Despite all of the unknowns, most have an implicit sense of safety knowing they have a home to fall back on during hard times. In contrast, for roughly 20,000 high school seniors nationwide who’ve been experiencing foster care, it represents a dichotomy of mixed emotions and realities. For those of us who fall into the latter, coming of age can be wrought with an anxiety for the future intersecting with a desire to be independent from a system that has often left us traumatized. It’s the realization that we’re “officially” on our own.
Widening socioeconomic gap: The 21st century has a very different reality for 18-year-olds than previous generations, and our country has not adapted enough to account for these changes. Scholars have pinpointed 18-30 as a new life stage, calling it “emerging adulthood.” That’s when instability replaces traditional markers of adulthood, and stability is not met until one’s 30s; if met at all. This is mostly due to a widening socioeconomic gap and the rising costs of living and education.
One of 3 people in emerging adulthood live at home with their parents, and two-thirds of these adults attribute living with their parents to the inability to afford to live alone and/or attend higher education. The majority of people believe that contemporary adults shouldn’t be considered “financially independent” until 25 to 28. (Coincidentally, so does the Department of Education when considering financial assistance eligibility for higher education). Additionally, “modern parenting” consists of continuous non-financial support well into late adult life, such as personal and financial development guidance, increased educational involvement and even increased personal health involvement including making doctor appointments. Compare these resources to emerging adults from foster care and we see a drastic difference in skills cultivated and opportunities provided.
No room for mistakes: This points to the fact that fostering a holistic sense of self, which is critical for stable adulthood, does not simply come to be just because someone has turned 18. The scientific consensus is that our brains don’t fully develop until our mid-20s, and an adolescent brain tends to learn from critical lessons — through trial and error — not rationality. Having guidance, mentorship and support is critical during this stage of life. Otherwise, lessons are learned the hard way. For some, these lessons have drastic consequences. For those without a large security and support system, there’s no room for mistakes. Youth who have experienced foster care are all too familiar with this heavy realization, and it’s a terrifying burden to know there’s no one to fall back on.
Recognizing this recipe for struggle, extended foster care programs have begun to develop and provide resources and assistance for young adults up until they turn 21; an attempt to increase equity and level the playing field among their peers. Speaking from experience, these resources come with a caveat of what feels like never-ending ultimatums and unmanageable bureaucratic paperwork and deadlines. Basic human resources in the form of food, shelter and transportation are all contingent upon a laundry list of requirements. Something as simple as an overlooked form could be the difference between keeping or losing your housing. Every decision, every choice made by youth in — or recently aged-out of — foster care comes with a list of potential consequences far more drastic than most of those with stable families would ever have to consider. Unfortunately, the requirements to qualify and maintain qualification for extended support is quite a delicate and volatile balance (see eligibility requirements here).
Being in the foster system holds many parallels to the prison and/or parole system. The smallest mistake or unfortunate accident can result in serious problems for those reliant on this system. A staggering 80 percent of foster youth suffer from mental health issues, and research shows that involvement in the criminal justice system, even at low levels (no convictions) has negative effects on mental and physical health. Beyond the tangible measures of health, suffering from this chronic cycle of stress results in a reduction in the development of personhood. Creativity, artistic expression, athletics, interpersonal connections and other important aspects of being wholly human take a back seat to simply surviving.