It’s a staggering statistic – every year, up to 25,000 foster children age out of the U.S. foster care system, often with little knowledge or experience of the basics of living on their own, like how to cook a simple meal or pay a bill. When that happens, research indicates the odds are stacked pretty high against them:
- Only about 46 percent earn a high school diploma.
- Within 18 months, 40 to 50 percent will end up homeless.
- Within two years, 25 percent will be incarcerated.
These kinds of statistics indicate a nationwide problem – one that KidsPeace and other organizations are trying to solve.
An “aging out” story
Rasheeda Sloan was adopted at birth into what she thought would be her forever family. Unfortunately, when she was 16 years old, she was removed from the comfort of her home and placed into the world of foster care to live with relatives, due to issues of unsafe housing.
Before entering foster care, Rasheeda had been homeschooled all her life; suddenly she was forced to become familiar with the public school system, a huge challenge for her that led to her failing the first semester of high school. When asked how her relatives responded to this, she said “They talked down to me like it was my fault, like I was dumb or something. Nothing I did ever seemed to be good enough.”
She began supervised independent living in her own apartment when she was 19 and continued through her 21stbirthday. “It was great,” she recalls. “It gave me peace of mind to be out living on my own.” But when Rasheeda turned 21 she was immediately discharged from foster care and had to leave her supervised apartment.
During her time in foster care she was taught some life skills, such as cooking, sewing, and cleaning, but there were other areas, such as financial concerns, that she had yet to figure out. She wanted to continue living on her own, but knew that wasn’t a possibility. “I could’ve kept my apartment if I had a job,” she says, “but I was a student and I had no money.”
When asked what could have made her feel more prepared for her discharge, she noted a need for more programs designed to help kids after discharge — saying that there are good resources out there to help while in care, but after she left care all the support was abruptly cut off and she was left on her own.
Now 23, Rasheeda is living with relatives in Philadelphia, PA, and working full time to help adults who struggle with mental disabilities. She has big plans for her future that involve furthering her education and moving out and living on her own. “Even though I’ve had my ups and downs, I consider myself to be a survivor. I never went through anything physical, but I did go through a lot emotionally. My experience wasn’t too bad, but it could have been better. I am thankful that it wasn’t worse.”
KEYS to success for the aging out
Rasheeda’s story of struggle in the transition of aging out is certainly not unique among foster children. One program that strives to make that journey easier is the KidsPeace Empowering Youth to Succeed (KEYS) program, provided through KidsPeace’s Maryland offices. The purpose of KEYS is to provide training on life skills for youth aging out of foster care to have a successful transition into adulthood.
“Few young adults leave home at 18 ready to care for themselves, so they rely on their adult support system to provide them with guidance, emotional support, housing and financial assistance,” says volunteer coordinator Gina Seyfried. “But a young person in foster care often misses out on these supports. The KEYS program is here to offer tangible, hands-on activities to unlock their future success.”
The KEYS program seeks to prepare youth to effectively implement learned skills in four important areas:
- Life skills education groups creatively teach important life skills through a 20-week program that addresses six main areas of development – Daily Living, Self-Care, Relationships & Communication, Housing & Money Management, Work & Study Life, and Career/Education Planning.
- A job readiness programis designed to provide youth with the opportunity to develop professional skills, explore career options, and gain experience that will help them sustain long term employment. Youth are provided one-on-one coaching, group training, career assessments, and leadership development.
- Another component to KEYS is individual transition planning services, in which youth in the program create a long-term education plan and receive assistance with securing employment, housing and health insurance before they turn 21.
- KEYS also provides access to a Youth Advisory Boardto further teach independence through the encouragement of leadership skills, team building and problem solving.
Meanwhile, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, KidsPeace offers Independent Living groups for support of older youth in Northumberland, Columbia, and Lycoming counties. A KidsPeace professional starts by assessing where the youth’s deficiencies lie, and from there plans a curriculum based on the results. Ten sessions are conducted that help participants learn the skills they’ll need to thrive in life.
A need for an emotional connection
The abrupt nature of “aging out” can make it one of the most devastating events in a young person’s life. Often, when the time comes, a child may return home from school to find out they can’t stay with their foster parents any longer, due to a lack of funding. Suddenly they find themselves all alone, with no support system in place and nowhere to go.
Debra Schilling Wolfe, M.Ed., is the executive director of the Field Center, an organization thataims to prepare the nation’s future leaders.Wolfe says this lack of emotional connection—the sense of being cared about—may be one of the hardest aspects to foster youths to handle.
“Imagine if you will that your birthday came and went and nobody even wished you a happy birthday,” she says. “That’s what many of these kids experience. The system provides them with physical and emotional support but only until they’re 18, or in some states 21, and then they wash their hands of them. You can’t pay somebody to care about you.”
The KEYS program, for one, tries to provide a measure of this emotional support. “For every youth who ages out of care with KidsPeace we have a ‘Launch Party’ to recognize this important transition and milestone 21stBirthday,” explains Jocelyn Kennedy, KEYS coordinator. “Each youth is given a transition basket filled with household needs. Staff and treatment team members are invited to celebrate their proven resiliency and the beginning of the next stage in life.”
The saying goes that age is just a number, but for thousands of kids each year, it represents much more than that. It represents the start of a new life for them, and oftentimes a life they are not prepared to take on. Through programs like KEYS and independent living support, KidsPeace and other organizations are doing their best to find solutions for these kids, to help them feel ready and eager to transition into adulthood.