Significant Issues Faced by Youth Aging out of Foster Care
In 2018 there were over 438,000 children in the United States foster care system and more children are being added every day (“Foster). These children have often seen or felt horrible forms of abuse or neglect. They are usually left in the system for months at a time and some children will spend their entire childhood in foster care. However, once a foster youth turns 18 or 19, depending on the state they age out of, they are simply left without any type of assistance or support. Homelessness, mental health problems, and poor relationships are three prominent issues faced by teenagers as they age out of the foster care system in the United States.
Every year over 20,000 students age out of the foster care system (Hokanson et al. 142). Aging out of foster care occurs when a teenager in the foster care system has not been adopted. The official age when a student ages out depends on the state but for most states it is when the student turns 18 or 19. Of the 20,000 teenagers who age out every year only three percent will earn a college degree, one in every two will develop substance abuse problems, and 60 percent of boys who age out will have been convicted of a crime (Sorrell). The reason so many of these teenagers struggle is that they are often simply kicked out and left on their own as soon as their birthday arrives. The teenagers have sometimes been on their own or left to themselves for a long period of time, however after they leave the foster care system, they no longer have a source of income or anyone checking on their wellbeing. These challenges lead to high numbers of teenagers who are homeless.
A study done by The National Alliance to End Homelessness in 1995 found that within 18 months of emancipation 40-50% of foster youth became homeless. Since then those numbers have continued to increase. In fact, the article “From Foster Home to Homeless” wrote “Indeed, the back door of the foster care system is the front door of the homeless system” (3). Teenagers often struggle to find affordable housing and a job after aging out of the foster care system. Many students in the foster care system do not graduate with a high school degree and if they are lucky enough to earn a diploma they do not usually have the funds or resources to be able to continue to college. While some may argue that there is affordable government housing specifically available for people in similar situations, foster youth struggle to accept aid. Research has found that “Youth formerly in foster care often discuss feeling internal and external pressure to attain total independence…This may be an artifact of experiencing continual disappointments by adults or needing to assume adult responsibilities during formative developmental stages, a life experience not typical of their peers who have not been in foster care” (Hokanson et al. 143). Foster youth often experience traumatic experiences during childhood that cause them to not be able to place their trust in adults. Instead they choose to be completely self-reliant which may include not accepting handouts like free or reduced housing options from the government or any other resource.
The trauma foster youth often experience also leads to severe mental health problems. One study concluded, “The range of mental health issues that is evident among foster children is vast and varied, and includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic and anxiety disorders, major depression and drug/alcohol abuse” (Howard). The same study also found that it is estimated that almost 80% of children in the foster care system suffer from a significant mental health issue. Foster youth who struggle with mental health concerns often try to hide their concerns because they want to try to seem self-reliant. Because foster youth often refuse help, they are left to learn to cope with significant mental health issues on their own. That can lead to higher incarceration rates and a difficulty finding and keeping jobs (Nybell et al. 293). Once youth age out of the foster care system there is usually no one on their side to defend them or advocate for their mental health issues. They are left on their own and without treatment their conditions can continue to get worse. With no significant adult relationships in their lives these youth generally have nobody to help them learn management skills and receive the help they need.
There are many services that work to pair foster youth with one stable adult figure to be a mentor or advisee for that youth. However, “…a connection to just one adult is insufficient to meet the relational and support needs of youth” (Best 1). Foster youth have often experienced abuse from a trusted adult in their childhood and as a result have a difficult time trusting and opening up to adults (Hokanson et al. 143). Adults must be extremely patient and calm when earning a foster youth’s trust. Many youths in foster care have been taking care of younger siblings for long periods of time and had to grow up early to be able to survive from young ages (Hokanson et al. 153). They have been on their own or taking care of younger children for so long that they view themselves as completely independent and believe that they can survive on their own without help. “These children maintain the idea that caregivers are a source of inconsistency and fear, not a source of safety or nurture. This viewpoint…results in inconsistent relationships and difficulty forming and maintaining relationships” (Miranda et al. 399). Foster youth develop self-reliance skills at a young age and close their walls to avoid being hurt by adults again. Once youth age out of the system they have an even more difficult time forming relationships. They have a hard time keeping jobs and housing because they feel like they cannot open up to or trust anyone in their lives. They keep everyone at arm’s length and because they lose their case worker and assistance when they age out, they are often left all alone with no one to help them. This is why it is so important for mentors to take the time to create strong relationships with foster youth before they age out of the system.
Three leading issues that foster youth face after aging out of the foster care system in the United States are homelessness, mental health issues, and poor adult relationships. Youth often have no support or known resources when they age out of foster care and many would not use the resources or accept aid if they did know about it. These youth often end up homeless due to an inability to keep jobs and other factors such as a strong sense of self-reliance. They can struggle with significant mental health issues such as post traumatic stress disorder due to the trauma they witness and experience as children. That trauma also causes them to have little to no close relationships with other adults because they struggle to trust adults in their lives. Foster youth need to be nurtured and supported to allow for a positive transition out of care and to the next chapter of their lives.
- Best, Jared I., and Jennifer E. Blakeslee. “Perspectives of Youth Aging out of Foster Care on Relationship Strength and Closeness in Their Support Networks.” Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 108, 2020, p. 104626., doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.104626.
- “Foster Care Facts and Figures.” Families Helping Families of Iowa, 2 Sept. 2020, www.familieshelpingfamiliesofiowa.org/about/facts-figures/.
- “From Foster Home to Homeless.” The Annie E. Casey Foundation, June 2014, www.aecf.org/resources/from-foster-home-to-homeless/.
- Hokanson, Kim, et al. “Not Independent Enough’: Exploring the Tension Between Independence and Interdependence among Former Youth in Foster Care Who Are Emerging Adults.” Child Welfare, vol. 97, no. 5, Sept. 2019, pp. 141-157. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true