Aging Out of Foster Care

May 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Foster care is supposed to be a temporary haven for children living in unsafe conditions. But about one-quarter of the 500,000 children in foster care in the U.S. end up in the system until they become adults. DELORES ROACH: Everything is all right at school? OPRAH LINDSEY: Fine.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Oprah Lindsey has been fortunate enough to remain with the same foster mother, Delores Roach, for 15 years. She was put into foster care at age three because of an abusive mother.

DELORES ROACH: Oprah will always be part of my home. I don’t think anybody would ever be able to take that away from her. It goes way beyond fostering.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Lindsey is now on track to graduate high school and plans to go to college to study nursing. But most foster children don’t have that kind of success. A full two-thirds of the children who age out — meaning those who leave the system when the state stops paying their foster parents — are unable to function successfully on their own. That’s according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago. Mark Courtney is the study’s author.

MARK COURTNEY: Many of them have a very hard time making ends meet financially. They don’t leave the foster care system with much in the way of human capital. They don’t go on to college in great numbers; many of them don’t even have a high school diploma. They have a lot of mental health problems.

They have very unstable living arrangements. They move around a lot, very high rates of homelessness, and they end up getting involved with the criminal justice authorities. Many of them end up arrested or incarcerated. And others are victimized themselves, either physically or sexually.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Nationwide, an estimated 30,000 adolescents age out of the foster care system each year. According to the Child Welfare League of America, 25 percent become homeless, 56 percent are unemployed, 27 percent of male children end up in jail. In fact, the next big wave of homeless people might be foster kids aging out.

Thomas Hudson is a prime example. Born in Chicago to a drug-addicted mother, he was placed in foster care at age 13. He aged out of the system earlier this year, and is now working part-time in an after-school program. Hudson barely makes enough money to buy groceries.

THOMAS HUDSON: Oh, my God. Where I am now is not where I want to be. I am in a messed-up situation. I don’t have an apartment of my own. I’m basically homeless because I’m living at the mercy of other people. And I’m dependent on them to do stuff for me. And I don’t like that because that’s not living. I feel like I’m right back in the same situation that caused me to enter the system in the first place.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Transitioning foster children like Hudson to independence is particularly difficult because state foster care systems don’t usually provide educational or employment support.

Bryan Samuels, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, admits that the child welfare system has paid little attention to kids who age out. He says when the state has taken custody, its responsibility should not end at age 18.

BRYAN SAMUELS: In effect, you’re taking on the job of parenting, and no parent believes at 18 that their child is ready to live independently. And therefore if parents don’t think that, then why should the taxpayers or the department act as if these victimized and abused and neglected children should be able to?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Abused and neglected children like Nicole Porter, who at age 21 still deals with the psychological aftermath of being raped by the son of her foster father. She ran away after the rape, but was returned to the foster home, where she attempted suicide.

NICOLE PORTER: I OD’d off some medication. Just so I — I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to escape from the problems. I wanted to just breathe, you know. For one, it happened; for two, nobody didn’t acknowledge it; for three, I didn’t’ get any comfort. Even my case worker tried to hide it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: She spent a total of ten years in foster care, in five different placements. When Porter aged out, she had no means to support herself, so she moved in with her sister and her five children.

Porter has been writing poetry for ten years and managed to get a GED. She had hoped to be in college, working on her writing skills, but instead, spends her days taking caring of her nieces and nephews.

NICOLE PORTER: How many horses is it?


NICOLE PORTER: I enjoy being with the kids. I love working with kids. But I would love to do poetry. I would love to do poetry. I’m trying to write a book now, and I’m procrastinating a lot. But I want to write a book called “Everyone Has a Story,” so the people that’s going through everything that I’ve been through, or about to go through everything that I’ve been through, they can kind of have somebody to, “Hey, she went through this too and look at her now.”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Aware of the problem of kids aging out of foster care, Congress passed legislation in 1999, setting aside $140 million for independent living programs.

Denise Brown supervises an independent living program on Chicago’s North side.

DENISE BROWN: We’re doing some teaching around moving through the community on your own, and also assisting with some of the other socialization skills, things like dating, setting boundaries when friends are visiting, setting visiting hours, learning to cook for yourself, doing your laundry, setting an alarm clock and getting up on time.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Eighteen-year-old Terrence Williams has benefited from the program. In foster care from the time he was an infant, Williams has been in eight different foster homes, group homes, and residential treatment centers.

TEACHER: Every person that gets a degree, meaning minorities — I’m talking about minorities now…

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The program pushed Williams to enroll in an alternative high school that features small classes and also provides counselors.

COUNSELOR: Did he talk about going over it with you?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: He also enrolled in a music class at a community college, a class he hopes will help prepare him for a career in music. Researcher Mark Courtney says the independent living program model should be applied more broadly.

MARK COURTNEY: I think anything short of a policy that says to youth that have been in foster care who are our kids, “We will be there for you, to the point of having a place, a safe place for you to be, a home for you to be in until you’re at least 21″ — anything short of that really just flies in the face of realities of this group. We don’t do that yet.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In fact, says Courtney, the problem is even worse than the number suggests. While there are 30,000 foster kids who age out annually, there are another 30,000 who are simply dropped from state care because they’ve run away. Those are the foster kids with no support, and no ties to the system once charged with raising them.

JIM LEHRER: For more on this, there’s a separate documentary on the subject that will air next Thursday on many PBS stations. It’s called “Aging Out.” Please check your local listings for the time.