A recent NPR story about Aging out of Foster Care brought many memories and emotions from days toiling in the trenches of non-profit mental health back to the forefront of my mind. As our kids near 18 many of us think about college for them, however, for 30,000 foster teens this year alone, the arrival of their 18th birthday means not the guided transition to college or the co-facilitated exploration of quasi-independent living, but the end of support altogether.
In a sense, at least at first glance, the core of this issue is money; yet I would argue that the true core of the issue is consciousness—the will of the group to see itself as a group, with no one beyond the reach of true caring. When I worked as a group home therapist, kids counted the days until turning 18—a time they imagined that they would magically have their own apartments, their own cars, girlfriends and good jobs (if they thought about work at all). Emancipation was the dream of freedom and a better life, but as the day actually neared, nerves became more the issue than elation and cold feet or not, those feet had to hit the road.
Even if the young person realized that they weren’t ready for the street (and acknowledged this), the state didn’t seem to care about that. In the end it often felt like we were pushing kids out of the nest that they had long proclaimed to hate… and it left me with a sick feeling in the gut—and a resolve that some day I would do something about it in whatever small way I could (although I still puzzle about what that might look like… blogging about it today is, I hope, a way to widen awareness and hope the best for ripple effects to find some sort of cumulative impact).
My two cents on this issue is that adulthood does not really begin in our culture until twenty-seven; therefore we would be kinder to conceptualize readiness for independent living for wards of states as at least somewhat older than eighteen. This is tricky in that you would not want to overly limit those ready for more autonomy, however, kids at marked disadvantage (such as foster kids and group home kids) need a net and a buffer between them and the street.
Given that the brain isn’t even fully developed until around 24, and many “system kids” have serious emotional wounds, on top of the typical levels of things like learning differences and poor executive function (i.e. decision-making capability) on top of their natural developmental lack of maturity, many kids are falling through the cracks—ending up pregnant themselves, on the streets and, too often, in prison. Not only is this a strain on our self-concept as kind and compassionate people, it also costs our society more in the long-run in so-called social services and in the criminal justice system than if we were pro-active in just helping them make the transition to adulthood.
Working in the system made me aware of just how ignorant I had been about both the face of abuse, neglect and abandonment and also the scope and scale of it. For Angelenos, you might picture Staples center completely full and realize that is 19,000 seats; now imagine it half full again on top of that to picture just the teens aging out of foster care this single year—30,000 kids at unfair disadvantage of not going to college, of not having the sorts of lives we hope to support our children to have. Now imagine not just a faceless crowd, but all the kids you know, your kids and their friends sitting in those seats—if kids are really all our kids, then it is simply unacceptable to hang any of them out to dry.
I think of one kid who turned eighteen and left his group home with much pride and bravado, only to later turn out to be living in a cardboard box in the alley behind his former group home. In my mind he is the poster child for the situation as it stands. Or perhaps equally emblematic is the mentally unstable kid who left his group home only to end up squatting in an abandoned house… where he died with his fellow-squatters in a fire.
Although we don’t always treat our elderly with compassion either, there is some general sense that as a society we need to provide something (i.e. Medicare, Social Security), and we typically agree that “children” should not be left to fend for themselves on the streets. Is it possible that we all need some sort of help, but that we all have some sort of help to provide as well (including children and the elderly)? How old would you say that someone is when he or she no longer needs the help of the group? Do you think that a kid who has had a hard knock life should be cut-off at eighteen? And what about kids who have suffered terribly at the hands of their caregivers?
I apologize if this is depressing, but my point is for us to more consciously know that these kids, all our kids, are out there, lonely and frightened as we write and read. We may be personally limited in how much we can individually give right now to these kids, but we can still hold them in our minds—and I sincerely believe that even that makes a difference. And over time, such consciousness leads toward different choices for the group, toward a re-ordering of values and a greater weaving together of our community—and to the realization that the earth is our home, and it is a group home.