Youth who age out of foster care without a strong, unconditional connection to an adult are at great risk. Their rates of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and early pregnancy are very high. These are the kids who “couch surf”, often not knowing where they will sleep tomorrow night. They live in survival-mode and, consequently, have little energy to pursue goals like continuing their education or holding down a first job.
Plummer Youth Promise and others have focused attention on these youth and worked hard to make sure that they exit care with that vital adult connection. It has sometimes been a challenging process. People who are interested in foster parenting typically are not picturing an older teen as their future foster child. And older youth are often more focused on independence than on building relationships with people who could become their families.
The reality of coronavirus has made things even more difficult for older youth in foster care, as well as those who have recently aged out. Consider the foster youth who has been living in a dorm while attending college. When their dorm closed down, where could they go? Without safe alternatives, what was the couch-surfing youth to do when suddenly the places where they used to crash no longer welcomed them? Agencies and institutions have been scrambling to come up with alternatives for older youth at risk, but ready solutions are hard to find.
We hope that the “new-normal” that follows this pandemic includes a greater awareness of the needs of kids exiting foster care, and a stronger commitment to meet those needs. There are no easy answers – but the most important step is to prevent these kids from ending up in these unsafe situations to begin with. Working with kids and families toward the goal of a child leaving care with a permanent family needs to start immediately when any child enters the foster care system.
Foster parents can be part of the solution. We can find creative ways to help older youth and potential foster parents to connect with each other. We can invite foster parents to take a greater role in helping kids prepare for leaving care. That might involve a foster parent being an important member of a team working together with a youth to ensure that needed supports are in place. It might involve a foster parent working more closely with a youth’s birth parent in order for reunification to succeed. It might involve a foster parent asking a youth to become a permanent family member through adoption.
Although it does not feel like it now, the current crisis will end. Until then, we are working hard every day to find permanent families for every young person we serve. And, when it does end, we plan to double down on our efforts to ensure that our vulnerable youth all have stable, lifelong connections … in good times and in bad.
by Diane Kindler