What’s It Like to Age Out of Foster Care?
Kids in state care can wind up on the streets when they turn eighteen.
This month, lawmakers are evaluating the Young Adult Voluntary Extension of Care Act, which would return the cutoff age for foster care services to twenty-one in 2018.
“We’re not going to go out and say this is going to be a zero balance,” says Darlene Allen, president of Adoption Rhode Island and vice chair of the Coalition for Children and Families, an advocacy group that lobbied for the bill. “It will have an impact on the DCYF budget.”
Residential foster care placements — which include kinship and DCYF placements — cost the state around $20 per day. Group home placements cost the state $323 per day on average. According to state DCYF data, 50 percent of foster youth ages fourteen to seventeen live in group homes. Advocates say the state hasn’t recruited enough foster families for teenagers in state care.
The aging out bill, which was introduced by Louis P. DiPalma in the Senate and Deborah Ruggiero in the House, would allow youth to petition for early emancipation or, alternatively, re-enter foster care if they age out early and need more support. Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, an educator in Providence who cosponsored the bill, says she’s taught students who have aged out in the middle of the school year.
“What I’m trying to do is make sure they have a support system in a transitional stage so they’re not ending up in homeless shelters,” she says. “At eighteen, we don’t just throw our own children out there. I have three sons of my own. I feel like it’s the right thing to do. It can’t be just about the budget.”
Jennifer Griffith, the state’s Child Advocate and DCYF watchdog, also supports the bill. Griffith, who recently wrapped up a review on infant deaths in DCYF care, says her next priority is to increase awareness of mentorship opportunities with youth in foster care.
Griffith’s friend, Lisa Guillette from Foster Forward, is intimately familiar with mentorship. Seven years ago, Guillette began mentoring a young woman in foster care named Bianca, a junior in high school who was interested in college. Guillette was paired with Bianca through Foster Forward’s Real Connections program.
“It helped with that awkward getting-to-know-you time,” Guillette says. “I got that Barron’s book of all the colleges and asked her what was important to her in a school. We plugged through that process together. I just did all the things my parents did for me.”
Bianca was accepted to La Salle University in Philadelphia. When she flew down to start, Guillette and Bianca’s social worker, Heather Ferro, went, too.
“That way, she had six checked bags for all of her stuff,” she says. “It was a personal contribution because we cared about this kid.”
When they got off the plane and headed to the rental car desk, Bianca realized she left her folder with her dorm assignment on the plane.
“Luckily the plane hadn’t taken off yet,” Guillette says. “Those are the silly things I did when I was eighteen. You need adults to help you figure that out.”
Bianca has since graduated from La Salle and moved in with Guillette and her husband and their two boys. Over Easter, Bianca hosted a big dinner for their extended family, which includes Bianca’s brother and sister and their children.
“My husband convinced all the kids that ham came from hamsters,” Guillette says with a laugh. “My life is so much more exciting because of her.”
Legislators are just beginning to talk about extension of care for foster kids, but the Voice — Rhode Island’s youth foster care advocacy group — has never stopped.
It’s the most urgent issue on the table, says seventeen-year-old president of the Voice, Stephanie. (Her last name is withheld to protect her privacy.) Stephanie will age out in December, right in the middle of her senior year of high school.
“You turn eighteen and you’re thrown out on your own. It’s scary,” she says. “You think you have your stuff together, but then you realize, as you get closer to eighteen, that you don’t.”
Stephanie entered state care at age two. After a brutal legal battle involving her foster family of two years, Stephanie’s grandmother was granted custody. Then, when Stephanie was nine, her grandmother survived a massive heart attack and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“There would be days that she would get very violent right off the bat,” Stephanie says.
At fifteen, she was removed from her grandmother’s home in rural Rhode Island and she was placed in a group home in Providence.
“It was a culture shock,” Stephanie says. “I knew what drugs were, but it got so much more real for me when I started seeing people around me doing things like that. It was overwhelming.”
She ran away from the group home and stayed at a friend’s house for five days. When she returned, she was notified that they’d given away her bed and she was moved to the Key Program, an emergency shelter for runaway, truant, abused or neglected teenage girls.
Stephanie stayed there for a week and was placed in another group home in Lincoln, closer to where she was raised. That’s when things started to look up. She got a job, volunteered on a farm and showed up to meetings at the Voice, which is hosted by Foster Forward. She went for the free dinner and stayed because she felt she could change things.
While living in Lincoln, Stephanie reconnected with a friend from her hometown. His family invited her on a trip to Maine and they took her fishing. And last November, they asked her to move in. When she ages out this winter, she’ll continue to live with them.
“They go above and beyond for me. I call them mom and dad,” she says. “They can’t adopt me, because my grandma is still my legal guardian, so I will still age out. But we’ve talked about how they could adopt me as an adult.”
Stephanie says she hopes to attend West Point Military Academy, where her foster dad went to school. Over the summer, the family travelled to New York and toured the campus together.
“Foster care isn’t what defines me,” Stephanie says. “Unfortunately I was in a situation that I needed to be in a group home, but foster care isn’t me. There are days when I wish it could’ve been different. But as long as I can have this family, I’m happy.”
Stephanie says she will continue to attend conferences and stakeholder meetings about youth in state care. She’ll be the voice for kids aging out of foster care because many will never experience the same stability and comfort — the lasting kind. Stephanie found it, and not a moment too soon.
Click here to read a story from our May issue about an undocumented young woman who also aged out of state care.