as similar to the expression in medicine, “treat ’em and street ’em”. This clearly is not an effective way to ensure success of youth leaving the foster care system. [The foster care equivalent might be better described as “place ’em and street ’em”. It doesn’t sound nearly as catchy but it is probably more accurate and descriptive of the sad reality.] Child welfare professionals know the challenge of working with youth who have aged out of foster care–after what is often a negative experience, they tend to be less than thrilled to trust and continue on with an often dysfunctional system. Actually, this attitude is not unique to the foster care system. Most young adults are eager to leave the watchful eye of their parent(s) and experience the perceived freedom of adulthood. Of course, the responsibility piece is where they often return to their parent(s) for assistance and guidance. In the case of foster care, the ‘parent’ is generally MIA when it comes to supporting their alumni.
This has me thinking that maybe child welfare could learn a few things from 12-step programs. After a person completes the structured ‘treatment’ phase, they are strongly encouraged to participate in less formal supports such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. What if there were ‘Foster Care Anonymous‘ meetings for young adults (and maybe youth as well) where informal support is provided? These meetings could include a free meal, donated by local restaurants or individuals. (This would probably be better than the coffee and cigarettes often associated with AA or NA meetings.) Anyone who has ever hosted a meeting knows that free food can be a great motivator to encourage attendance. Given the fact that, for youth who have aged out of foster care, food insecurity is often an issue, a meal might provide incentive to attend. Other ‘perks’ might be offered as well, such as freebies from local businesses (discount coupons, passes to community events, or free movie rentals). In cold climates, spending time in a warm room may be a big draw in and of itself for young people who often experience homelessness after leaving foster care.
These meetings could be sponsored by organizations such as YMCA or YWCA, churches, libraries, and other community organizations. Volunteers could facilitate meetings that focus on non-judgemental problem-solving and emotional support. Including former foster youth who have successfully transitioned to adulthood would be particularly valuable. Having a ready list of community supports such as food pantries, homeless shelters, and health care services would help to connect youth to local resources.
This concept could provide an excellent opportunity to engage community volunteers and increase understanding of the challenges faced by former foster youth. A sponsoring organization might choose to go further and establish additional activities such as community gardens, food preparation classes, and assistance with college applications or other student supports. The informal nature (ie: attendance not mandated, managed by non-professionals) would likely appeal to youth and young adults. Providing the meetings on a consistent schedule would promote attendance by ‘drop-ins’ who might eventually experience enough benefit to participate regularly.
Obviously, public child welfare systems cannot provide indefinite support to youth who have aged out of foster care. This type of model would promote community engagement and investment in ensuring the success of youth aging out of care. Eventually, like AA and NA, there could be a network of such meetings throughout the country, providing the support and encouragement that all young adults need to successful transition to adulthood.
I may need to add this to my list of 101 Ways to Get Involved in Foster Care.
¹Casey Family Programs. Improving Outcomes for Older Youth
in Foster Care. Seattle,Wash.: Casey Family Programs, 2008.