Anniversaries have special meaning and often call for celebration or reflection on an historical event or in my case, one’s personal life. This year marks my 50th year anniversary since my departure from foster care at age 18, the beginning of a transitional period referred to as “aging out.” Each year 30,000 of the 463,000 children in foster care across our country will approach adulthood (age 18 to 21). During this time, many foster youth will find themselves aging out and eligible for release from the system to live on their own without adequate resources or support. In Illinois, my home state, approximately 1,200 youth age out each year. Sadly, a large number of young adults who age out in our country are at high risk for poverty, homelessness, incarceration or a host of physical and mental health issues. For me, this period signified my emancipation, a release from seven horrific years of abuse from the hands of people entrusted and even paid to care for me and my handicapped brother.
I remember it well the first Sunday in September 1972, when an unknown white Department of Family and Child Services (DCFS) representative showed up on our doorstep to whisk me off to college. My DCFS assigned social worker was a staunch child advocate and an African American social worker who believed in me from the very start. She collaborated with the representative to orchestrate my safe departure that morning. My social worker spent months planning my leave for college by taking me to college prep classes as well as purchasing and storing (more accurately hiding) essentials that most youth receive during trunk parties or other celebratory events. Thankfully, I mustered enough courage to leave with the unknown social worker to seize an opportunity that I never imagined, attending college. My foster mother was downright angry that someone came to rescue me. Surprisingly she did not put up a fight. Instead, she handed me two five-dollar bills and off I went to college with two paper bags of clothing.
Yikes College! What a scary occasion in that no one in my immediate or foster family ever went to college nor encouraged me to attend. While it was daunting and downright sad to leave my handicapped brother behind, this was my only chance to escape a life of physical and verbal abuse.
The desire not to return to my foster home was my greatest motivator for succeeding and graduating from college. Attending college was quite challenging especially having graduated from an inner city high school that lacked the rigor that my college peers were so accustomed. Unlike many foster children, I survived college and earned a baccalaureate degree in nursing. Today, national data show that only 50% of youth in foster care complete high school and 3% of foster youth obtain a college degree.
Now some 50 years later, during National Foster Care Month in May as I reflect on my personal experience I will be thinking of the many foster children who have not been as fortunate to graduate from high school and earn a college degree. Looking back, I am grateful that my aging out experience resulted in a different narrative from what we often hear about foster youth today.
During this year’s National Foster Care Month, we need positive messaging for foster youth that depict others like myself who have succeeded against the odds. They need uplifting messages that transcend some of the narratives that only focus on troubled foster youth. While college may not be for everyone, foster youth could benefit from more supportive services that will equip them with the necessary resources to graduate from high school and pursue an honest living in a vocation of their choice. It is my hope that our child welfare agencies will invest more resources in preparing and supporting foster youth during their aging out period. All foster youth deserve to transition with as much dignity, purpose, and confidence as possible.
Thankfully, I will celebrate my 50th year anniversary of aging out with gratitude and a strong sense of accomplishment. I look forward to the day when more foster youth will experience a more positive aging out experience, one that will lead to anniversaries like my 50th. After all, our foster youth deserve to have aging out experiences worth celebrating.