Former foster kids need support

By By Spencer Merrick

By Spencer Merrick

College students are often under the impression that because they’ve grown up and moved out, they’ve left home. But the reality for most is that they’ve only moved to an extension of their home, complete with dishes from the old kitchen cupboard and regular phone calls to mom with laundry questions.

But how would things be if leaving home meant you would probably never see your family again, never have someone to call for help or advice and never have a place to stay if things got tough?

Such is all too often the case with children coming out of foster care. Although it might not be much, foster parents receive between $15 and $20 a day per child, depending on the level of care needed. This compensation only continues, however, until that foster child becomes a legal adult. At age 18, all compensation is cut off, and so is, in many cases, the care of the foster child. This creates a sudden dilemma for these kids8212;having often already come from abusive and impoverished situations, they are now left on their own without support or direction.

An Annie E. Casey Foundation study on youth aging out of foster care shows 60 percent of females have given birth, 90 percent have no health care, only about half have completed high school and they are more likely to become homeless or be involved in the criminal justice system. These sobering national statistics give us a glimpse of the magnitude of the problem.

The Utah Transition to Adult Living program is one of a few programs aimed at reducing these rates by making the shift from teenager to adult a little easier. The coordinator for the program, Jode Littlepage, was in foster care until age 16. Although she praised well-meaning foster parents, she referred to her own experience in foster care as “highly abusive” and “extremely negative,” and said that she often felt more like a paycheck than a child. She said she considers herself very fortunate, because she realized early on that the way out of her situation was education. As coordinator of the program, education is her focus.

“Whether they’re going to be the best mechanic or the best heart surgeon, they need an education,” Littlepage said.

Although resources such as tuition vouchers and career training help teenagers who are leaving foster care, one of the challenges for the Transition to Adult Living program is keeping track of them when they turn 18. Often, many who get out of foster care never want to look back. Many are emotionally scarred from abusive situations and from bouncing from home to home and have become extremely distrusting of anyone offering help. And so, instead of taking advantage of the resources available, they choose to bury their past. They vanish.

According to Littlepage, in 2007, Florida lost track of more than 500 foster children before they had even turned 18. Unfortunately, once they’re gone it’s almost impossible to contact them again. For this reason and others, Transition to Adult Living focuses on preparing foster youth for adulthood early on, instead of overwhelming them with unfamiliar resources and contacts once they’re no longer in custody.

The program helps these young adults obtain things such as a drivers’ licenses, adequate health care and housing options. It also creates life-starter kits that include both the necessities and the often overlooked small things that any college student would attest make living away from home more manageable8212;things such as salt shakers, silverware and dish rags.

But even with these resources, the most important thing we can give to any child aging out of foster care is a support group. There is a high demand for mentors from various programs that needs to be filled. These mentors are matched up with one or more teenagers who have left foster care. Their purpose is mainly to touch base with them somewhat regularly, be a reliable friend, and provide much-needed guidance. For these teenagers, just knowing that somebody truly cares about them can have a profound impact on their choices.

Although programs are in place to help, we as a community need to help give them a sense of belonging. We need to reach out to our vanished peers. Our help and general awareness toward now college-aged foster children coming out of the system could mean the difference between a successful transition to adulthood and another homeless statistic.

[email protected]

Spencer Merrick