I will never forget the discouragement and hopelessness behind Marcus’ words. He and I had bonded during our time at MacLaren Hall – an asylum-like facility for Los Angeles County’s abused and neglected children. He had just heard the news that I’d be leaving in a week, to be placed with a relative. I would stay in this arrangement, known as kinship care, until I emancipated at age 18.
Even though our lives took different paths, Marcus and I are both alumni of a peculiar academy, where graduates receive no diploma and the optimism of the future is replaced by an inexplicable apprehension. The academy is called foster care. The commencement process is known as aging out. And for so many that cross its proverbial stage, it becomes a journey down a difficult road.
My journey began with an all-too-familiar narrative for foster children: I was born to two drug-abusing parents and, along with my four siblings, would spend most of my childhood surrounded by gang violence, prostitution and poverty. My mother frequently was incarcerated while my father, though present, was physically and verbally abusive when not under the influence. I was at risk of becoming a statistic: gang member, incarcerated or dead.
However, my trajectory changed because of the opportunity to live in kinship care. Unlike many foster children, I had an older sister who was willing to take in my siblings and me. I also had a Christian community that became an extended surrogate family. I was able to graduate from high school and college with a support network I obtained because of my sister’s sacrifice.
In many ways I am viewed as a foster care “success story.” I agree. I have been fortunate enough to impact foster care policy as an intern at both L.A. City Hall and Capitol Hill. However, even with the support of others, it was still extremely difficult to be in foster care and even more difficult when I emancipated. I was a young man dealing with the residue of a broken childhood and the constant reminder I would never return home to my parents.
And as lucky as I was, kinship care isn’t perfect, particularly because the caregivers often don’t get resources adequate enough for raising the children in their homes. That is why it is essential that children who spend a substantial amount of time in foster care or emancipate from its system obtain support specified to meet their needs.
Many times foster children are like nomads, kept in a limbo of foster and group homes with little stability. For too long children have been told “be patient,” “wait,” and that their desire for a forever family has to be delayed until the process of lawmaking runs its course. How can we tell children the bureaucratic process is too difficult and the resources too scarce to provide them with safe, loving and permanent homes?
Our nation lays witness to the outcome for thousands of children who exit foster care with no consistent support network. We are essentially subjecting them to a system that, more often than not, produces ill-prepared men and women. Fewer than 50 percent of former foster youth are employed 2½ to 4 years after leaving foster care, and only 38 percent have maintained employment for over one year. Statistics concerning education for foster youth are even more dismal, with only 2 percent of foster youth obtaining a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Every child who ages out of foster care without a support network is a child that our system has failed.
The term “foster” is synonymous with temporary or makeshift. What children aging out need isn’t temporary care – they need surrogates. They need a host of long-term, stable connections with individuals committed to improving the educational, emotional and vocational outcomes of these youth. I would call this process “Systemic Surrogacy.” Advocating for surrogate care at a systemic level would not only improve outcomes, but identify a sustainable network for children to help support their aging out process. This system, tailored to individual youth, could help alleviate some of the adverse outcomes associated with emancipation.
I think of Marcus often, wondering what became of him. What I do know is that thousands of children like him age out of a system with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the uneasiness of their futures. I couldn’t bring Marcus with me then, but I believe I can make the transition process much more successful for others now.
Published on May 29, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign.