The child welfare field is a challenge. Inevitably, children are lost, and we are all haunted by the question of whether we could have done more to help. As a whole, though, child welfare professionals have addressed these challenges by working to make the system better. In many ways, those efforts have been tremendously successful.
But there’s an area where all of us have failed—where all of us need to do better.
In our current system, when young men and women turn 21, they “age out” of the child welfare system and are no longer eligible for services. At first glance, that may sound reasonable. At 21, we normally consider people adults. But imagine you’ve been abused or neglected as a child, bounced from one foster home to another, and had to change schools every few years. At 21-years-old, you’ve never paid rent, bought your own groceries, or managed your own expenses. Would you be able to manage on your own?
Even under the best of circumstances, young people mature at different rates. But under the best of circumstances, those who lack the capacity to fend for themselves have a safety net. They have a family and a community around them. For young people aging out of the child welfare system, there is no safety net. We’re throwing them into the deep end of the pool knowing that many of them can’t swim. If they sink, we all pay the price. The next system they fall into they may not get out of and it will be very expensive for taxpayers. All too often, they will end up homeless or turn to drugs and crime—a bad outcome for them, as well as for government budgets and the quality of life in our communities.
What’s the solution? We can’t close the door to these kids when they turn 21. We must better prepare them to be 21. If we know a parent’s rights were terminated when a child was 16 years old, we can be pretty certain that that youngster will age out while in our care. Knowing that, we should take those five years to help that young person learn the skills necessary to transition smoothly into adulthood and independence. We must strengthen our efforts to place these kids either on an academic path or into a job training program that will prepare them for the workplace. If we do a better job preparing them for the future, they’ll be on a track toward life as a productive member of our society, rather than as a life-long problem for society.
We need to treat them as if they are our own kids. Do you abandon your children when they turn a certain age? We shouldn’t treat these kids any differently.