Would You Ask Your Child to Jump?

GOOD NEWS! On June 06, 2019, Governor John Bel Edwards signed legislation which extends foster care to age 21 for all youth in care on their 18th birthday. Louisiana is no longer asking children in foster care to jump! See: Governor Edwards Signs Bill Extending Foster Care to Age 21

Feb 22, 2019 – Ruston – Imagine sky diving with a torn ripcord. Would you? Perhaps a blindfold would help you feel better about it? At least with a blindfold, if the ripcord broke and your parachute did not open, you would not see your approaching doom.

When I think of children “aging out” of foster care, the worst kind of sky diving comes to mind.

This is why. For children who age out of foster care, their 18th birthday can be like a push from an airplane for a bad fall to the earth. Imagine being shoved out of a shaky flight with sprained ankles, one arm tied behind your back, a torn ripcord, no reserve parachute, and wearing a blindfold. Even for a professional skydiver, the odds are clearly against a safe landing under those conditions. For a child, such a fall portends doom.

A child’s odds for a successful leap into independent adulthood after “aging out” of foster care are not good either. The outcomes for these children do not include many safe landings.

The Impact of Foster Care on the Lives of Young Adults

Before we get to the experience of “aging out,” we should begin with the impact of being a foster child. I have created a chart comparing the life experiences of 23 and 24-year-olds who are former foster children with those of the general population.

OutcomeFormer Foster Children
(Ages 23 & 24)
General Population
(Ages 23 & 24)
No high school diploma or GED24.40%7.30%
Not employed52%24.50%
Average income from employment$12,064$20,349
Has Health Insurance57%78%
Males who have ever been arrested81.20%17.40%
Females who have been pregnant77%40.40%

The impact of having lived in foster care is evident. Merely being a foster child puts one at a significant disadvantage as one enters adulthood.

Here are bullet points from the National Conference of State Legislatures regarding outcomes for former foster children:

  • More than one in five will become homeless after age 18.
  • Only 58% will graduate high school by age 19 compared to 87% of all 19-year-olds.
  • 71% of young women are pregnancy by 21, facing higher rates of unemployment, criminal conviction, public assistance, and involvement in the child welfare system.
  • At the age of 24, only half are employed.
  • Fewer than 2% will earn a college degree by age 25 (compared to 28% of all 25-year-olds).
  • One in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of leaving the foster care system.

In the best of situations, being in foster care is an unfathomable experience for a child. The long-term consequences for a foster child who ages out of care are not good. Eighteen-year-olds who are without skills or supports because they were reared without stability or security enter adulthood in a hard way.

The Concept of Aging Out

Fortunately, most children do not age out of foster care. 53% of children who enter foster care are returned home to their parents. 20% will leave foster care to live with extended family. 20% will be adopted. 3% will eave foster care for “other” reasons including death, runaway, or being transferred to a different state agency. 4% will reach their 18th birthday while in foster care. Upon reach 18 years of age, a child is no longer a minor and becomes responsible for her own well-being.

Think about what it takes to age out. You were not returned to your family. You did not find the extended family to care for you. You were not adopted. You did not die, runaway or commit crimes sufficient to enter juvenile justice incarceration – (and that’s an excellent thing). No, you merely aged out.

Because you did not return to family, find extended family, become adopted, etc., you are without those permanent supports. You enter adulthood alone.

The Consequences of Aging Out

Because you were in foster care, the chances are incredibly high that you did not complete your education. You did not learn job skills. You do not have savings. You do not have someone to call when something goes “bump” in the night. You do not have someone to call when you fall and break a leg. You do not have a place to live. You do not have a job. You are not expecting a paycheck in the mail. You do not have a mailbox or an address.

You may have taken a class on buying groceries. You do not know how to buy groceries – not like a young adult who grew up at home learning to buy groceries by “osmosis” because their parents took them to the grocery store each week. But that’s okay – you do not have money to buy groceries. You spent it all on deposits for an apartment without furniture. You will need to save for that. You may have taken a class on how to open a bank account, but you have not been inside a bank often enough to feel safe in a bank. But that’s okay because you do not have a job. You do not have money from the job you do not have. You do not need a bank account.

Anyway, it would be difficult to get to the bank because you do not have transportation. Without money, you cannot buy gas. That may be okay because you do not have a car and even that may be okay, too, because chances are high that you do not have a drivers license. Your mom and dad are not likely to buy you a car, not even an old clunker. If you aged out of foster care following termination of parental rights, you may not even know where your mom or dad live.

These are examples of the conditions a child who ages out of foster care faces. These few preceding paragraphs offer only a glimpse. Simply put, there are no safe landings for children who age out at 18.

The data clearly indicate the deficits which encumber a child who ages out of foster care. It is personal. For most adults, foster care is invisible, and children who age out of foster care are invisible. Unless we know the child, we are unaware of the potential that she has lost – through no fault of her own.

What we often overlook, too, is the cost to society. The expenses incurred by governments – and further upstream, by those who fund governments through taxes – and even further upstream, by all those who would have benefited if the child had been given the opportunities necessary to develop their skills at art, medicine, accounting, politics, education – you get the idea. All of us lose when children age out. We lose even more when they age out without supports and services.

Foster Care to 21 is the Answer

Foster care to 21 is a significant step in the right direction for children in foster care and for all of us who will benefit from their success. If you have ever helped one of your own children after their 18th birthday, you know how much assistance young adults can require.

Help a child forced to jump – in the worse sort of way – land on their feet. Help save the lives and lifetimes of children who age out of foster care. Support foster care to 21.

Rick Wheat

1. Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Ages 23 and 24 by Mark Courtney, Amy Dworsky, JoAnn Lee and Melissa Raap.
2. Extending Foster Care Beyond 18. http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/extending-foster-care-to-18.aspx