Redefining “Independent”: A Case for Dependence

Jul 02 2015

By: Steven Olender

When I turned 18, I couldn't wait for the school year and summer to end so that I could go off to college and finally, finally¸ be independent. That independence, of course, still involved my parents paying for my school and every other aspect of my life and also being there whenever I needed advice or help. I suppose I had a very skewed view of what independence is.

For many kids aging out of foster care, independence is a far more harrowing prospect. They leave care and, unless someone intervenes, they are left to fend for themselves with no one to turn to. No matter what tools they are given to take care of themselves, a life without support is easy to derail. For a young adult just getting by with no one to call, an inconvenience like a flat tire can quickly turn to catastrophe.  I wouldn't have survived.   

There is a misconception that being independent means that we don't need anybody, but for young adults, especially those who have been in the system, this is simply not the case. At CASA of Travis County, we know that becoming truly independent involves finding healthy dependence on others. It means building a support system of adults who can help you navigate the myriad failures and successes in life. Without healthy adult relationships, it can be difficult for youth to even build these support systems. Take Sean for example. 

Sean entered services with his younger siblings as a teenager, clearly suffering the effects of trauma. His siblings were adopted by various families but Sean was bounced between different residential treatment centers as a result of different trauma-related behavioral issues. At first, he got to have visits with his younger siblings, but those visits became fewer and farther between as his siblings got acclimated to their new lives. Sean felt completely alone and terrified at the prospect of aging out of the system without anyone to fall back on.

Fortunately, Sean's CASA volunteer was able to find him a mentor in his community who helped him feel normal. He had dinners at his mentor's home and that relationship gave him a sense of normalcy. Together with the counselors at his treatment center, they worked through much of Sean's trauma and he got involved in the local church community, where he built a network of support.  For Sean, approaching independence meant building a network of people on whom he can depend, people who value him and support him in his needs.

Sean's volunteer came to him through the Transitioning Youth Program at CASA of Travis County, which specializes in aiding older youth, just like Sean, as they prepare to age out of the system. The TYP volunteers focus on education, on prepping kids for adult living and, perhaps most importantly, on ensuring that youth facing independence have at least three healthy adult connections that aren't related to the system. In the end, those connections are what help move a transitioning youth from getting by to truly living and from surviving to thriving. To be truly independent, youth in the system need someone to turn to for advice and someone to call when they get a flat. Perhaps it's time we give up the idea that independence means going through life alone.