December Heroes to our Foster Youth

This is the third month since this particular blog entry began. I have found it extremely interesting searching the Internet as well as various other resources available to me in making my selection

My selection this month came down to two possibilities. One was a family in my own local community (Fargo, ND) who adopted four youth from foster care on National Adoption Day. This was a tough choice to pass up. The second, which is the choice, was chosen because of the work they do and the age group they work with.

December’s choice for “Heroes for our Foster Youth is:

“The Homecoming Project”
Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Homecoming Project is a Minnesota Department of Human Services project to increase the number of adoptions of adolescents who are under state guardianship in Minnesota.  The Minnesota Department of Human Services is contracting with the Minnesota Adoption Resource Network (MARN) to provide these services.  This demonstration project, funded by a federal Adoption Opportunities and Activities Grant, provides an opportunity to expand efforts to recruit permanent families for teenagers.

Their mission is:

To increase the rate and frequency of adoptions for teenagers under state guardianship

To strengthen participating youths’ connectedness to caring adults and the larger community

They work with youth ages 13-17 who:

• are under state guardianship

• have a permanency plan of adoption

• have no identified adoptive family

• had a termination of parental rights court 
   ordered more than one year ago

Minnesota, like most states in the country, has a high proportion (22%) of its youth in care between these ages. However, this age group only makes up 8% of the adoptions each year. Though I have a passion for all youth in care, this age group holds a very special place in my heart for I have been there, done that!

It has been shown across the country that as a youth ages as well as the longer they remain in care the less the prospect they will ever be adopted. This means they will age out of the system upon their eighteenth birthday.

In a few states assistance if offered to those aging out; if they meet and continue to meet certain requirements.

Unfortunately for youth in most states aging out; they will be on their own whether they are prepared for it or not. If teenagers in foster care don’t find permanent families, they face a grim future. Every year, more than 24,000 American young people age out of foster care.

Young people who age out of foster care don’t tend to fare very well. With nowhere else to go, many return to the biological families they were taken from to begin with, families where they faced abuse and neglect. They’re more likely than their peers to end up pregnant, or in jail. One study found that one in five young people who age out of foster care becomes homeless. Many never even finish high school.

A decade ago, children were more likely to spend years in foster care as authorities tried again and again to reunite them with their biological families. The 1997 Children and Safe Families Act called on states to terminate parental rights faster so that children would be available for adoption sooner. The idea was to give more children permanent, stable homes. This has proven in some cases successful but this success story mostly applies to babies and younger children, not teenagers.

In the years since, the number of children in foster care has dropped, overall. But the number of teenagers in foster care has risen. And for teenagers in foster care, the odds are still heavily against finding a family to adopt them.

Here are some of the numbers:

Total number of children in foster care in the United States:

1998: 559,000
2005: 513,000

Number of teenagers in foster care:

1998: 180,961 (31 percent of total)
2005: 203, 382 (40 percent of total)

Number of teenagers adopted from foster care:

1998: 3,096 (8 percent of total adoptions from foster care)
2005: 5,750 (11 percent of total adoptions from foster care)

Number of teenagers considered “awaiting adoption”*:

1998: 17,719 (14 percent of all children awaiting adoption)
2005: 29,437 (26 percent of all children awaiting adoption)

Number of teenagers who emancipated, or aged out, of foster care:

1998: 20,000             2005: 24,407

*Most of the children in foster care are not considered to be “awaiting adoption.” Adoption is the “case goal” of only 20 percent of the children. The case goal of some children is emancipation or long-term foster care, meaning no attempt is being made to find permanent families for those children. 2005 is the last year data is fully available.

Sources:

Figures compiled by Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago using data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System
(AFCARS).

The AFCARS report preliminary estimates for 2005 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

How many of you can say we were ready to face the world without support from family, mentors or others in the community willing to offer support in some fashion?

Most, when you turn eighteen will have a supportive family or other resource.  You may have assistance in helping pay for college; you will have a home to go to spend the holidays and summer vacations from school. You may even be provided a rent free place to live if you are attending college locally. You definitely, in most situations, will not be on your own; alone in the world.

I remember my first summer after aging out; it was spent on the streets surviving in any manner I could until college started in the fall. I was fortunate I at least had a scholarship to college. 

I remember that first Christmas season after I aged out of the system. During Christmas break when the campus closed down I had nowhere to go; I did not have a family or a home. I spent those three weeks, with special permission from the college, alone in my dormitory room. I spent the following years in the same manner.

Since I was not taking courses during the summer I had to vacate my dorm room. It was not home to family that I went; rather it was to a “rented room” while I worked during the summer until the fall semester.

I was one of the fortunate ones. Despite the lack of a support system; I made it! However, an overwhelming number of youth aging out without a support network, especially family, do not do so. Only 2% of these youth will make through to a college degree.

This is why “The Homecoming Project” is so important to the youth it serves.

Family is vital, whether it be biological or adopted, to a youth not only before they turn eighteen but even after. Many have family for many years; some even until their own death. Too many youth, where parental rights have been terminated, have no one.

The failure statistics among these youth I have indicated in previous blog entries.

One of the major practices The Homecoming Project is having the youth actually have a voice, many times for the very first time since they came into care. The youth are fully engaged in identifying and achieving their individualized permanency outcomes.  Not only are they able to participate in cultivating their own recruitment plans, developmentally they must participate, in order to mature into healthy adults. 

