But for thousands of kids in foster care it is a huge source of anxiety.
In states throughout the country, when kids turn 18 they age out of foster care. After suffering abuse and neglect at the hands of family members, bouncing between foster families, group homes and other facilities, and switching schools often, vulnerable teens reach “adulthood” and are left to fend for themselves.
According to studies conducted at Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, within four years of aging out of foster care more than thirty percent of the studies’ participants had experienced homelessness or had couch surfed, a quarter had not earned high school diplomas or GEDs and two thirds of women had been pregnant. It is little surprise, then, that young people who age out of foster care often end up living on the streets, spending time in prison and struggling to find work.
Think about it. How many of us were actually prepared to live on our own — without any support from family – at 18? Not many.
Shawna Thomas sure wasn’t.
“Knowing that I didn’t have family and wasn’t in the system, and was on my own, and an adult was a scary thing,” said Shawna, now 23.
Shawna was never taught how to budget. Within six months of aging out of foster care, she spent all of her money and racked up credit card debt. She was confused about which community college classes to register for, so she didn’t do well in her first semester. Upon learning she was pregnant, she moved eight times in one year just to have a roof over her head.
This month, a law took effect in California, making the state the latest to allow young people to stay in foster care until the age of 21.
It is a change that Shawna applauds. “I feel that if there were more resources and more time for those in foster care they would be a lot more successful,” Shawna said.
The Children’s Rights’ legal advocacy team has pushed for reforms in other states like New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, where children can now stay in foster care and receive services past their eighteenth birthdays. If states fail to reunify children with their families or place them in permanent adoptive families, the least they can do is continue to support them while they transition to adulthood.
Studies show that when youth stay in foster care until they are 21, it cuts their risk of homelessness and leads to more education and higher lifetime earnings. It also gives child welfare workers more time to help young people plan for their futures.
Shawna now has an apartment with her son, is in college and has two part time jobs, one as a peer mentor to young people aging out of California’s child welfare system. She said she is a lot better off than she was at 18, “but it took a while to get here.”
“I am happy that the government is finally realizing the need for this,” Shawna said.
Note: Photo used with permission of Orange County Register www.ocregister.com/articles/youth-334766-foster-thomas.html