There is an odd paradox in the fact that while foster kids were forced to grow up very quickly, they are often treated as a very small child the entire time they are in care. Then they are thrust into adulthood the moment they age out. They are expected to function in the same capacity as anyone else who has been exposed to life at a more gradual and deliberate pace.
It is sad to say, but many foster children will never date, drive, hold a part-time job, jump on a trampoline, play with firecrackers, spend the night at a friend’s house, or even go to the movies or mall with friends until they age out of care. Then they are suddenly expected to make wise “adult” choices in a responsible manner simply because a court document was changed. This is highly unlikely if not impossible.
If your kids are at all trustworthy, it is imperative that you allow them the freedoms their “normal” counterparts enjoy. This becomes a bit difficult when you understand that in many states the law does not allow foster children to jump on a trampoline or play with firecrackers. In addition, dating, driving, holding a part time job, and even going to the mall or movies with friends must be approved by their caseworker and written into their Individual Service Plan (ISP). If they are to spend the night at a friend’s house, it must be approved by their caseworker. A background check must be run on everyone eighteen and older in the friend’s home. It is obvious why so many foster parents take the easier road and just keep the kids at home all of their lives and then release them into the wild of adulthood like a caged lion. It is also easy to see why so many youth who age out of the foster care system end up incarcerated or homeless. According to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts, Time for Reform: Aging Out and On Their Own, one in four foster kids that age out of the system will be incarcerated within the first two years of leaving the system and over one-fifth will become homeless at some time after age eighteen. With these statistics in mind, it is imperative parents give their kids the best shot possible at being prepared for adulthood. Talk to your caseworker and try to develop an individual service plan for the child that allows them as much freedom and personal responsibility as possible. Just remember, if they do get a license, wait up for them to get home each night. Teens might think twice about getting into trouble if they know they will be facing a parent the moment they walk in the door.
This strategy is twofold. In addition to trying to give the kids as much freedom as possible while in the system, you must also try to minimize the amount of freedom and responsibility they have thrust upon them when they age out of care. Invite them to live with you rent-free when they age out while they get a college or trade school degree, save money for a house, and get on their feet. Help them fill out paperwork for college or job applications. Remember — biological or not — these are your children. Help them to get on their feet before you set them off running.
One other area of assistance that few foster parents are aware of is orthodontia care. Many children don’t have straight teeth, which if severe enough, can make it more difficult when they are searching for employment. Their Medicaid-based insurance often pays for the child to have braces if they have teeth that are crooked enough or if they have a large overbite. The braces do not cost the foster parent anything, and they are available free of charge even if the child has already been adopted. There are few orthodontists that accept Medicaid, but you can call your children’s healthcare representative to find the orthodontist closest to you that accepts the child’s form of Medicaid insurance.
We drive to a small town about an hour away each month so that two of my kids are able to have braces. It doesn’t cost anything except a little time and some gasoline. Once my kids were adopted, Medicaid continued to pay for the braces. I am more than happy to travel one town away, because I know the kids will enjoy having straight teeth for years to come. It will give them added self-confidence to get out in the world and accomplish their goals.
As parents, it is our job to be both the safety net and the catalyst that propels the child onward to a better life. Give them a place to always come back to and call home as well as the freedom to make a few mistakes while in your care. Most of all, love and support them both emotionally and financially as they try their wings and see what it’s like to be an adult.