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Bill Baccaglini

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The "Aging Out" Dilemma Plaguing the Foster Care System

Posted: 09/25/11 09:55 AM ET

Imagine that because you've been abused or neglected as a child, you've spent the first 21 years of your life separated from your biological family, bouncing from one foster home to another and changing schools every few years. At 21-years-old, you have never paid rent, bought your own groceries or managed your own expenses.

With an education that's spotty at best, and no family or other support systems in place, you're told that you're now an adult and responsible for functioning in the world on your own. Would you be able to do it?

That is precisely the situation facing many young adults who age out of our child welfare system. And while outgoing ACS Commissioner Mattingly did a tremendous job on many fronts, he would probably agree that the "aging out" population is one that still requires urgent attention. As new Commissioner Richter takes over the agency, this would be an excellent time to take a fresh look at how we serve - or fail - these young people.

While local statistics are hard to come by for a population no longer under the city's care, nationally, one in four of the 20,000 foster care youth who age out of the child welfare system each year are incarcerated within two years; one in five become homeless, only half graduate from high school. With more than 900 young people aging out in New York each year, these numbers reflect a real problem.

Under the current system, when young people in foster care turn 21, they have the rug pulled out from under them. They must sink or swim. But if they sink, we all pay a price. Unable to manage on their own, with none of the support systems in place that we all take for granted, all too often, they end up homeless, or turn to drugs and crime - all of which take a toll on government budgets and the quality of life in our communities.

Because of their life experiences some kids need more support than others - and they may need it for longer. A 21-year-old who has lived most of his life in either the child welfare system or a dysfunctional family setting is not at the same level emotionally or cognitively as other 21-year-olds. And as every parent knows, you can't set an arbitrary schedule for maturity.

As nervous as we may be to send our own children away to college, for example, we recognize that we could not have gotten them more ready simply by training them better or earlier. Most of the kids we're talking about are not going away to college; they may not have graduated high school. There are no teachers or mentors or parents they can call when run out of money or get into trouble. They're on their own and, for many of them, 21 is simply not old enough. And no amount of training or better programming by the child welfare system could have hastened their readiness. Because of their many pressing needs and challenges, they have not been the beneficiaries of structured or guided exposure to life experiences that naturally facilitates the maturation process.

What's the solution? First, we need more and better programs to prepare these kids for life on their own. Once they are on their own, they are likely to still need help with housing, jobs and enrolling in some form of academic or vocational higher education. They may also need social work or mental health assistance to deal with issues like parents coming out of prison or siblings with drug problems. For those kids, providing this kind of support until age 23 could mean the difference between a productive life and a life in the corrections system or a homeless shelter. These age appropriate programs that work beyond the system are a very good investment indeed.

At the same time, we need to make it clear that this support for young adults is temporary, and that the recipient must ultimately bear responsibility for his or her own success. These young people must stay enrolled in school and hold a job, even if part time. There must be high expectations, no free rides, and a path toward independence in a relatively short term.

For Hispanic youngsters today, we're seeing particular challenges, at least partly due to changing immigration trends. Many young immigrants, coming here from a variety of countries, do not have the generational, family and community support that has existed for previous immigrant groups. Whatever extended family they may have to fall back on may already be stretched thin. Combine lack of family with language barrier and overall cultural differences, and that child is at even greater risk.

Critics may argue that at some point we need to stop supporting these kids and cut them loose, and that 21 seems like a logical age. After all, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on each of these kids up until that point - When is enough enough? If release from the child welfare system is no more than a path toward a homeless shelter or a jail cell, what have we accomplished? If by creating short term programs to teach the necessary skills prior to turning 21 and by providing some additional support for a limited period of time afterwards, we can put that young adult on the path to a successful productive life. Isn't that worth it?