When I speak to adults about the effects of aging out of foster care, I often start with a question. “When you turned 18, did you still need your parents?”
The answer is always a resounding “yes!”
Most young adults, or “transitional age youth,” are eager for independence. However, they still rely on their parents for financial support, advice, and a soft place to land. Having parents in the picture eases the transition to adulthood.
But what happens when a young person ages out of foster care?
Aging out, or “emancipating” from foster care, occurs when a young person turns 18 years old, or 21 in some states, without the support of a permanent family. In my work at Olive Crest, I have seen many young adults navigate the transition to adulthood. Some are successful, but many struggle to meet the challenges that accompany a new level of independence.
We know from research that aging out of foster care makes people more likely to experience difficult life circumstances.
Specifically, former foster youth are more likely than their non-foster peers to:
- Experience unemployment,
- Live below the poverty line,
- Be incarcerated,
- Withdraw from college and/or
- Experience homelessness.
Past Trauma Can Hinder Future Success
When you look at a transitional age youth, it’s hard to imagine that his or her present reality could have been deeply impacted by events that occurred in their early childhood. But that’s exactly what science tells us about trauma. The effects of aging out of foster care are connected to past trauma. Children and youth come into foster care because of trauma that they have sustained, usually on a chronic basis. For many of these young people, trauma was experienced beginning in their early childhood or even as early as in the womb.
We now know that early childhood trauma causes differences in brain development that can impact a young person for life. The events of a person’s early childhood can cause psychological wounds that impact their choices as adults.
A background of trauma combines with the lack of family support that many former foster youth experience. Woundedness from family relationships also contributes to misperceptions of God, which leads many transitional age youth to doubt that there is a God who cares for them. It’s no wonder that they struggle with the effects of aging out of foster care in adulthood.
However, the aftermath of trauma and the pain of isolation doesn’t have to be a life sentence for young adults! It has been said that trauma occurs in the context of relationships, and it can only be healed through relationships.
At Olive Crest locations across the western United States, transitional age youth are living in apartments and other shared living environments. They gain a taste of adulthood with the help of staff who support them in all areas of life. Churches and individuals have come alongside these former foster youth. They help them overcome the effects of aging out of foster care through the power of relationships.
Opening the Church Doors
In Las Vegas, Nevada, a church has opened its doors for the past three years to host a graduation ceremony for Transitional Age Youth. In conversation with Olive Crest staff, the church leaders understood that “graduation” could mean much more than finishing school. The young adults were invited to celebrate not only school completion but also securing employment and reaching other personal goals. Hosting the event at the church provided a special event for the participants. It also showed them that the local church could be a place of refuge and support when they need help.
Cooking Up Connection
Holidays can be difficult for young adults who have aged out of foster care. At a time of year when everyone seems to be celebrating the closeness of their families, transitional age youth may feel especially isolated.
In the Seattle, Washington area, one local church decided to reach out to the participants of Olive Crest’s Transitional Age Youth Program. They recruited volunteers to cook a full, homemade Christmas meal. The young adults, staff, and volunteers were able to share a meal of ham, chicken, scalloped potatoes, and all the fixings.
The church has made the Christmas meal an annual tradition. This touchpoint has provided opportunities for church members to develop friendships with young adults. One member started a monthly cooking class, which turned into mentorship opportunities and prayer meetings.
When a church in Orange County, California, supported our Transitional Age Youth Program with donations, they asked to meet beneficiaries. We introduced them to a brother and sister who had recently moved in together, fulfilling their dream to share an apartment as young adults. The church members recognized the special connection that this brother and sister had, as well as their motivation to succeed. They decided to partner with the siblings in additional ways by bringing them a Christmas tree and gift cards and by verbally affirming their achievements.
Through an event in Los Angeles, another church member met a former foster youth who had just had a baby. She connected with this young mother, offering supplies and resources for her to be able to parent her baby. She pitched in to help when the mother and child moved apartments, and she mentors her in her parenting journey.
There are many creative opportunities to provide relational connections for transitional-age youth. We have seen a marine biologist spend time giving career advice to a young person interested in his field. A fitness instructor came alongside a young adult to help her develop a menu of nutritious meals. A church provided scholarships to transitional age youth to help with rent and resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. The list is endless.
The unifying theme in all these stories is that each church and individual started somewhere. In most cases, they got in touch with us at Olive Crest to ask how they could help. Through those opportunities, church members discovered the specific ways that God had gifted them to meet the relational needs of transitional age youth.
Churches, individuals, and families are demonstrating to transitional age youth that they are not alone. They have made strides to help young people discover a future free from the wounds of trauma. They are helping to heal their perception of a loving God. And they are reversing the effects of aging out of foster care.
Next time you hear about bleak statistics for youth aging out of foster care, I hope you will think of these stories and ask a local agency how you can help!