Becoming Adults: Children Reared in Foster Care and Youth Services

The road from adolescence to adulthood is bumpy and difficult for even the most well-adjusted teen; but for children in foster care and youth services, a successful transition is often an insurmountable task.  In our society, adulthood is legally defined (in most situations) to occur upon a child’s eighteenth birthday.  For the typical child this means celebrating this milestone while still living at home and in the process of completing the senior year of high school.  The “average” child living with family is thus able to transition somewhat gradually into adulthood due to familial support.  For children who grow up in foster care and youth services, turning eighteen is known as “aging out,” and the majority of the time, associated with a sudden and drastic change in life circumstances.

Since the 1980s, concern over this situation has been of special concern to researchers, child welfare advocates and lawmakers, because it has resulted in many youth who later resurface on welfare lists, inside criminal justice centers, in mental health and drug rehabilitation programs, and homeless shelters.  Nathanael Okpych. Policy Framework Supporting Youth Aging-Out of Foster Care Through College: Review and Recommendations. 34 Children and Youth Services Review 1390.   Legislation has attempted to mitigate this with legislative action like the Foster Care Independence Act (FCIA) of 1999 which allocates $140 million per year to states for implementation of independent living programs for youth.   Unfortunately, children who grow up in foster care and youth services are still more likely than those who do not to meet the same negative fate they were thirty years ago.  This suggests that these children are not equipped with the appropriate developmental capacity to succeed in life when they are aging out of the system.

The development of the capacity to function as a mature, independent member of society is essential to the meaningful exercise of the full range of choice rights characteristic of the individual tradition.  Precisely because of their lack of capacity, minors should enjoy legally protected rights to special treatment (including some protection against their own immaturity) that will optimize their opportunities for the development of mature capabilities that are in their best interest.  Children will outgrow their restricted state, but the more important question is whether they will outgrow it with maximized capacities.

Bruce C. Hafen. Children’s Liberations and the New Egalitarianism: Some Reservations About Abandoning Youth to Their “Rights.” 1976 BYU L. Rev. 605.

Children who are reared in foster care and youth services are less equipped to enter adulthood at the age of eighteen than children who grow up in a familial system for a multitude of reasons.  Most obvious is that the stressful life events that lead them to be raised in foster care or youth services has stunted their development.  These children have likely faced emotional, and sometimes physical, turmoil that impedes their overall wellbeing.  Because these children are likely to face developmental shortcomings, it is absurd to expect them to function successfully in society without ensuring that they develop the mature capabilities necessary to successfully navigate adulthood.

A recent article by Nathanael Okpych in the Children and Youth Cervices Review suggests that children who grow up in foster care and youth services would be best aided with additional support from the state, especially support achieving postsecondary education.  Unfortunately, only one-quarter to one-third of youth leaving care enter college, and less than one-tenth attain a degree.  Researchers have identified some school-level factors that reduce these children’s likelihood of success: 1) they typically come from low-performing schools, 2) they often enter state care academically behind and are more likely to repeat a grade and miss school, 3) they typically do not enroll in college-preparatory classes while in high school, 4) they are likely to experience multiple school transfers during their primary education, and 5) they often are required to take remedial college courses to catch up and these classes often do not count toward their graduation.  Additionally, more often than not, these children need to work and have difficulty balancing school and work.  Moreover, mental health and behavioral difficulties are more common in this population than their peers, making it difficult to concentrate and function effectively in school.

Okpych offers three specific recommendations for policymakers.  First, it is recommended that legislators extend FCIA funding to age twenty five.  Most youth are not prepared to be fully self-sufficient by their early twenties, especially youth who grow up in foster care and youth services.  An extension would give them the additional time they need.  Second, it is recommended that campus-based support programs funded by FCIA be established.  This would give children from foster care and youth services a support network.  Finally, it is recommended that the Education and Training Voucher grant be adjusted to combat the rising cost of tuition and fees.  This would ease the restrictive financial pressure for these students.  Of course, implementing these, or any other recommendations, first requires policymakers and legislators to recognize that this population of children is just that, children, and that their chronological age does not mean they are ready to go from childhood to adulthood in one day.  A system that facilitates the developmental capacity and actual maturity of children reared in foster care and child services is needed to move forward.

Lisa Steffek

About Lisa Steffek

Lisa Steffek is a third year student at the University of Houston Law Center. Lisa completed her Bachelors, Masters and Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Texas in Human Development and Family Sciences. As an undergraduate, Lisa worked as a research assistant studying child attachment. Lisa also worked for several years at The Settlement Home, a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed adolescent females. Most of the girls at The Settlement Home had been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, and Lisa worked with the girls to teach them life-skills and provided psychological treatment to prepare them for adulthood and the transition to foster homes. Lisa also worked for six years in various academic capacities at the University of Texas, including an undergraduate teaching assistant, graduate research assistant, and undergraduate writing consultant. Lisa has presented papers regarding human development at various academic conferences in the states and abroad, and has had her writing published in an international, academic journal.

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