The Homecoming Project field tests innovative practices in adoption.  Wilder Research will document and evaluate the effectiveness of the project.  Findings will be published and distributed throughout the project, setting new standards for practice with adolescents in adoption…it is hoped it may one day become a program in communities throughout the country.

So with this in mind; has the project and youth proven to be successful?

The Homecoming Project got a federal grant to try to place more teenagers in permanent homes. It assigns kids adoption recruiters who search for people to adopt the kids. The project is now entering the fifth year of its five-year grant, and it has placed 32 teens in permanent homes. That’s a third of its caseload, and a much higher rate than the state average.

Here are just three of the success stories of The Homecoming Project:

Amanda & Chris: were featured on a MN NPR documentary program in November

http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/fostercare/c1.html

Roger:

http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/fostercare/e1.html

The project is directed by Michelle Chalmers, herself a former foster youth who aged out of the system. She spends her days trying to find families who will adopt teenagers, trying to persuade teenagers that they ought to consider being adopted, and trying to persuade the rest of the world that they should care what happens to kids in foster care.

When Chalmers herself turned 18 and couldn’t stay in her foster home anymore, she went to college. That’s unusual.

She couldn’t go back and stay with that family in the summer. She had to find jobs that included housing, such as being a camp counselor. She’s gone on to make good friends and to find a partner, but she still misses having a family. She says she’s 40 years old, but she’s still aging out of foster care. I can relate to Michelle since I am now 57 and still aging out. I say, “though you may leave the system, the system never leaves you!”

“Every holiday it’s the same, trying to figure out how much time I can be with my partner’s family,” she says.

The people in her partner’s family like each other. They call each other up to chat.

“It’s very nice. It’s very sweet,” she says.

“It’s wonderful but I have to take breaks. It makes my mind go crazy places … It’s a constant reminder of what could have been, or what most people on the planet have, in terms of human relationships.”

But that loss also helps her understand kids whose own families have fallen apart. “I think it’s one of the ways that I think I do my work well, is that I know the empty spots,” she says. “And that doesn’t mean we’re all a bunch of freaks running around who can’t function. But I think there are vulnerable empty spots that are just going to be there.”

So it makes her angry when people ask her why bother finding adoptive homes for teenagers.

“That blows me away, that anybody thinks that kids in foster care need families only until their 18th birthday,” she says. “I say, you’re 40, do you have a family? Most do.”

Although many people lose family members to divorce and death, it’s a rare person who has no family at all.

Chalmers says foster kids ought to have the same opportunity to have lifelong connections with people.

“We should have the same expectations for their future as the kids we birth,” she says. “We have a higher responsibility to them because we took these kids from their families – for good reason most of the time, but implicit in that is a promise to find something else.”

It makes her angry when well-meaning social workers teach foster kids how to find a homeless shelter or a food shelf after they age out.

“It’s like people who go on suitcase drives to collect suitcases because foster kids often move with their stuff in a garbage bag. That just puts me over the edge. Why do we assume that it’s OK for foster kids to move 500 times so we just get them luggage so they can do it prettier?

“People do these feel-good activities and the assumption is: You don’t deserve a family, you’re not going to get one … so here’s a new duffel bag! Good luck to ya! It feels insane to me.”

Michelle Chalmers wants to keep doing this work. Once the grant expires, it is in its final year, she plans to launch her own agency and keep finding teenagers a place they can call home forever.

For more information on the Homecoming Project works and the support they provide go to:

http://www.mnadopt.org/homecoming.htm

Some of the current teen youth eligible for adoption:

http://www.mnadopt.org/hp_youth.htm

6 Responses

  1. Another fantastic choice! What an inspiration for foster youth across America! It’s nice to see that many people still have Hope for our Foster Youth, which is what the Advent season is all about!

  2. What a wonderful organization. We are interested in taking teens one day. Right now we are full to capacity with our little ones! One of the things that always hits home with me is the line
    “That blows me away, that anybody thinks that kids in foster care need families only until their 18th birthday,” she says. “I say, you’re 40, do you have a family? Most do.”
    I know as an adult how many times I’ve turned to my parents, family, grandparent, etc for support. People always need family, no matter how old they are!

  3. It breaks my heart when my aged out kids tell me that they don’t know where they’d be without my love and support. They should have had a permanent family YEARS ago, but instead they sat in fc until they turned 18. What will it take for DCFS to understand that 18 is not some magical age? That ALL kids still need family BEYOND 18? I am so blessed by all my kids. I hope more people realize that teens need us too! I will continue to be an advocate for older kids in fc and for kids who have aged out.

  4. A great choice. As a foster parent of teens, this really hits home. It’s sad to see them pushed out on their own with no connection.

  5. Reading through those bio’s of teenagers from The Homecoming Project… I wish that I didn’t live a whole ocean away😦

    (even though I would technically have been a mother just a few years older then themselves, lol)

  6. This is a wonderful blog. I just stumbled across it today and am sure I will be a frequent visitor. As someone who has been an advocate for foster youth and continue to work with other advocates, I agree that the Homecoming Project is an invaluable service for youth aging out of care. I hope as a society we can provide even more services, so that all youth leaving care on their own can have a “permanent connection” to someone who will be there for them for a lifetime.

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