Aging out of being cared for… or about

A recent NPR story about Aging out of Foster Care brought many memories and emotions from days toiling in the trenches of non-profit mental health back to the forefront of my mind.  As our kids near 18 many of us think about college for them, however, for 30,000 foster teens this year alone, the arrival of their 18th birthday means not the guided transition to college or the co-facilitated exploration of quasi-independent living, but the end of support altogether.

In a sense, at least at first glance, the core of this issue is money; yet I would argue that the true core of the issue is consciousness—the will of the group to see itself as a group, with no one beyond the reach of true caring.  When I worked as a group home therapist, kids counted the days until turning 18—a time they imagined that they would magically have their own apartments, their own cars, girlfriends and good jobs (if they thought about work at all).  Emancipation was the dream of freedom and a better life, but as the day actually neared, nerves became more the issue than elation and cold feet or not, those feet had to hit the road.

Even if the young person realized that they weren’t ready for the street (and acknowledged this), the state didn’t seem to care about that.  In the end it often felt like we were pushing kids out of the nest that they had long proclaimed to hate… and it left me with a sick feeling in the gut—and a resolve that some day I would do something about it in whatever small way I could (although I still puzzle about what that might look like… blogging about it today is, I hope, a way to widen awareness and hope the best for ripple effects to find some sort of cumulative impact).

My two cents on this issue is that adulthood does not really begin in our culture until twenty-seven; therefore we would be kinder to conceptualize readiness for independent living for wards of states as at least somewhat older than eighteen.  This is tricky in that you would not want to overly limit those ready for more autonomy, however, kids at marked disadvantage (such as foster kids and group home kids) need a net and a buffer between them and the street.

Given that the brain isn’t even fully developed until around 24, and many “system kids” have serious emotional wounds, on top of the typical levels of things like learning differences and poor executive function (i.e. decision-making capability) on top of their natural developmental lack of maturity, many kids are falling through the cracks—ending up pregnant themselves, on the streets and, too often, in prison.  Not only is this a strain on our self-concept as kind and compassionate people, it also costs our society more in the long-run in so-called social services and in the criminal justice system than if we were pro-active in just helping them make the transition to adulthood.

Working in the system made me aware of just how ignorant I had been about both the face of abuse, neglect and abandonment and also the scope and scale of it.  For Angelenos, you might picture Staples center completely full and realize that is 19,000 seats; now imagine it half full again on top of that to picture just the teens aging out of foster care this single year—30,000 kids at unfair disadvantage of not going to college, of not having the sorts of lives we hope to support our children to have.  Now imagine not just a faceless crowd, but all the kids you know, your kids and their friends sitting in those seats—if kids are really all our kids, then it is simply unacceptable to hang any of them out to dry.

I think of one kid who turned eighteen and left his group home with much pride and bravado, only to later turn out to be living in a cardboard box in the alley behind his former group home.  In my mind he is the poster child for the situation as it stands.  Or perhaps equally emblematic is the mentally unstable kid who left his group home only to end up squatting in an abandoned house… where he died with his fellow-squatters in a fire.

Although we don’t always treat our elderly with compassion either, there is some general sense that as a society we need to provide something (i.e. Medicare, Social Security), and we typically agree that “children” should not be left to fend for themselves on the streets.  Is it possible that we all need some sort of help, but that we all have some sort of help to provide as well (including children and the elderly)?  How old would you say that someone is when he or she no longer needs the help of the group?  Do you think that a kid who has had a hard knock life should be cut-off at eighteen?  And what about kids who have suffered terribly at the hands of their caregivers?

I apologize if this is depressing, but my point is for us to more consciously know that these kids, all our kids, are out there, lonely and frightened as we write and read.  We may be personally limited in how much we can individually give right now to these kids, but we can still hold them in our minds—and I sincerely believe that even that makes a difference.  And over time, such consciousness leads toward different choices for the group, toward a re-ordering of values and a greater weaving together of our community—and to the realization that the earth is our home, and it is a group home.

