By Desiree Lindsay / For The Herald
For millions of high school seniors, summer represents the eager conclusion of an important chapter of their lives. It’s an optimistic apprehension to the conception of their coming-of-age story: graduating high school, embracing independence and looking to the future.
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.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms: Extended foster care didn’t exist in my youth, and I lacked a solid support system and outlet. I turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms and have had my fair share of run-ins with the law. I was lucky enough to have a kind foster family. Still, developing an intimate relationship with this family was severely hindered because of extreme religious beliefs. I am thankful for my caregivers and recognize that not all placements will be able to meet everyone’s emotional needs. The saving grace in my adolescence — and who I can honestly attribute successfully surviving that period of my life — was my probation counselor who went above and beyond as the only free resource I had available to me.
About 50 percent of youth who age out of the system will develop substance dependence. Almost 60 percent of the young men will be convicted of a crime, and more than a third of all youth who age out will experience homelessness by the age of 26. I am an example of all of these statistics. The sociological consequences of an ill-invested foster system costs taxpayers on average $7.8 billion per cohort.
Research suggests that investing an additional $50 million in support services at a younger age would lead to a reduction in investments later in life economically, and also can transform the lives of our youth without the drastic consequences of trial and error. This make more fiscal sense, and morally it is the obvious choice. Invest in the development and support of youth before resorting to paying the costs of rehabilitation as an adult. Do it right the first time.
Graduating from college: Support shows up in many forms, and while youth undeniably need financial support for survival, nothing can compare to having a consistent, reliable, trustworthy and intimate source of support. My counselor was my biggest cheerleader. She was my academic adviser, confidant in my personal life, and taught me how to open a bank account and manage my bills. She was my advocate in court, and her number was the only number I had memorized by heart.
She even surprised me on my first day of work at my first job, Taco Time. She was a priceless resource, and my main source of support from my teenage years into my mid-20s. She was in essence, my modern parent and I deeply believe that if every youth had one person in their life that represented this to them, society would benefit tenfold. This fall, I will graduate from Seattle University with a bachelor of arts in strategic communication and journalism. I’m fortunate to have achieved a stable enough life that it was possible to put myself through university. I wouldn’t be where I am today if she wasn’t a part of that critical time in my life.
That said, incredible challenges remain. The year has brought on an unprecedented set of obstacles that make the need for extended support even more dire. Between high unemployment rates, increasingly unaffordable college and living expenses, global trauma, political unrest centered around spreading fear and hate and tragic racial injustices being reported daily, my heart bleeds for those who feel lost, confused and forgotten.
Those left unsure where to turn. The need for love, support, community and connection is at an all-time high. The need for increased social services is soaring while the risk of budget cuts from a looming recession threatens the livelihood of the programs available to our foster youths.
Support as a basic human right: Treehouse’s Launch Success program partners with young adults well into their 20s as they work to achieve a college degree or other credential, living wage and stable housing. For me, the program shines a spotlight on the needed changes to address the socioeconomic disparities and shortcomings of our system today.
At the same time, the program actively provides more than the much needed additional financial resources. It is more than a stable bridge to the other resources and programs; and more than a source of unconditional love and community. It is more than someone to advocate for those who need it most, and more than a customized plan to actualize goals and achieve them. It is more than a modern parent for those who don’t have one.
The program invests in young adults that so many others have failed. Until support at this level becomes a basic human right — one that matches our modern times — we must continue to invest as a community in essential services that provide this assistance. It is an unimaginable expectation and disservice to believe that anyone can thrive without this. Programs such as Launch Success represent the most basic definition of a building block to a better life; fostering the holistic child beyond the mystical age of 18.
Desiree Lindsay is a marketing and communications intern at Treehouse, which partners with youth in foster care so they have a childhood and a future. Go to treehouseforkids.org to learn more.
Treehouse is a nonprofit organization, based in Seattle, that advocates for and provides resources to foster children, ensuring them the opportunities and support they need to pursue their dreams and launch successfully into adulthood. Learn more at treehouseforkids.org.