“My future is to have a happy family, have a career, be something in life, be a role model, and teach people the right thing.” These are the aspirations of one ninth grade foster youth at the Arise Academy Charter High School. Unfortunately, for too many youth in foster care, without the necessary guidance and support from committed and caring adults, dreams often fade into a harsh and bitter struggle for survival. Nationally, more than 20,000 youth age out of foster care annually and their surrogate parents—state child welfare systems—try to prepare youth with the essential knowledge, skills, supports and social networks to navigate the challenges of adulthood. But the state hasn’t proved to be a very nurturing parent and social workers can only do so much. Foster youth need adults in their lives, outside of the system, who will listen, share their time, care and experiences, and show and connect them to alternative pathways that heighten their chances to have productive and hopeful adult lives.
Study after study focuses on the dire life outcomes that foster youth tend to experience when they leave care. Facing chronic unemployment, low levels of academic achievement, poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early pregnancy and parenting is enough to make you think these are throwaway youth—too difficult to help. A recent report reinforces the challenge by demonstrating that older youth in foster care are at greatest risk for disconnection—neither in school, vocational training nor the workforce. Without the network of friends, family and caring adults that most youth outside the system enjoy, how can the social skills needed to succeed be developed? Who can provide them with the emotional, psychological, financial, and other supports, necessary to sustain a connection with mainstream economic and educational opportunities? These are questions that I deal with daily at the Stoneleigh Foundation. But I also can’t accept that abused and neglected youth, who have experienced multiple traumatic experiences in their lives, need be subjected to a long life of struggle as an adult—menial jobs, teen parenting, unstable housing, cash assistance? It’s immoral, and these children deserve the most that our community has to offer them. Every day I wake up knowing that something must and can be done.