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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The safety net for young people aging out of foster care is a fantasy

Jenny Downing

State of Opportunity will air a documentary on foster care on Thursday, October 30. In the lead-up to Thursday, we're publishing a series of articles that explore specific aspects of the foster care system, and some of the challenges kids within that system face.

For many young adults who have aged out of the foster care system, myself included, the hardest part isn’t actually being in care.

The hardest part is leaving care.

Don’t get me wrong – leaving isn’t hard because young people miss being in foster care. Leaving foster care is the hardest part because the vast majority of young people aren’t aging out with the resources, support, and skills they need to lead a successful and happy life.

Or any life at all, for that matter.

In a country where half of college grads still rely on financial assistance from their family two years after receiving their diplomas, former foster youth who don’t have that same support are at a major disadvantage. Beyond simply receiving financial support, 31% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 still live with their parents, which means free laundry, home-cooked meals, no electricity bill to pay, and so on.

For young people who have experienced time in foster care, those things are mere fantasy.

But it’s not just about money and home-cooked meals. The experience of foster care continues to affect a person in multiple areas of life. The simple conversation opener, “where are you from?” can be difficult for former foster youth to answer without disclosing their experiences. Holiday plans, such as where to go for Thanksgiving, can be an annual concern, along with the quest for belonging.

Other questions former foster youth struggle to find answers to range from “who is going to co-sign for me to get a car, or a loan for a house?” to “when I get married, who is going to walk me down the aisle?” 

Chris Harris, director of the Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University, says alumni of the foster care system at least deserve a support system that matches one provided to “traditional” youth. That’s what campus-based support programs in Michigan strive to provide – a refuge for students, many of whom do not have one waiting for them after leaving care.

Transition in general is hard for most young adults today. But it’s even harder for foster care alumni due to the impact of trauma, lack of preparation, and missing support system, Harris says.

A new Seita program component called the Graduation Preparation Seminar (GPS) was piloted last month to help prepare students for important transitions, like graduating from college. A handful of students with various majors and career interests but a common experience of foster care sat around a conference table with a checklist – sort of a road map to graduation. Some of the issues raised by seniors included resume building assistance, interview tips, and even fashion advice on how to dress professionally.

Innovative programs like GPS are just one way to improve long-term outcomes for former foster youth. Others include systematic changes, such as focusing on interdependence over independence and smaller caseloads so workers can form a better bond with youth, says senior Seita Campus Coach Ronicka Hamilton.

But, as Sarah Alvarez reported earlier this week, the Michigan child welfare system still has a long way to go on changes it's being forced to make, let alone suggested changes.

The problems and stigma from being in foster care simply don’t end when young people leave the system. The support shouldn’t end there, either.

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