At 18 years old, you find yourself completely on your own- no place to call home, no family to spend the holidays with, nobody to turn to for help or support, no drivers license and no way to pay for college or housing.
This is what happens to about 1,600 teenagers in Pennsylvania each year when they “age out” of the foster care system without a permanent family. Many youth who age out face many problems without a family to support them.
The Pew Charitable Trust report titled “Kids Are Waiting: Fix Foster Care Now,” says, the need for a family doesn’t end when a child turns 18. It says, “Aging out of foster care without a permanent family means no one to walk you down the aisle when you get married, no one to cheer you on during your successes or comfort you during hard times,no one to be a grandparent to your children or celebrate the holidays with.”
Students of Dr. Michelle Filling, assistant professor of English, learned the reality of foster children and the foster care system through taking ECG 100: From Dreams to Action this past fall semester, as well as now through the class called On Their Own: Youth in America.
Students start by learning about family, education, race, class and gender issues, which then leads into learning about foster care. Members of the Youth Advisory Board, comprised of youth who aged out of the foster care system, come to campus and share their personal stories with students.
“As dramatic as their stories are, they all have a positive outlook on life, which is surprising,” Filling said. “The YAB students don’t want you to feel sorry for them; they just want to share their experiences so others can see what made them who they are.”
Rachel Buttaro, junior English major and Filling’s classroom coach, said, “I had always imagined that people in the foster care program were with shelter and a family to care for them, but this stereotype I had engrained in my mind was proved wrong after listening to the Youth Advisory Board and hearing each of their life stories.”
While some youth do remain close with previous foster care families, the majority are left completely on their own at age 18. Some had foster families when they aged-out, but since the family no longer receives funds from the government, most youth will no longer live there or receive money or support.
In their 2009 report, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children explains that “foster care is meant to be a temporary intervention to assure the safety and well-being of a child.” Although most enter foster care due to abuse or neglect, the removal from home is a dramatic experience for children.
In addition, children are often moved among numerous foster families, which separates children from new friends and siblings and often forces children to change schools, which can sometimes put children behind a grade if they move around too much.
“A lot of emotional scarring happens when you don’t have a stable home and the right people around to support you,” Filling said. “To be jostled around is a lot of stress on a child or teenager.”
The ultimate goal of foster care is adoption. However, the older a child is when they enter foster care the less likely adoption becomes,since most families want young children rather than teenagers.
The Pew Charitable Trust report states that of foster youth who age out of the system, 25 percent will be in prison within the first two years after they leave the system, over 20 percent will become homeless at some time and only 58 percent receive a high school degree by age 19, compared to the national average of 87 percent. Only three percent will receive a four-year college degree.
Filling’s class did an exercise in which groups of students were given different scenarios of a foster child’s story, such as being pregnant, having credit card debt, just getting out of prison and more. They were given a budget in which they had to take into account food, bills, clothes, and transportation. Many realized how hard it would be to live completely on their own at this age.
“What I took away from Dr. Filling’s class was a genuine interest for helping foster care youth. The way that we got to interact with the kids and be put in their shoes for certain exercises definitely gave a broader outlook to how fortunate the majority of us are,” Rachael Semone, freshman math major, said.
“I wish Cabrini students would appreciate the fact that they have a family or some type of support system to rely on when things get rough, because most foster kids do not have that privilege,” Donald Powell, freshman psychology and criminology major, said.
Aging-out, which refers to the number of youth who leave foster care because of their age, has been increasing. In 2005, the number of youth who aged out of the system rose by 41 percent since 1998.
Justin Lee, practice improvement specialist for the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Training Program, said that Pennsylvania is working to reform the foster care system. One part of reform would be letting youth in desperate situations re-enter the system.
“Outcomes improve when kids stay in the system longer,” Lee said. “We want to give youth more time to get on their feet and find permanent resources.”
Lee said that students can help advocate for change for the foster care system. He said, “Students can gain awareness and knowledge of how many youth the system is affecting. Then they can advocate for their peers, because they probably went to high school or college with them, and they can talk about foster care issues with legislators and be an ally for the Youth Advisory Board.”
Semone said, “If other people, in general, would just take the time to listen to foster youth and be more open to hearing what they have to say then I feel like more would be done to benefit the foster children. It’s not something that once you’re out of you’re away from it forever. That’s their childhood and their life.”