As another season of graduation celebrations comes to a close, the sights of caps, gowns and diplomas bring to mind the significance of graduation as one of life's great milestones, and the opportunities and challenges that await new graduates. I often wonder how many of them truly are prepared and have the support system in place to navigate the world ahead -- especially in today's challenging economy.
Because my work focuses on advocating for abused and neglected children, I also can't help but think about a different kind of graduation: what it means for the tens of thousands of kids who "graduate" from the foster care system each year. This is often referred to as "aging out" and the harsh reality is that in many instances when foster youth turn 18, they are on their own.
A recent report by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall research and policy center highlights the incredible challenges facing youth when they age out of foster care. The report, based on following more than 700 youth for several years after leaving the foster system, found that these youth were more than three times as likely not to get a high school diploma or GED and only one-fifth as likely to have a college degree as their non-foster peers. More than 25 percent experienced homelessness at least once after leaving foster care and, although 84 percent had worked at some point, less than half were currently employed.
These are troubling statistics -- particularly when we are dealing with young adults who already have had to face and overcome so much in their lives, and whose success will be instrumental in helping society break the cycle of child abuse and neglect. Few of us are ready to set out on life entirely on our own at the age of 18, but most of us have family and support structures in place. How we make sure there is someone to help foster youth transition to successful adulthood: how to rent an apartment, manage personal finances, apply for a job, and face the other challenges of life?
Some states are providing more resources to foster youth until they turn 21. In May 2011, Nebraska approved new legislation requiring written transition plans for older youth including potential housing, education and workforce support. Illinois now allows youth under 21 to re-enter care or access additional supports to live independently. These are extremely important efforts that have a major impact. We also need more volunteers to step forward as mentors and as advocates to help these youth bridge the gap between childhood and adult responsibilities.
Every year, nearly 30,000 youth age out of the foster care system. They need our help and support. These are good kids who have persevered through difficult childhoods with determination. But they lack the resources and family support of their peers from more stable homes. Providing these youth with the support and guidance to ensure a more gradual passage into adulthood is the right thing to do. These youth deserve the same opportunity that millions of other children take for granted--to grow, to succeed and to become the person they are destined to be.