Each winter, cities around the country conduct an annual “Point-in-Time” (PIT) count of homeless people living in shelters, transitional housing, and on the streets. Last year, the count was roughly 553,000. While the overall census declined compared to previous years, the number of homeless young people under the age of 24 is on the rise. Every night, thousands of young people go to sleep without the safety, stability, and support of a family or a home. And most of them became homeless after cycling through the child welfare system. It’s called “aging out,” and it happens to approximately 20,000 young adults aged 18-21 each year.

When these young people reach the legal age of legal adulthood, and we expect them to start adulting: they need a job that pays a living wage, an apartment, furniture, clothes, and the skills required to create a budget, pay bills, grocery shop, clean and do all of the other things that we associate with being self-sufficient. What this means is that after a childhood being dependent on a system, suddenly they are out in the world alone. All of these young people lack a permanent legal relationship with a biological or adoptive parent or adult guardian. They have no safety net.

The sad fact is, parents would never ask their children to attempt to go out into the world and fend for themselves. We know that their chances for success would be slim. However, we routinely make this demand of our most vulnerable young people.

The result: within 6 months of leaving the child welfare system, young people who have been in foster care are significantly over-represented among homeless youth: a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that more than half of the homeless youth surveyed had previously stayed in a foster or group home. A National Alliance to End Homelessness study showed that 65% of those who age out of foster care required housing support–a place to live and life and job skill support–upon discharge.

I’ve been a foster parent since 1999 and a youth advocate for almost as long. I run a national non-profit that is dedicated to helping reduce the number of young people who age out of foster care alone. I am always conscious of the risks associated with it: homelessness, incarceration, teen parenting, unemployment, and lives of poverty.

For too many children, foster care is a pipeline to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans. One solution is to prevent kids from going into the pipeline in the first place. As we say in the social work community, our goal for them is to “stay home, go home or find home.”

In other words, priority should be on reunifying young people with their birth family whenever possible and offering that family ongoing support. If removal is absolutely necessary, the priority should be to move children into a permanent adoptive home as soon as possible so they don’t languish in the foster system.

And that includes the older kids. State departments of child welfare typically put resources into “family finding” for young children, but if a child hasn’t been adopted by the age of 9 or 10, they’re placed on a different track. They’ll move from consecutive foster placements—as many as ten—to early “emancipation,” as aging out is sometimes called. Essentially, we give up on them having a family. These kids languish in foster care and hopefully receive some job and life skill training and educational support, and then they turn 18 and BAM, they’re out on their own.

These are the kids at most risk. Part of the solution is changing the adoption narrative. It’s accepted wisdom in this field that families don’t want to adopt older kids. Agencies and social workers need to challenge that.

We have to make it acceptable for a child at age 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 to be worthy of the family.

Prospective parents need to understand that it’s imperative that someone be there to get older kids through high school, to walk them down the aisle, to be there for their children. We need to rethink the ages at which children need families.

We need to ensure that all young people have access to a secure parenting relationship and a caring community of folks who invest in their hopes, dreams, lives, and futures. There isn’t a magical age at which we are not worthy of those things.

At the federal level, Congress needs to support Homeless Assistance Grants funding for FY 2019, which will help build more studio apartments for homeless youth. At the state and local level, policymakers should increase the number of housing units built to house “unaccompanied minors” living on the streets.

Our child welfare system needs us too. The most effective direct action we can take is to become a foster parent, or maybe even an adoptive one, especially to older kids. I once ran a camp for siblings who had been separated by foster care.

Every day the kids, aged 9 to 14, would ask me, Judy, can you please adopt me?

If we prioritize finding family and community on the front end of a child’s involvement with the system, we can reduce the number of young people who end up a statistic in HUD’s annual PIT Count. Nobody “ages out” of needing a family.

 

Judy Cockerton is the founder and executive director of the Treehouse Foundation and an Encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

Photo Credit: Franco Folini

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And that includes the older kids. State departments of child welfare typically put resources into “family finding” for young children, but if a child hasn’t been adopted by the age of 9 or 10, they’re placed on a different track. They’ll move from consecutive foster placements—as many as ten—to early “emancipation,” as aging out is sometimes called. Essentially, we give up on them having a family. These kids languish in foster care, and hopefully receive some job and life skill training and educational support, and then they turn 18 and BAM, they’re out on their own.

These are the kids at most risk. Part of the solution is changing the adoption narrative. It’s accepted wisdom in this field that families don’t want to adopt older kids. Agencies and social workers need to challenge that. We have to make it acceptable for a child at age 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 to be worthy of the family. Prospective parents need to understand that it’s imperative that someone be there to get older kids through high school, to walk them down the aisle, to be there for their children. We need to rethink the ages at which children need families.

We need to ensure that all young people have access to a secure parenting relationship and a caring community of folks who invest in their hopes, dreams, lives and futures. There isn’t a magical age at which we are not worthy of those things.

At the federal level, Congress needs to support Homeless Assistance Grants funding for FY 2019, which will help build more studio apartments for homeless youth. At the state and local level, policymakers should increase the number of housing units built to house “unaccompanied minors” living on the streets.

Our child welfare system needs us too. The most effective direct action we can take is to become a foster parent, or maybe even an adoptive one, especially to older kids. I once ran a camp for siblings who had been separated by foster care. Every day the kids, aged 9 to 14, would ask me, Judy, can you please adopt me?

If we prioritize finding family and community on the front end of a child’s involvement with the system, we can reduce the number of young people who end up a statistic in HUD’s annual PIT Count. Nobody “ages out” of needing family.

 
Judy Cockerton is the founder and executive director of the Treehouse Foundation and an Encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.
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1 COMMENT

  1. We CAN change the narrative and make adoption an option for all ages, not just young children; we can support a young person aging out by being a mentor or stepping up to be a foster parent; we can
    support vulnerable parents to be able to care for their children, so that children can go back home and be safe and secure.

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