May 31 2018

A Different Kind of Graduation: Aging Out of Foster Care

by Ashika Sethi

Most of us probably remember high school graduation, from giddily chatting with the friends you’ve made over the past four years, to nervously lining up to walk across the stage, to hearing distant cheers from your loved ones in the audience. Turning 18 and graduating high school is a momentous stepping stone in a teenager’s life – one that is usually celebrated as a moment when a child becomes an adult.

For youth in the foster care system, making the transition from child to adult means facing an onslaught of tough decisions and new responsibilities. When a teen in foster care is close to turning 18 and hasn’t reached a permanent home, they must decide whether they want to age out of foster care and, in turn, “graduate” from the child welfare system and lose accessibility to most of the services the system provides.

More than 23,000 teenagers age out of the country’s foster care system each year. In 2017, 44 teens who had CASA volunteers in Travis County aged out of foster care. Youth who age out are often put at a disadvantage in numerous ways.

According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 20% of youth who age out of foster care will become instantly homeless after they turn 18. 70% of girls who age out of foster care will become pregnant before turning 21. Less than 3% of youth who have aged out earn a college degree.

For some teens – aging out of foster care at 18 is inescapable, depending on the kind of placement they are in. If a teen chooses to engage in extended foster care services, they must to be in a licensed foster placement. If they choose to live somewhere else (like with a family member or fictive kin or by themselves), they would likely be forced to age out of foster care at 18, unless that family can become licensed foster parents. (Note: Texas does allow youth to choose to stay in care until they’re 21, and youth can choose to keep their CASA volunteer on the case if they do so.)

The process of aging out of foster care can be arduous for a teenager, to say the least. With multiple documents to attain, multiple meetings to attend, and the prospect of possibly losing a support system that they may have relied on to stay afloat, aging out of foster care is a process that requires a lot of moving parts.

We at CASA have a specific team dedicated to these teens who are about to age out of foster care. Volunteers on the Teen Advocacy and Permanency Project (TAPP) team at CASA of Travis County help teens to address their specific needs and establish positive goals and direction for their future. TAPP volunteers and staff focus on building a network of healthy adult connections to be a support for youth, on connecting them to resources, and on teaching life skills that will empower them to find success in adulthood.

Around the age of 16, CASA helps to get the ball rolling on the process of aging out by setting up a “circle of support” meeting – one that brings together the teen, CASA volunteer, CPS caseworker, and all related parties in order to identify the teen’s goals, dreams, and needs. These meetings help to set up a roadmap that guides the teen in what they need to get done and what documents they need to attain before aging out. CASA helps keep the ball rolling and helps prepare the teen on how to take ownership in adulthood.

“The biggest thing we do is believe in these kids,” says Alejandro Victoria, CASA’s Advocacy Program Manager on the TAPP team. “We help the teen believe that they can go to college if they want, and can have their dreams realized if they work for it.”

Once these teen’s dreams and goals are laid out, our CASA volunteers and staff put in the work to make sure these teens are getting the help they need so they can be prepared for adulthood. For Joseph, a teen who needed a state-issued ID before aging out, CASA’s advocacy was incredibly helpful. Joseph’s CASA volunteer drove him to the DMV to attain his ID, and when the employee asked about his permanent household, Joseph was at a loss for an answer. The CASA volunteer explained to the DMV worker that this teen was in foster care, which meant that they are moving around from placement to placement and don’t have a permanent home address. It was this explanation that made it possible for Joseph to obtain his ID that day.

CASA’s advocacy can take form in acts big and small, but equally important for youth. For Dahlia, a teen who was about to age out of care, CASA’s advocacy helped her remember her relatives and heritage. CASA staff wanted to give Dahlia more than just a sheet of paper that listed her relatives’ contact information, so they decided to brighten it up with an illustrated family tree. CASA staff put in that extra effort to make the experience of aging out just a little more personal for Dahlia, and make sure that her family tree was something she wanted to hold on to forever.

The transition from childhood to adulthood is hard without the added stressors of foster care. When teens in the system are making the transition from child to adult, we need to be there for them. We need to help teens re-realize and attain the goals that they’ve maybe become disillusioned about during their time in the system.

If you’re interested in becoming a CASA volunteer and joining the TAPP team to help teenagers in the foster care system, visit our Volunteer page to learn more.

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