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Embracing Teens Who Age Out of Foster Care

family with teen daughters

People stop in their tracks when they encounter Embrace’s Portraits of Hope gallery on display in their church. Dozens of canvas portraits capture the spirit and personality of each unique child. This traveling exhibit is an incredible tool to find adoptive families for children but also confronts the viewer with the heartbreaking reality of children lingering in foster care. From that realization stem two common questions: Do older children ever get adopted? And, what happens when they don’t?

To address the first question, yes! Many teens are adopted into loving, adventurous families each year. Whether joining the fold as a big brother, younger sister, or only child, these teens are capable of incorporating into existing family structures, culture, and fun. Additionally, they inject fresh ideas, traditions, cuisine, and (at times) vocabulary that enliven and challenge. 

Our Story

My oldest son was 16 the day we met him for a “pre-adoption visit”. Every moment of that afternoon is etched in my memory. Glancing in the rearview mirror, momentarily startled to see him in the back seat. Making small talk in a booth at Chili’s. Long silences broken by drink refills and (blessedly) bottomless chips & salsa. It’s surreal to “court” a young man in this way. Strangers tiptoeing through stilted conversation, all the while hurtling toward the sudden intimacy of familyhood. 

Two weeks later, he moved in. His adoption took a year to complete, but his sonhood was cemented that very day. His remaining high school years went by in a blur that, at times, possessed the nausea-inducing speed and curves of a roller coaster. Phenomenal highs gave way to cavernous lows. His departure from our home at age 20 was abrupt, but of his own volition and not without a degree of planning. While he returned home to visit periodically, it was the bittersweet end of our son’s time under our roof.

Being Parents

Not long after moving out, our son called with a series of questions:

What does “salvaged title” mean?

Am I still on your car insurance?

Would you ever co-sign on something?

Thanks to our incredible deductive reasoning, we realized our son was calling from the dimly lit office of a used car lot. About to sign away his life. We were flattered he sought our counsel and relieved he decided to pass on the “great deal” on that car. In the years that followed, other calls, conversations, and favors popped up regularly. We helped him apply for a lost birth certificate. Loaned our truck (and backs) to retrieve a couch bought off Craigslist. Cheered when he got the job then, as all good parents are sworn to do, made embarrassingly frequent visits to dine at the restaurant where he waited tables. We walked him through a tax return. I mailed him homemade cookies and a Dave Ramsey book. No monumental events or sage wisdom imparted. Just consistent, loving availability. 

Teens Who Don’t Have Parents

For a child who might have otherwise left foster care untethered and alone, the connection to an adoptive family is life-altering. Familial bonds, even when new or tenuous, create a safety net. But what happens in the absence of that safety net? When a teen doesn’t have a parent’s couch to crash on? Or answer their 2 am text? Or someone who sends a pizza on their first day of college? Canadian bacon and pineapple because mom knows your favorite. What happens when teens don’t get adopted?

Teens Leaving Care

The grim statistics for teens leaving care without a family are a stark contrast to the gentle, supported transition of their adopted peers. Children in foster care may spend years adrift in the system, while their chances of adoption dwindle. By age 15, a child’s caseworker begins planning for the eventuality the child will “age-out” of foster care. Teens are enrolled in a series of PALs, or Preparation for Adult Living, classes. This cheery acronym belies the tragic necessity of these courses such as “Dress for Success!” and “Finance Fun”.

These 18-year-olds are, in truth, rarely prepared for adult living. Many lack a high school diploma or GED. Few have a driver’s license. Most have not held a job or cashed a paycheck. It comes as no surprise that outcomes for these teens, thrust into the world wholly unprepared, are fraught with crisis. Within months of emancipation, a quarter of youth are homeless, and 80% cannot support themselves. By age 21, 7 out of 10 young women are pregnant or parenting. From payday loans to abortion clinics, the world teems with predatory forces and snares. While belonging to a family is the ideal solution, the presence, and intervention of the Church can dramatically improve outcomes.

The Church’s Role

Many churches aspire to care for vulnerable children and young adults but struggle to connect with and serve these populations in meaningful ways. Churches that approach Child Protective Services directly are often assigned somewhat menial tasks. This dismissiveness may seem ironic coming from an overtaxed and under-resourced system. I would suggest it is, instead, symptomatic of decades of apathy and project-minded myopia on the part of the Church. Simply put, we lack a reputation for consistency, unity, and commitment.

A Program for Teens Aging Out of Foster Care

Embrace, a ministry in North Texas, was founded to address this disconnect churches face. Embrace bridges the gap between churches and the needs of neglected and abused children and youth leaving foster care. Over a decade of listening, meeting tangible and spiritual needs, building relationships, and serving with excellence has forged a partnership that creates a safer community for children. Surface level tasks have been replaced with a Church serving in deep and unprecedented ways in child welfare.

teen graduation balloon

One powerful example of this collaboration is the graduation party for teens leaving foster care Embrace hosts in partnership with multiple congregations. In addition to typical celebratory cake, food, and gifts, this unique event features an “independence fair”. Teens can browse and even apply for college, residential housing, mentoring, job training, armed forces, internships, and scholarships. This robust network of resources lets teens in foster care know where they can turn when they face challenges with transportation, child care, employment, and housing.

How the Program Works

When teens move into their first apartment or dorm, Embrace delivers a “First Apartment Kit” full of new household supplies for their bed, bath, and kitchen. These items are provided by churches, often through VBS offerings, Angel Tree, or youth groups serving together. Larger items, such as beds and cribs, are delivered and assembled by church volunteers as well. When given the tools to keep house, prepare healthy meals, and get a good night’s sleep, young adults leaving foster care are more likely to maintain their housing and less likely to become homeless. Stability and safety increase, even more, when teens connect to a caring, local church body.

The first steps a young adult takes into independence can lead them toward their dreams or toward disaster. Every interaction, every support, every call to check-in, every hand up, every ride to work can alter the trajectory of their lives. Sometimes a shift of mere degrees, over time, can create an impact that changes lives and generations to come. Join us in prayer that more children will be welcomed into forever families and that those who enter adulthood on their own would find their safety net in the family of the Church.

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