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. You will surely be told about the very high rates of homelessness among former foster youth ages 18-25 in Baltimore City and across the country. In 1995, The National Alliance to End Homelessness commissioned a study to establish whether there were substantial links between foster care and homelessness. More recent statistics include the following:
• Approximately 400,000 youth are currently in foster care in the United States. Approximately 20,000 of those youth age-out each year without positive familial supports or any family connection at all.
• Within 18 months of emancipation 40-50% of foster youth become homeless.
• Nationally, 50% of the homeless population spent time in foster care.
• A history of foster care correlates with becoming homeless at an earlier age and remaining homeless for a longer period of time.
• 65% of youth leaving foster care need immediate housing upon discharge.
• The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that 5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness, or suicide.
Challenging what you know about Foster Care: 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.
Here is the good news:
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.
From its headquarters here in Maryland, Fostering Change Network is building a global network of “alumni” of the foster care system. Through the legitimacy and the mutual respect that can only come from a deeply felt, shared experience, we are building an alumni network of career professionals, business and social entrepreneurs that stretches to every US State and to other countries. Through our annual Alumni Powerhouse Networking Conference, we convene to share ideas, to encourage each other’s many strengths and to challenge each other to do our best in whatever life path we choose. We believe that when young people in and adults from the foster care system can identify with positive role models and peers who share their experience, they will be able to identify what success could look like for themselves and they will be empowered to strive for it. Fostering Change Network seeks to provide the collective mentorship and professional guidance needed so alumni of foster care can unite to create solutions for themselves.
Our inaugural conference in May of this year featured a millionaire insurance executive, the founder of one of the US’s top signature events companies, music industry giant DMC (Founder of the legendary hip-hop group Run DMC), a number of Ivy League graduates as well as social and human services entrepreneurs from across the country with one common thread - they were all Alumni of foster care. In May 2016, the 2nd inaugural Alumni Networking Powerhouse Conference will reconvene to continue this momentum, with two days full of motivation and inspiration planned for Alumni/Adoptees of foster care by Alumni/Adoptees of foster care.
My Call to Action is asking alumni of foster care of all ages and all backgrounds to step forward and out of the comfort of anonymity to be involved in a movement that will dispel the myth about us. I ask that you step forward to be a part of a movement that will allow us to pool our own resources in a way that will create opportunities for our brothers and sisters in and from the foster care system. It doesn’t matter if you’ve aged-out of foster care, were adopted out of foster care, spent a couple of years in foster care and returned home or spent time in kinship care. We are all family. We are Alumni Successes. We cannot allow the negativity associated with foster care to drown out our accomplishments and diminish our value to our communities, to this country or to this world.
WE ARE CALLING ON FOSTER FOCUS MAGAZINE’S READERS TO HELP US SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT THIS CONFERENCE AND ABOUT FOSTERING CHANGE NETWORK.
If you know a person who has been in foster care who is now pursuing a career, who is now building a business or who simply seeks to be with people who “get” them, please let him or her know about this conference. If you are a business leader and alum of foster care, but you have never revealed your foster care story: please call us. On a confidential basis, we can work with you to become involved as openly or as privately as you wish. Just make the call, and experience the joy of knowing what a difference your personal example and story can make.