Research Paper: Youth Aging Out of Foster Care to the World of Homelessness and Crime

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Foster Care Aging Out

Societal Problem

Annually, about 20,000 of 542,000 youths age out of foster care across the United States (Courtney, 2005). Except for incarcerated youth, foster youth are the only individuals who are involuntarily removed from their families through government intervention. Despite the fact that this separation is mandated to protect these young adults from harm by their caregivers, when they leave their homes, the state becomes responsible for helping them handle their new independence. Due to the youth's already unstable upbringing, this separation often aggravates problems, such as severe health problems, participation in crime, substance abuse and unemployment. Courtney (2005) reported that 37% of foster youth who are 17 to 20 years of age do not have a high school degree; 12% have been homeless one or more times since aging out, and, if they do marry, have a much higher incidence of marital problems or divorce. They often have to rely on public assistance

Unexpectedly, the majority of children are in foster care for a brief period of time. Wulczyn and Hislop (2001) conducted a study of a dozen state foster care systems and found that most of the youths who were being cared outside their homes at the age of 16 had just made this transition in the previous year; only 10% had begun out-of-home circumstances before their teen years. In the U.S., there were only 7% of youth who were "aged out" of care in 2001 (U.S. Department of Human Services, 2003). However, there is a greater chance for such youths age 16 to 18 to be living in group homes or institutions, or those environments that are least like family homes, than the general population of foster care children. These youths have less of an opportunity to form long-term relationships with adults who will provide them the support needed to be independent. The problem is that most of these institutions are staffed by inexperienced employees who do not stay long in their positions and thus cannot act as mentors or provide personal support (Courtney, 2005).

These aged-out youths do not receive the counseling and informational support required in high school for effective decision making and personal care after graduation. In the study "Pathways to College for Former Foster Youth: Toward Understanding Factors that Contribute to Educational Success," Merdinger et al. (2005) interviewed 216 young adults at 11 California State University campuses who aged out of foster care after the age of 18. Merdinger and colleagues (2005) found that even if these young adults were academically successful, they had financial difficulties, potential psychological distress and lack of ability to access health insurance.

Present Solution

Since the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, or often known as the Chafee Act after the late Senator John Chafee who advocated for its passing, approximately $140 million is set aside for these young adults every year to provide improved mental health services, life skills training, mentoring and employment opportunities, and educational support, as well as housing stipends and Medicaid until the age of 21. Before this act, foster care youths were not eligible for Medicaid unless they were poor mothers. The act also includes state funding training and education vouchers. Each state is different in how it uses its funding. Only two-fifths of eligible foster youth receive independent living services, which also varies greatly among states and counties. The allotted money, which has not increased since it was first made available, is not enough to provide the needed support for all the youths who are aging out. For example, if all the money allotted were used for housing, this would be the equivalent to about $700 per individual. In addition, only a handful of states offer the Medicaid benefit and many of the programs that are being run for these youths are ineffective (Courtney, 2005).

Possible Alternative

One of the problems of the Chafee Act is that it is designed specifically for individuals who age out of foster care, and many youths thus fall through the cracks. As noted above, there are not that many youths who age out in relation to those who have been in foster care during their teen years. This program does not include the many young adults who are discharged to their family of origin before age the age of 18. Many of these youths, who are highly vulnerable, are unable to stay with their biological families and end up trying to find another place to live. The program also does not address those individuals who run away from foster care before turning 18, who are the greatest risks. As an alternative, Courtney (2005) recommends that the policy should be widened to provide services to all youth who spend time in out-of-home care after turning 16. It is not only the youths who leave foster care who will most likely face future problems, but all older youths who have been in care at some time during their childhood and adolescence.

Extent of Problem

Adolescence is a challenging time for every youth, particularly those experiencing greater stress from family-related problems. They are adversely affected by hormonal changes and emotional swings, as well as more stress from added responsibilities. Studies have found that the degree to which young people adapt to this time period is based on how well they have thus far handled their experiences; those not being able to cope well are at greater risk of having behavioral or emotional difficulties (Browne, 2004). Such reports do not bode well for foster care youths, who usually do not show similar coping skills and abilities in comparison to their peers. As a result, social and psychological factors will frequently simultaneously impact these foster care youths.

In general, children and youth who are at foster homes have to deal with more trying circumstances than the usual child at risk, with physical, emotional and sexual abuse often reported (Simms, Dubowitz, & Szilagyi, 2002). Even those who were victims of abuse when they were young will still be affected with such issues as they get older as lowered self-esteem, depression, and being less able to form long-term relationships. Sixty-two percent of adolescents report seductive behavior with peers, promiscuous behavior (63%), substance abuse (54%), threats of suicide, and suicide attempts (52%). It is not unusual for these same problems to extend into adulthood. Troubled behaviors often make youths too difficult for foster parents to handle. These young adults frequently terminate their placement prematurely, which adds even more stress to their lives.

Experiencing a higher rate of personal harm leads to other problems. Courtney et al. (2004) contended that a greater number of foster youth said they experienced more serious injuries than their peers. Perhaps the lifestyle of foster children places them at more risk for serious injury, which could also relate to their higher rate of participating in and instigating violence. Casey Family Programs, Harvard Medical School, the State of Washington Office of Children's Administration Research, and the State of Oregon Department of Human Services (Stephens, 2002) found that rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among alumni of foster care program adults were as much as twice that of American war veterans. Even without a catastrophic event, many children experience troubling feelings and behaviors in the course of placement. For example, a study compared PTSD rates of sexually abused, physically abused, and non-abused foster children (Dubner & Motta, 1999). Over 60% of the sexually abused foster care children were diagnosed as having PTSD. The physically abused group also demonstrated 40% rates of PTSD as did almost one fifth of the non-abused foster children. In terms of gender, a larger number of girls than boys were diagnosed with PTSD. Children aged 8 to 12 exhibited more severe PTSD symptoms than older children. Such youths frequently must deny the faults of their biological parents, such as incompetence or misbehavior, to be able to handle the psychological trauma of rejection. In order to prove their own parents were not as bad as believed, they push the limits of their foster parents' patience or ability to handle negative behavior. Such theories may help explain why youths who have a history of abuse are especially difficult to foster because of their rebelliousness (Massinga & Perry, 1994).

History of Foster Care Aging Out

The history of foster care is relatively recent, let alone programs to help those who are aging out. It has been barely a decade since the Chafee Act was put into place. There have always been a number of different ways that youths leave the foster care program. Under the best of situations, the youth does not stay in a placement for long and is returned to his or her biological family once the problem is resolved. In such situations, the parent(s) and children need to undertake some form of therapy. In most situations, however, the results are not positive. The youth may want to return to the family, but it is not ready, or the foster care youth remains in care… [END OF PREVIEW]

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