Namaste, Bruce

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19 Responses to “Aging out of being cared for… or about”

  1. Justine Says:

    At eighteen, my mom was still chauffeuring me to places, so yes, I agree that they’re just not ready to be cut out of our care at that age.

    My heart goes out to these kids, and all the kids who are far less fortunate in this world. I want to help but don’t even know where to begin.

  2. Randy Says:

    As a psychologist in a juvenile correctional facility I have come to understand the mistake that is made when we do not provide early support for all our children who need help. Juvenile corrections has become America’s largest provider of mental health services for children. That is not good news. By the time I see these young men many are already hardened by their lives and distrustful. Many have experienced tragic circumstances and some have participated in unthinkable crimes at a young age. For a few, this has already become a way of life.

    I could write many pages about these young people and the challeges they face. I do not relieve them of the responsibility for their actions but I do understand some of the underpinnings leading to those actions. I also work in a private practice setting. I often work with adolescents who are beginning to get into trouble. The difference is often early intervention. In this case it is usually parents having difficulties with their son or daughter and seeking help before the problem gets worse. Sometimes, it is court-ordered as an alternative to detention. The work is not always successful. Many times it is. The behaviors are almost always less severe than those I see in my prison work. At times I feel like I work in two different Americas and the difference between the two is advantage. Having a job, having health insurance, and having the money for the co-pay is what allows this early intervention to take place.

    I have come to believe that we can pay on the front end or we can pay on the back-end. The advantages of paying on the front end are numerous. For one, it’s cheaper. Early intervention can help prevent problems that will be harder (or perhaps impossible) to repair later on. Often early problems cascade into larger problems that have a greater impact on society which costs more resources. However, I believe the greatest benefit comes from the attitude that all our children are important and our society’s greatest resource. Protecting and building that resource is seen as everyone’s responsibility. I believe it leads to a stronger and better equipped nation because we really have concern for the vulnerable.

    Paying on the back-end is more costly and less effective. The system I work in has a fifty-six percent return rate. It used to be sixty-three percent. Waiting until someone makes it into the criminal justice system stacks the deck against the person and ultimately society at large. Not providing care for those making the transition into adulthood means we have a greater chance of losing a contributor and a greater chance they end up consuming the back-end resources of the criminal justice system or subsistence living.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thank you, Randy—for taking the time to share these thoughts, and particularly for toiling in the trenches, that gives far beyond the measure of money and I respect how much that asks of a person… which is why I would ask readers to join me in sending good spirit and gratitude to Randy as a front-line provider on this issue.

      I would hope that, as Justine asks, you, Randy, might have some additional thoughts on what a person who cares, but who does not have spare time or money, might do toward facilitating a higher consciousness around this issue. I also wonder what your clients might say if asked what would really help them, given that people who have limited funds and time and who aren’t part of the system would like to band together in a less formal way to recognize that we are all part of the same group, and that our group is sick and these kids are being used as a symptom, unconsciously asked to hold the Shadow for the group?

      Maybe today is more about widening and opening a dialogue in the shared truth that we care, we are limited, that we don’t really know what to do and have no path yet for staying engaged without being swamped by things too big to deal with alone.


      • Randy Says:

        Thank you for your good spirits. I believe this is what will help
        more than anything else. helping people to understand the
        serious need to really consider our children. I don’t believe we
        can take this too seriously. I really believe in the power of
        collective energy for change. I believe it can heal the world. Thanks everyone for your good thoughts.

  3. conniedelavergne Says:

    This issue is mind-boggling HUGE and completely depressing. I was crying by your second paragraph.

    Bringing children into the world unconsciously and irresponsibly is exactly what most people don’t want to look at and the ramifications are devastating to EVERYBODY, especially the children, for years and years and years-forever. There are SO many of these no-chance children. I had no idea.

    What would the world look like if people engaged in conscious sex only?

  4. Lindsey M Nelson Says:

    This is slightly off-topic, but related… do you, or any of your readers, know of any programs that match pregnant teens up with foster “parents” who want to help the teen be able to mother her own child while still finishing school, etc?

