Shalita O’Neale and Susan Emfinger (Courtesy Photo fosteringchangenetwork.com)
Ask anyone in child welfare about foster youth aging out of the foster care system and you’re sure to hear about everything from high rates of incarceration, early parenting, homelessness, unemployment and discussion about mental health issues.
There are approximately 6,000 children in Maryland’s foster care system. Approximately 500 Maryland youth age out of the foster care system at 21 with the majority of those youth aging out of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. In January 2011, more than 650 unaccompanied homeless youth were documented in Baltimore by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health during a one day “census.”
Foster youth are not, repeat not, juvenile delinquents. In fact, youth come into the foster care system because of abuse and/or neglect in the home, or because of the death of their parents when all other suitable guardians from their biological families cannot be located or do not have the resources to care for them.
Once in the foster care system, foster youth are placed in homes with complete strangers that sometimes are just as dysfunctional, if not more, than the homes they were removed from. They move from home to home, foster family to foster family, and often from school system to school system, an average of twice a year. Often, they are labeled with a behavioral disorder and prescribed medication upon the slightest of evidence that they may not be easily controlled due to their emotional reactions to being removed from their family. They are almost never allowed to feel and express the pain, frustration and anger associated with being taken from the only “normality” they have ever known. Often, child welfare professionals wait to start asking foster youth about “life skills” until they’ve become teenagers with less than a few years to “age-out” when many have been in foster care multiple times since very young ages.
Organizations like Loving Arms Inc. and Hope Forward Inc. (both based in Baltimore City) are working extremely hard to address homelessness among young adults from the foster care system and in general by providing emergency and transitional housing support among other services like mental health support, employment assistance and connection to supportive networks.
After over 10 years of working within child welfare and 19 collective years living in kinship and foster care, I have begun to realize that organizations in the community will always struggle to provide services to these young adults for reasons that involve lack of adequate funding and lack of collaboration across organizations and systems. Progress of child welfare agencies will always be determined, and in some cases confined, by their leadership and the bureaucracy associated with how children are prepared for adulthood and stability after foster care. In my opinion, aggressive and lasting change will only come by empowering those individuals in and from the foster care system to create it.
Given all they go through, foster youth are pretty amazing people. In fact, some foster youth manage, through a combination of personal grit and some exceptional mentors, to do what every foster child deserves to have the opportunity to do: we achieve. We get an education. We pursue careers. We buy homes. We start our own families. We start our own businesses. We vote.
Shalita O’Neale is the Founder and CEO of Fostering Change Network, a Baltimore based network of alumni of the foster care system. Susan Emfinger is a Senior Consultant with the organization. The 2nd annual Alumni Networking Powerhouse Conference will be held in May. For more information go to fosteringchangenetwork.com or call 800-660-2338.