Your 18th birthday is fast approaching. You have those excited butterflies in your stomach thinking about the freedom adulthood will finally bring. You have your college all picked out and you’re excited to spread your wings come fall. Your parents have supported you and cheered you on, but have also assured you there is a safety net at home if you need it. You’ve picked out your major and you have everything you need for the next chapter of your life. You’re excited. You’re finally 18.
Now picture this…
Your 18th birthday is fast approaching. Instead of being excited like the other kids in your school, you are full of anxiety. You’ve spent the majority of your life in and out of foster care. You’ve never really known where you would end up next. You see 18 as the floor dropping out from under you and you have no idea where you will land. It’s your dream to go to college and make something of yourself, but you have no clue how to make that happen. You’re terrified. You feel like you’re much older than 18.
For teens in foster care, turning 18 offers a very different reality. They don’t have that safe place to call home. The home most of us can go to when things get hard. Or call when we need advice. While nothing compares to the forever family every child deserves, there are systems and resources in place for teens who are at risk of “aging out” of the foster care system.
So, you’re in foster care and are nearing 18. Now what?
Indiana DCS has a division for Older Youth Initiatives, which includes multiple programs that can begin as early as when a teen turns 16. Older Youth Services is designed to help teens who are likely to turn 18 while in foster care. It gives them access to resources that will help them transition successfully into adulthood. These resources include things like housing assistance, medical insurance, driver’s education, specialized career training and college bridge programs, to name a few. The purpose of all of these resources: to teach older youth how to function independently, and to equip them with life skills they’ll need but may not have been taught to them previously.
Older Youth Services, like all of the Older Youth Initiatives, is designed to meet the individual’s specific needs, and the teams that offer these services around the state understand that each teen comes to the program at a different point in their life path. Not every foster youth who turns 18 will be at the same place in life. Some have a high school diploma while others don’t. Some are ready to live independently while others are not quite there yet. Some may be hoping to pursue a college degree while others are looking to start their first job. The program is specifically intended to offer a breadth of services that can be tailored to what each youth needs.
This is one of the things that is most appealing about the program – for teens and case managers alike! Sharan Abdullah, an OYS case manager at Children’s Bureau, shared that she’s had youth on her caseload who want to attend college, so she assists them in identifying which schools to apply to – and even helps with completing the college applications (a task that can be daunting to any applicant!). And, as Sharan notes, “it’s a humbling experience to witness the excitement on a kid’s face when they show me a college acceptance letter. For them, that letter is the realization of their personal value and ability to be more than just another ‘foster care kid.’”
What is Collaborative Care?
You may have heard about a program called Collaborative Care. This is essentially extended foster care, and allows teens to voluntarily stay in foster care until they are 21. This exists to help teens and young adults transition to self-sufficiency. Collaborative Care can help with several different types of independent living settings (i.e., host home, college dorm, shared housing or apartment) and can assist with rent, utilities, food, clothing and networking. Not all former foster youth are eligible for Collaborative Care, though. In order to participate in this program, a youth must be pursuing an education (high school, GED, trade school, post-secondary education, etc.); participating in an Independent Living Program; employed at least 80 hours/month; or have a medical condition that prevents them from meeting one of the above criteria. A Collaborative Care Case Manager works with the youth to ensure that they are meeting their responsibilities and are actively involved in planning for their future.
OK, so then what happens at 21?
Some older youth need additional support even after they turn 21, so Indiana also offers a program called Voluntary Older Youth Services, which can help youth by providing them with resources until their 23rd birthday. Similar to the other older youth programs, the Voluntary Older Youth Services provide the youth with a case manager, with whom they work to develop a plan to achieve independence and accept personal responsibility by the time they are 23. The goal of this program (and all Older Youth Services programs) is to set each individual up for success. That may look different to each person, but showing them what is possible and helping them achieve it are the ultimate goals.
Does this mean that older youth don’t need permanent families because they have resources until they’re 23?
Absolutely not! The reality is that youth who age out of foster care, whether they’re 18 or 21 or 23, have significantly worse outcomes than youth who have been raised in loving, stable homes. Every year, over 24,000 teens age out of foster care in this country. 24,000. That’s a big number. And even more sobering are the national studies that show that for these teens, life gets harder. (A lot harder.) Consider these statistics for youth who have aged out of foster care. Within 2-4 years of leaving foster care:
- 40% were homeless
- 40% experienced drug or alcohol use
- 46% had not finished high school
- 51% were unemployed
- 84% were parents
What can you do to help if you don’t work in child welfare?
Lots! Indiana is fortunate to have an outstanding resource in Foster Success, an organization that actively supports young adults who are aging out of the system. Their programs focus on education, healthcare, finances, and employment – and are designed to empower the young adults and give them opportunities to thrive in their communities. We’re big fans of Foster Success, and encourage you to learn more about them at their website.
Other things you can do: Become a mentor or volunteer with an organization like Trusted Mentors. (There is also a national mentor registry at MENTOR National – they have over 5,000 partners around the country!) Donate to a local organization that coordinates gathering supplies that youth will need when they get their first apartment – these young adults will need everything from lamps to towels to measuring cups.
If you’re an employer, maybe you can offer training opportunities or a job to a youth who is on their own. If you’re a landlord, maybe you can offer housing to youth who are getting on their feet after aging out (or if you’re a realtor, you can help make some connections with landlords). If you’re a mental health professional, consider getting involved with A Home Within, which offers free therapy to current and former foster youth. (They don’t currently have an Indiana chapter, but you can still volunteer your services.)
And if you’ve ever thought about adopting, this is the perfect opportunity to take that next step – and the most in-need population! There are so many great reasons to consider adopting a teenager – you can learn more about it directly from families who have taken the leap! (Seriously, if you’re interested in learning more, there’s a very easy form to fill out on our website.) We know that every child, regardless of age, deserves a place to call home and a family to call their own. For those who aren’t able to have that, we’re thankful for the people who support young adults through the older youth programs around the state. But think how much better it would be to change the statistics and provide loving, stable, committed families for these young people instead.