I’ve been delaying writing this post because for a stretch I was too outraged about certain things I’d been hearing in the foster care scene. Outrage is healthy if you can articulate it well and channel it productively, but anger is not the emotion I want to lead with. So, what’s changed? So much in the last two weeks, it seems! But before I get to the good news, let’s start with the issues.
1. Housing is the number one problem facing my emerging leaders, the youngest of whom just turned 21. At the beginning of last semester, we went around the table introducing ourselves to each other. I was struck that with the exception of the two eldest, who are working professionals in child welfare, every single person at the table was facing some form of housing crisis. A couple had to get extensions for their time in care; a couple others didn’t secure formal extensions, but were able to remain in their foster homes out of the generosity of foster parents willing to house them for just a little longer; one was on the verge of losing a NYCHA apartment due to bureaucratic inefficiencies; and still another two were worried that their agencies weren’t moving quickly enough on their housing applications.
2. Now this is an exceptional group of young people. At the time, they were all in college. They are capable self advocates: outspoken, resourceful, smart, and responsible. Yet so many of them were at a loss for legal advice on their various housing dilemmas. One of my young people recounted how she knocked on the doors of a series of organizations set up to advocate for youth in transition, only to be turned away without so much as a word of advice. Where are the aftercare services in NYC?
3. Trying to get a handle on the resources available to young people in care, I did a bit of investigating myself. I asked a lawyer at one of these organizations why so many young people end up in real danger of homelessness upon exiting the child welfare system. Her answer? Young people tend to be irresponsible about applying for their housing on time, even though they say otherwise.
Let’s just say I was not happy with this response. I believe my young people when they tell me that they submit their applications well ahead of time, only to have their agency sit on the paperwork for months and then accuse them of not handing it in on time. I believe my young people when they tell me that shortly after filling out their applications, three caseworkers left in succession and the files literally got lost in the shuffle. I believe my young people when they recount instances of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. And I shake my head when they recount stories of how they’ve had to notify their peers of housing opportunities because their agency didn’t inform them of the fact that youth aging out of foster care get priority access to public housing.
Instead of blaming the victims, let’s give our young people a little credit, please? And if they were remiss with something, let’s all remember a time when we really messed up as young people ourselves. Back then I didn’t need to hear a lecture: “I told you so,” “serves you right.” I didn’t need my own frustration and guilt compounded by a scolding; I needed compassion, forgiveness, and guidance on how to learn from my mistake and move forward as best I could.
If your organization is not equipped or licensed to provide aftercare services, that’s something that can and should be communicated clearly and respectfully. But there’s no excuse for leaving young people feeling unheard, demoralized, and dismissed after they turn to you for support.
4. To address the problem of homelessness, the child welfare community is working as hard as possible for permanency for all youth. If reunification with families or placement with extended kin is not an option, adoption is seen as the next most attractive outcome. This work is most visibly done by You Gotta Believe, which promotes the adoption of older kids and youth. If you don’t mind a little heartache, check out Wednesday’s Child for profiles of young people hoping to be adopted.
At a recent conference, a foster care alum spoke in glowing terms about his adoptive mother, who continues to dispense all manner of advice and has even floated the rent on his NYCHA apartment during some rough patches. Lovely, right? That’s how family is supposed to work. But there is something fundamentally wrong with basing policy on an exemplary, rather than representative, case. How many adoptive parents have the resources to subsidize their adult children’s rent? During the panel talk on adoption, I turned to my seat mate and asked, “But how many older youth want to be adopted?” and the woman on the other side of her popped her head out and responded, “They don’t.”
Let’s go to directly to the youth and ask them what they need and be prepared for answers that may not be line with our fantasies of family life. So I do actually work with young people who are being or have been adopted (AdoptMent), but on the whole, they tend to be younger. Among the older youth I’ve encountered and worked with, only one has ever articulated the desire to be adopted. I consulted a couple of my emerging leaders, who both agreed that in their own experiences, only about two out of ten young people wish to be adopted. They claim that most youth age 16 and up don’t have their hearts set on adoption; they have their sights set on transitioning into adulthood and establishing independent lives.
It’s of note that they themselves turned down the chance to be adopted:
- Financially it didn’t make sense (no more monthly stipends, which would make their foster parents less able to support them).
- They also were uncomfortable with the loss of accountability in the adoptive relationship, since they’d both heard horror stories of foster cum adoptive parents who turned neglectful or abusive overnight after the agency stopped checking in on them.
- Lastly, they were both weary and wary of having to establish yet another relationship of trust with an adult with so few years left as a minor. Adoption seemed to require an emotional investment up front without any guarantee of a longterm benefit. They agreed that below the age of 16, adoption can be very attractive, but definitely by 18, young people shy away from the need to bond with another parental figure.
5. What do older youth want? Better preparation and more resources for their transition to adulthood, aftercare services, and stable relationships with caring adults.
Okay, don’t hate me, but I’ve spent way too much time and space on this post, so I’m saving my causes for optimism for a follow up. Here in NYC there is optimism on the ground. It’s not just me!