THE BLOG
11/17/2014 10:51 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

When There's No Going Home

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It's that time of year when many young people head back into the comforting orbit of their parents' home -- home for the holidays, home from college, home from work, back into old rooms, clean laundry and the protection of family, food and familiarity.

But for some young people, there is no going home, not ever. For them, the place just doesn't exist. And their ranks increase every year, when some 23,000 foster children become too old for our social services system at age 18 without ever having found a secure place to call home.

What happens to this group -- nearly a quarter million individuals over the past decade alone - should concern the lot of us. These are children that we as a society have decided can have a better chance away from their family of origin, but the fact is when they don't have meaningful and sustained social connections during their adolescent years, things don't go well as they emerge into adulthood.

Everyone should know and care about this, because like it or not, we all pay for it. And there are incredible and disquieting costs -- social, financial and human -- as a result.

A Midwest study found that of 600 young adults who'd aged out of the foster care and child welfare system, less than half were employed by age 24 with an annual income of just $8,000. More than a quarter had been homeless. Twenty-five percent had no high school diploma and just six percent had earned either a two- or four-year degree -- educational attainment thought to be the entry ticket for a decent-paying job and a chance at a financially stable life. The majority of these young women and men had already had children and received needs-based government assistance. Forty-two percent of the young men had been arrested and 23 percent had been convicted of a crime.

The costs of aging out of foster care drain our collective, taxpayer-funded coffers, too. The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative found that taxpayers and communities pay roughly $300,000 for the public assistance, incarceration and lost wages for each young person who ages out of the foster care system. That's close to $7 billion spent every year on this group of vulnerable adolescents in the U.S.

With National Adoption Day soon to arrive, we'll hear a lot about American families that generously open their hearts and doors to children in need, as well as heart rending statistics about how many more children are still waiting for a permanent home. But behind the gleam of adoption lies a darker truth about its sister social program, foster care, and the often debilitating results of children who -- most often plucked from their biological families for a host of good reasons -- never find a place to call home, the right kind of support, or a level of stability and constancy and end up 18, on their own, and entirely lost right at the moment when they're supposed to be finding themselves.

These are young people who are bright and open and determined but wholly unprepared for life in ways that the average, family-fortified youth cannot fathom. Without connection to one or two -- or more -- consistent, positive, connected adult role models in their communities, these adolescents will continue to flounder.

It's high time that we understand the lost human capital of this group and be proactive in our approach to to usher them into adulthood -- really, just another three to five years -- the right way. That means fostering meaningful social connections with supportive adults, facilitating their educational attainment and job training, and providing transitional housing, health and mental health care.

Of course having a family matters. It shapes the raw, malleable stuff in us that lies between our genetic material and our circumstances. But where one's family comes from, and who can comprise it, is truly open and diverse. If we rally to support children aging out of foster care with the kinds of support they need, they will flourish as those with permanent and stable families have had the opportunity to do.

The great Nelson Mandela asserted that "there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." In our celebration of National Adoption Day, let us not forget society's children -- our children -- those who grow up in foster care.

Susan Kools is the Madge M. Jones Professor of Nursing at the University of Virginia School of Nursing. A long-time advocate of adolescents, she has studied the health and development of adolescents in foster care, and aims to improve the outcomes of young people aging out of foster care.