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Orphaning the at-risk?
Aging out of foster care.
On the rare occasion when the foster care system fails to keep a child safe, it makes top-of-the-fold headlines. However, approximately 500 children each year quietly “age out” of the state’s foster care system.
In Massachusetts, once teenagers in foster care turn 18, they have a choice: remain in the custody or care of the Department of Social Services, or opt out. Many attempt to live on their own without the resources, skills or connections needed to succeed. They move abruptly from an environment of heavy support to no support at all. Many end up as school dropouts, pregnant or incarcerated — more prone to substance abuse and at greater risk for contracting HIV.
A Nevada study found 41% had been incarcerated within six months of leaving foster care, 37% had not completed high school and 37% had been homeless. A similar study in Wisconsin showed that after leaving care 39% were unemployed, with 27% of males and 10% of females incarcerated at least once.
The Home for Little Wanderers, the oldest and largest child welfare agency in New England has been grappling with this issue for some time.
Since The Home initiated the Youth Transitioning To Independent Living Task Force with Cambridge Family and Children’s Services two years ago, we have actively pursued our mission to improve the system of services so as to enable these young persons to successfully manage self-sufficient living. The Home has proactively provided services to aging out youth through our Independent Living Program in Norwood, our job training initiative at the Orchard Home and School, and an agency-wide mentoring program.
We are grateful for a $100,000 grant from the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation — it will help us launch a research-based needs assessment examining gaps in knowledge and data about this target population. With the consequent understandings, we will be in a compelling position to raise additional funds to develop programming and support it through public policy advocacy.
It is excruciatingly painful to read about the rare occasion when a child in the system is abused or neglected. But the every day failure to provide for those aging out of foster care is no less tragic. It requires action and it needs to stay top-of-mind, even without top-of-the-fold coverage.
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