TRANSITIONING FROM adolescence to young adulthood is an arduous feat for anyone. Imagine going through this transition at 18, alone – looking for housing, maintaining a job, going to school, and balancing your finances. The task now seems almost impossible, and being successful feels unattainable. For many young people “aging out” or transitioning from foster care, this is their reality. As a former foster youth who recently reached adulthood, I have faced some of these challenges. In my case, my success was a direct result of the emotional support I received from my biological family and other adult mentors, as well as my direct access to helpful services. As a result, at 25, I could successfully complete graduate school, maintain my housing and move forward into my career.
Large numbers of foster youth are not so lucky. They are disconnected from the people and resources that they need – and deserve – to have a fair shot at success as an adult. Each year, nearly 25,000 youth age out of foster care on their own, without the support of family and caring adults to anchor them and be the crucial safety net that most youth who grow up in a family have.
May is National Foster Care Month. In the United States alone, 427,910 children and youth are in foster care. Large numbers are waiting for their forever homes, where they can find the safe harbor of people who provide them with unconditional love and support. They are looking for the people who will be with them as they grow up and enter adulthood. Youth who are not connected to family during their time in foster care are at high risk to age out with bad results, like homelessness, reliance on public assistance, and early parenthood.
It would not be hard to change the story we hear over and over again about youth aging out of foster care by connecting youth to caring adults and supportive services. Looking back on my life, I acknowledge the numerous opportunities I had, with mentors and supportive adults who poured love into me, taught me, and have directly contributed to my success. I can vividly remember my amazing foster parents who took me to every school play, taught me self-love, responsibility and the value of education at an early age, and remained connected with me even after I returned to my biological family and up until their untimely death when I was in college. I also remember Ms. Paula, my second social worker, who attended our school plays, took us on trips, and made every one of my birthday cakes until I was 12. It was her investment in my overall well-being that motivated me to see a successful future for myself and pursue a career in human services.
I would not be who I am without my connection with my biological family, who supported my attendance in a variety of afterschool programs. These programs – like Philadelphia Youth Networks’ Workready summer program, Education Works Summer Program – not only gave me skills, but connected me with mentors and a support system. It was also important to me to connect with other alumni of foster care. I did this through the Foster Care Alumni Association, PA Chapter and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program, or CCAI.
In recognizing the need to engage and connect vulnerable youth to supports, I was part of the development of a web-based application to help young adults find the resources that they need. In my work at Juvenile Law Center, we partnered with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Hack4 Impact. We all saw an opportunity to use technology to help youth make the connections they need to find resources like clothing, healthcare, food, and aftercare services to further support their transition into adulthood. This app – which we’ve named Youth Matters: Philly – puts knowledge and power into young people’s hands.
Marcia Hopkins is on the staff of the Juvenile Law Center.