There are a couple of stories in this issue of Update relating to a subject that always burns brighter in my mind this time of year: Our young people aging out of the foster system and facing life on their own.
May and June are the joyous months to celebrate high school graduations and you will see in the recap of our Celebration of Dreams event that we go all out for our foster youth who jump the many hurdles thrown their way, cross the finish line and receive their diploma. They have overcome so many obstacles that a normal teen never encounters and we really believe they should be celebrated for their hard work and determination.
But graduation also means something else to our young people: it is time for life on their own.
They are suddenly thrust into the “real world” at 18 years old and forced to find their way with little support. Many long ago separated from their biological families because of abuse and neglect. Unless they have formed some sort of lasting bond with a foster parent, mentor or other friend or role model, they will find themselves in the scary situation of becoming an adult without any real support system.
Think about it. How many of you were able to go it alone at 18, without having a family to fall back on?
We try to help. We provide classes on money management and other life skills to help our young people prepare for the day when they are no longer supported by the state system. We do have “after care” assistance available, too, both in terms of support and money.
But most will rely simply on their street smarts and try to carve a path that allows them to at least survive, if not thrive, on their own. We know from experience that those who age out are more likely to end up homeless, go to jail, become teen parents, suffer mental health issues or fall victim to a host of other social ills.
There are ways to improve their chances. Another story in today’s Update talks about the need for mentors in our Higher Education Mentoring Initiative (HEMI). This is a program that helps teens graduate high school and transition to a successful post-graduate life. We need good people who are willing to stick with these teens and provide guidance as they face the scary proposition of life on their own. Please consider becoming a mentor today.
Another idea being kicked around at the state level is extending foster care to the age of 21. I fully support this if it comes with appropriate funding and if programs are put in place that help that young person prepare for life after care. If we don’t do anything different between the ages of 18 and 21 than we did prior to them reaching the age of emancipation, then we cannot expect different results simply because they are three years older. We in Hamilton County stand ready to implement more advanced programs with the extension.
I would like to see more solutions to help this group of young people. We recently partnered with Partnership for Innovation in Education and Cincinnati’s School of Creative and Performing Arts to look at potential solutions. The students spent a lot of time examining data and programs around the country and they kept coming back to one thing that always worked best: a loving, caring adult who took an interest in that teen and helped them through the aging-out process.
Could that be you?