Saturday, March 27th, 2010 | Author: mjward

The numbers are daunting. In the United States in 2008, about 123,000 children in foster and group care were awaiting adoption. But only 55,000 were adopted during the year. The older the child and the longer the time in care, the less likely was adoption. According to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, more than 28,000 youth aged out of care in 2007. That is, they became adults and left the child welfare system without a permanent family. Some few kept up contact with foster parents or other carers, but many had no important ties with adults. In fact, nearly a third did not even feel emotionally connected to either of their parents.

In contrast, over 90 percent of mainstream youth aged 18 and more than two-thirds of those between 19 and 24 lived with their families. Once they move out, they still rely on parents and other relatives for advice and practical help. For example, grandparents often provide daycare for grandchildren. Or children request a temporary bailout when they have financial problems. For example a single mother asked her parents for fifty dollars to help her buy food after she’d been laid off.

What does this mean for the young people aging out of care? How do they compare with others? Figures from both the United States and Canada show that “graduates” of the care system are less likely to have completed high school, let alone have any post-secondary education. They are more likely to have low-paying and part-time jobs or to be on welfare. Early pregnancy is more common among former foster children. So is substance abuse, such as cigarette smoking and alcohol or marijuana use. More have also been convicted of a crime. Mental health problems are also more common among those aging out. Thus the life prospects for many are poor. For them, adjustment to adult life is very challenging.

Not all problems can be blamed on foster care. Children who enter the system are often neglected, abused, or even abandoned by their parents. Some suffer from their parents’ substance abuse through fetal alcohol or drug effects. Thus they enter foster care with serious strikes against them. Some children are also damaged by the foster care system. This is especially true if they move frequently. Children do best if they have stability in their lives. Moving around breaks attachments and subjects kids to different sets of rules and expectations in each home. Eventually they don’t know who they are or what standards to follow. More important, they do not have secure emotional ties to any adult. Some are abused by substitute parents or by other children in care. Many end up without a clear sense of who they are and their place in the world.

There are programs offered in some areas that help young people move from the care system to independent living. They may receive services such as help in completing an education and finding a job. They may also learn basic skills like money and credit management, personal hygiene, housekeeping and nutrition. The practicalities of foster and group care make such skills difficult to master. For example, they are provided housing and food. They may be able to control their clothing allowance, but this is not universal. They may not decide when and what to eat or standards for cleanliness. Some agencies provide semi-supervised living, where a social worker or other counsellor helps the teen approaching independence manage apartment life and advises on job search strategies. But once the young person ages out, professional support usually disappears. There has been little research on how effective programs like these are. But some follow-ups have found that those who have received training like this are more likely to hold a job, less likely to go on welfare or end up in prison, and more likely to build a healthy social network.

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