Imagine being 18 and on your own, with no family and no support system. That’s the fate that faces many youth aging out of foster care. Many states, including New Jersey, have upped the age to 21. Here’s why:
Transitional youth, youth in transition or youth aging out of foster care are all terms for a group of young adults in the United States who need special attention. After being in the foster care system due to neglect or abuse, these individuals now face another major challenge. Ms. Claudia Rowe of Crosscut.com wrote about a young woman named Lane, “She spent the three years from 18 to 21 trying, and failing, to find a foothold. She worked as a day laborer, dabbled with selling drugs then went back to couch-surfing. At 21, Lane won admittance to community college with a GED and full-ride scholarship, but soon dropped out, overwhelmed by the pressures of living on her own as an adult when she was, by most measures, still just a kid.” What if Lane had the opportunity for three additional years of support?
According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative organization, one of the national leaders in youth programs, “…for tens of thousands of young people in foster care, turning 18 means losing the supports—financial, educational, social and otherwise—that they count on. Their peers in the general population get support from their families throughout emerging adulthood, becoming more independent as their brains develop through age 25. But when young people leave foster care without having a permanent family—when they age out—what should be a gradual transition often becomes an abrupt loss that puts them at risk of negative outcomes.”
The latest available statistics (2011) tell us that, over 26,000 youth in foster care are aging out of the system annually. This is the third largest reason for leaving foster care in the United States. Aging out is only behind reunification with parent/s (125,000) and adoption (49,000). These figures, from The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), equate to approximately one out of every nine youth in foster care aging out of care. The Child Welfare League of America reported in 2007 that as many as 36% of foster youth who have aged out of the system become homeless, 56% become unemployed, and 27% of male former foster youth become jailed.
Help and Hope for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care
There are many national organizations working to change these statistics. One of the most notable is Project Meet Me Halfway, started by musician Jimmy Wayne. A former foster youth who lived in (and ran away from) a group home, Wayne was 16 when he finally found permanency, stability and love when an older couple who took him in. The singer’s first-hand knowledge of what it can be like for foster youth out on their own, and his knowledge of how fortunate he was to have found a loving home, led him to create the organization, which strives to raise awareness and work towards raising the aging out threshold from 18 to 21.
Across the country, there are many states that mandate youth in foster care transition out at age 18. In New Jersey, these young people are allowed three additional years of support, until they become 21. This policy has a positive influence on these NJ residents. Two of these impacts, as stated by a National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections 2012 report, are related to education and employment. Remaining in care more than doubles the odds that youth will be working or in school at age 19 and also doubles the percentage of youth who will graduate from college.
In addition to New Jersey, there are other states that allow youth to remain in foster care until they are 21 years of age; most of these states have provisions regarding continuing education to maintain foster status. They are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. Florida recently passed legislation increasing the age to 21, which became effective earlier this year.
New Jersey Helps Youth Aging Out of Foster Care Survive and Thrive
New Jersey has a number of support mechanisms for youth aging out of care. Firstly, there is the NJ Department of Children and Families (DCF) – Office of Adolescent Services (OAS). According to their website, a primary objective of OAS’ work is to provide the services and supports the youth need in a timely manner. These programs include education, engagement activities, financial stability, healthy lifestyles, job training, life skills training, physical and mental health care, preparation for economic self-sufficiency, safe and stable housing and transportation.
Next is Project MYSELF, a program administered by the Rutgers University School of Social Work. This is direct personal service designed to help young adults aging out of the New Jersey foster care system. The project’s goals are to improve academic performance, increase completion rates for post-secondary education and develop essential life skills and competencies. Those students who are enrolled in post-secondary education (under the New Jersey Foster Care Scholars Program) are provided with coaching opportunities to build positive lifelong characteristics. These include leadership, public speaking and self-awareness. The process utilizes crisis intervention, E-mentoring, Facebook posts, newsletters, skills groups and coaching.
Another is the Aging Out Project, provided through the auspices of the Rutgers Newark School of Law. For the past several years, the Child Advocacy Clinic (CAC) has assisted youth through a community education project called “Aging-Out: Don’t Miss Out.” Their mission is to ensure that every youth in New Jersey who transitions out of foster care is aware of and receives the necessary and appropriate services and support from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P), other state entities and community organizations.
A special Aging Out: Don’t Miss Out book was created through the mutual cooperation of the New Jersey Child Placement Advisory Council and the CAC. Published in a youth-centric format, the book is bright and informative. Topics discussed are individual rights, potential assistance, available services, the New Jersey court process and information on the child welfare system. The success of the publication led to two new training courses, one for youth and one for individuals who work with young people aging out of New Jersey’s foster care system.
The Aging Out Project hosts special training opportunities for DCP&P local offices, the Court Appointed Special Advocates organization (CASA), concerned volunteers and foster parents. The CAC is an important resource for youth and their advocates throughout the state.
Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS), in partnership with DCF, provides educational assistance during these crucial years. The New Jersey Foster Care (NJFC) Scholars Program, administered by FAFS, just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Since 2004, over 175 NJFC Scholars have confirmed the completion of their degree or certificate at accredited trade schools, colleges and universities. For additional information on the NJFC Scholars Program or any of FAFS’ services you may visit www.fafsonline.org.
Youth placed in foster care have faced neglect, physical or mental abuse. Their road has been difficult by any standard. Even with the safety and care provided by foster families, the social and educational segments of their lives can be very chaotic. Would aging out at 21 have made a difference in the life of the 18-year-old young woman, Lane? Could the thousands like her benefit from 36 more months of assistance? The answer is, almost certainly, yes. Transitioning or aging out, after tragic and damaging life experiences, is an issue worthy of discussion and action among concerned citizens.