The Consequences of Being Forgotten

nj_aging_out_homeless_teenEven the briefest of stays in foster care is traumatic for children. After being abused or neglected in their own homes, these kids are torn from all that they know, dumped into an unfamiliar home — or, worse, an institution — perhaps miles away from relatives and friends, and often enrolled in a different school without a familiar face in sight. It can be a nightmare.

But imagine if no one ever came to rescue you from that nightmare, and each day was one step closer to a bleak existence plagued by poverty, uncertainty, and insecurity.

Every year, thousands and thousands of young adults wake up to the morning when they have neither a permanent family nor the support of the state foster care agency. In fact, for each of the years 2007 through 2009, more than 28,000 youth nationwide age out of foster care.

That’s more than 75 every single day.

The consequences can be devastating. Studies show that as many as 30 percent of young adults aging out of foster care are homeless at some point in their lives. As much as half that group leave state custody unemployed — and many who have jobs earn below the poverty rate. They also face a higher likelihood of unplanned pregnancy and suffer mental health problems at a much higher rate than the general population.

That’s why it’s critical that states do everything they can to equip young adults while they’re in foster care with the education, training, and skills they need to survive and thrive after they leave foster care — and why it’s so disappointing when a state fails to live up to its responsibility.

New Jersey, unfortunately, has fallen into that category. While the state has made impressive strides in many reforms over the last five years, spurred by Children’s Rights’ reform campaign, its efforts fall short for the older youth in foster care. The independent monitor appointed by the federal court tracking the progress of mandated reform recently issued a report — based on a review of 205 case files — spotlighting several areas where the state needs to make dramatic improvements:

Those are just a few of the numerous shortcomings cited in the (PDF) — which also praised the state agency for continued improvement in several fundamental concerns for foster care in general. New Jersey is just one state among many that must step up their efforts in supporting young adults as they exit foster care.

A 2010 monitoring report (PDF) from Michigan found that the state experienced a 28 percent spike in the number of youth leaving state custody without a family. As a part of the investigation that led to our (PDF), we found that more than 900 youth age out of foster care there each year, many of whom are far too ill-prepared for life as adults. And, in 2010, a federal judge slammed child welfare officials in Washington, DC, for their inadequate support of older kids in foster care — and ordered the District to allocate more money expressly for that purpose.

Even though the nation’s foster care populations have been decreasing, kids are actually spending more time in foster care today than they were a decade ago. And the longer a child spends in foster care, the greater the chance he or she won’t return home or be adopted. So while the goal for all kids in foster care should be to get them to a permanent family — preferably their own — its pursuit shouldn’t supersede the care and support that youth aging out of the system desperately need.

No child should ever be forgotten. No state should ever assume a youth at 18, 19, 20, or even 21 years old can figure out how to get by. Not one of the 75 young adults who woke up this morning without a family or state support should ever ask “What do I do now?” and not have somewhere to turn for an answer.

At Children’s Rights, we continue our fight across the country to make sure that all those who age out of foster care do so with a net beneath them, with helping hands at every turn — so that they, too, can have a real shot at success.