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      A couple of links from the NPR story might be good places to start and/or inquire on this:;

      Additionally, if you or someone you know has that sort of help to offer a pregnant teen, checking with local clinics, hospitals, clergy, or charitable organizations, etc. (and just mentally “putting it out there” that one is available to help in this way) often has an uncanny way of linking one up with a person in need.

      And if it’s a teen you are thinking of who needs the help (they may essentially be in need of the sort of foster-care that national foster care seeks to provide), however, supporting them in whatever small ways you can may be just the sort of micro-parenting that I think adds up to significant change over time.

      • Lindsey M Nelson Says:

        It is something I hope to do someday, probably when my own children are grown, and I have heard of other moms who have thought of doing the same thing. Thanks for these ideas!

  5. Christine LaRocque Says:

    I’m sitting here, thinking about what you wrote and realizing how profound this is. I have a sister who suffers from a very serious mental illness, and I remember the period between 18 and 23 when she struggled the most. She was, as yet, undiagnosed, floundering, lost and in very real danger from herself and the world. She HAD a supportive, attentive, caring family to help her along, to force her to get help and yet still we struggled with her (I’m sure you understand what I mean), so I cannot imagine how very lost youth of this age must be without that. It’s a sad reflection on society when we realize how little we do.

  6. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Each year in December I happen upon some version of the NYT’s Neediest Cases in which I see profiles of system kids looking for adoption. I have to assume that I am not the only one whose attention is drawn almost immediately to the chubby-cheeked toddlers and pairs of young siblings. As much as I, a former high school teacher, love and appreciate teens, I don’t stop to consider the uniquely bad place they occupy in the system – or even in these photo spreads.

    Thanks, Bruce, for drawing to our consciousness the needs of these kids and the reality of the cliff some of them are about to face. Thanks too to Randy, for his service and for his taking the time to share his experience with us.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I keep thinking that if we “adopt” or “foster” these kids as a culture, such an attitudinal shift would both trickle down and ripple up to embrace and support them, at least a little more than they receive at present, and without leaving singular individuals to have to take on so much of the load or else feel guilty for not doing more.

      Just as you note that the teens do not draw our compassion as readily as the little ones, it’s even harder to remember that the parents who fail these kids were also once those wounded little kids. Thus supporting parents to stay involved, and to get the support they need to heal and function, also serves these falling through the cracks young adults.

  7. krk Says:

    Becoming a mentor for a child at risk (usually identified by a teacher) can be
    helpful. Giving an hour a week to help with assignments or just to talk could
    be a start.
    Thanks to all who participated in this blog,and an extra thanks to Randy and
    Bruce for a” wake up call ” regarding all of our children.

  8. Katrina Says:

    Fifteen years ago, I saw a world I wasn’t expecting to see as an optimistic new Big Sister. The Little Sister that I was matched with was 12. I was 21 at the time. Standing side by side, my Little Sister was exactly my height and far more worldy than I. To make a long story short, her Mom was a prostitute and drug addict with many fatherless children. My Little Sister knew two of her siblings well,although she did not live with them. One wasin “juvenile hall” for firestarting and the other was a beautiful six year old girl, that I learned was still living with her mom in a dilapidated home without heat. My Little Sister was fortunate enough to be living with her grandparents, whoenrolled her in the Big Sisters program at the age of 12. Our relationship grew slowly and then eventually blossomed. The Big Sisters program itself provided workshops on issues like community safety and teen pregnancy for the matches, different social outings, cookouts, and free dental care. My Little Sister had never seen a dentist and needed around 8 cavities filled. Certainly many children in and around the system never get the chance to have a “formal mentoring relationship”, but perhaps we ourselves can be that informal opportunity if we let it be known that we want to be. This was the case of a beautiful family that I came to know and spend time with during my college years. With 5 children of their own, this lower lower middle class family was a place where several of their own children’s friends stayed at different times after being kicked out of their own homes (during high school years). This family operated around rules and responsibility and compassion, and became second families to these other children.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I guess in a way we’re all brothers and sisters, no matter what our current circumstances may be. Thanks for this lovely share, allowing it to ripple into my consciousness and that of others who may happen by your words here.

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