July 26, 2011
Just a few weeks ago, on the 4th of July, America again celebrated its independence. The very word “independence” evokes positive images and sentiments worthy of celebration: the freedom to be who one chooses, the ability to carve one’s own path, the right to determine one’s own destiny. For one group in our country, however, independence seldom affords any of those opportunities: the nearly 28,000 youth who “age out” of foster care each year.
These young men and women are legally emancipated to make it on their own, but usually without families or resources to help them, so they are left to travel a road to nowhere. In disproportionate numbers, they wind up pregnant, on the street, out of school, or in jail.
State governments typically take custody of these boys and girls as children because they were being abused or neglected, with the implicit promise that they will be given safer, better lives. But too many wind up being shuttled from home to home, from school to school. Too many are never returned to their original families or moved into new ones, are never connected with adults who stick with them and guide them, and are never provided with the developmental, emotional and social benefits that are best achieved through permanency. And then, when they reach the age of 18 or 21, they are granted their independence.
Simply put, as a society, we have failed them.
A new report by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, entitled “Never Too Old,” points out that while adoptions of younger children from foster care have been rising significantly, the success rate for older ones remains anemic. The report examines the array of state and federal initiatives that focus on these youth – and finds many to be effective or promising – but concludes that far more needs to be done; suggests that these young people should become a national priority; and recommends steps to achieve greater progress for them.
In keeping with the Institute’s focus on permanency for all children, “Never Too Old” looks not just at adoption, but at reunification, subsidized guardianship, long-term foster care, and other effective approaches that can achieve lasting, supportive connections. The Institute’s recommendations, based on over a year of research and analysis, include:
- Increase recruitment, support and utilization of relatives as permanency resources for youth, both through adoption and subsidized guardianships
- Work for true permanency for every youth, meaning a family or enduring adult connection; emancipation, “independent living” and the like should be last resorts – not goals.
- Assess controversial steps such as restoring the rights of biological parents whose children were removed from their homes, and conduct more research into what works and doesn’t.
How many of us believe our sons and daughters – even when they have had stable upbringings in affluent families, have received solid educations and have blossomed into thoughtful, mature young people – are ready to make it alone in the world without guidance, resources or support from family members or other adults?
A core conclusion in the Adoption Institute report, based on research and experience, is that permanent, emotionally sustaining and committed relationships are imperative for all youth to reach self-sufficiency and to thrive in early adulthood. Yet the proportion of those in foster care who are being granted their “independence,” without any such help, has grown from about 7 percent in FY 1998 to 11 percent in FY 2010.
For our country, the social and economic consequences of this national embarrassment are significant. For the young people who urgently need our help, the toll is incalculable.