I remember their faces. Every one of them.
But I don’t know what happened to them all.
Over the past several years, I’ve worked in nonprofits with at-risk youth and volunteered to help many children in foster care—too many to count. My work has focused on middle school students in my local school district. When the kids have finished eighth grade and been ready to move on to high school, I’ve helped them connect with mentors and support groups at the next level.
But after high school? What happens to them then?
Approximately 400,000 youth are currently in foster care in the U.S. About 20,000 of them will age out of foster care this year (at age 18 or 21 depending on the state) without any family support or connection. And according to Shalita O’Neale, Founder of Hope Forward, Inc.—a nonprofit that works with transitioning and former foster youth—within just 18 months of emancipation, up to half of those foster youth will be homeless.
Couch-surfing. Shelter-hopping. Sleeping under bridges.
In America today, 50 percent of the houseless population spent time in foster care.
And not all of them will live long. The National Law Center on Homelessness estimates that 5,000 unaccompanied young people die each year from assault, illness or suicide.
Foster youth are vulnerable to begin with—they are in the system because of abuse or neglect in their home, because their parents died or because they have no one else to care for them. “Once in the foster care system,” explained O’Neale, “foster youth are placed in homes with complete strangers that sometimes are just as dysfunctional, if not more, than the homes they were removed from.” These children move from home to home, family to family, school to school—an average of twice each year.
Then they are “emancipated”—and left alone.
The American Public Health Association launched a public relations campaign to educate about the biggest risk factors that put foster youth at a higher risk of homelessness:
- Running away while in foster care
- Instability in placements
- A history of physical abuse
- Delinquent behavior
- Mental health disorders
The Homeless Research Network added more to this list of risk factors:
- African American
- Youth who are pregnant or parenting
- Recent history of homelessness
- Those who frequently changed schools
- Those with a higher number of foster care placements
- Justice system involvement (youth with convictions)
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child welfare strategy group, found that another contributing factor to homelessness was that foster youth are more likely to be unemployed. In fact, while only 20 percent of general young people are unemployed, a staggering 54 percent of youth who aged out of foster care are unemployed each year. This is because child welfare professionals often wait to ask foster youth about their life skills and professional talents until they’ve become teenagers with only a few years left before they “age out” and not enough time to acquire skills necessary for the workforce.
Even with all these negatives, researchers have found two strong positive/protective factors: placement with a relative while in foster care and a high GPA in school. But most foster youth are not so fortunate.
What can be done to solve such a devastating problem?
Here is a list of organizations that are using effective public relations strategies to tackle this issue—and how you can get involved to help.
DONATE to an organization like Covenant House, which works to provide both short and long-term support to foster youth aging out of the system.
VOLUNTEER to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate. You can volunteer to help a foster youth with basic needs like opening a bank account, applying for college, getting their first apartment and moving. Many former foster youth become lifelong friends with their CASAs.
WALK for a good cause. If you want to exercise to help others, sign up for the annual Foster Walk.
MENTOR a former foster youth. If you have knowledge, a set of skills or a trade that you can teach to a youth aging out of foster care, volunteer for the Foster Care to Success program.
EDUCATE others. That starts by educating yourself. Follow ProjectMeetMeHalfway on Twitter today to learn more about youth aging out of care.
I don’t know what happened to every foster child who went through my afterschool program. I still talk to some of them on a regular basis, but some of them moved on and I can only hope that when they fell out of the nest, there was someone to catch them and help them fly. Maybe that someone can be you.
Featured image: source