In many ways, the challenges foster youth face are the same all young people face at some point in their lives: Who am I? Why am I hear? What do I want to do? How do I get there?
These questions are sometimes coupled, of course, with the belief that grown-ups don’t understand anything and can’t help them find the answers.
Children and teens with stable families have a solid foundation from which to grapple with such questions. And they have trusted adults in their lives, even if they don’t always think those adults know what they’re talking about.
Foster youth have a foundation as well – a shaky foundation of loss, despair, confusion, fear, and loneliness. And they’re often right about the grown-ups in their lives; some of them haven’t been much help at all.
As a community we cannot fix their broken foundation, but we can help raise them to firm ground with understanding support based on proven best practices, nonjudgmental guidance and critical resources. We can, and must communicate with these youth in ways that they will hear and understand, so that they can take appropriate next steps towards a brighter future.
- A bachelor’s degree is not the only answer. Youth must be given the opportunity to discover their strengths and passions and formulate obtainable goals. They must be presented with realistic options including certificate programs, degree programs and job training. They need to understand the true relationship between education and a career.
- Getting into a program is not enough. Foster youth must be able to navigate the post-secondary education system to stay on track academically and financially and to benefit from available opportunities. They need discipline and classroom skills to do well in their coursework and to progress in a timely manner towards their chosen diploma.
- Money makes the world go ‘round. Foster youth may never have had more than pocket change to call their own, and classroom-style lectures on money management might have gone way over their nodding heads. It is critical that they learn to plan and budget, and that they understand the realities of borrowing money (student loans and credit cards) and what it can mean to their future.
- As graduates, they need to compete on the same level as their non-foster care peers. Although many foster youth learn to blend into any sort of society as a means of self preservation, they may not understand how to network or present themselves professionally in an adult setting, which can handicap them in the job market.
Since 1981, Foster Care to Success has worked with thousands of foster youth to overcome the challenges, doubts, and fears they face. One of the most important lessons we have learned over the last 30 years is that we can't genuinely address their individual needs with a "one size fits all" approach.
Some foster youth are told, “The sky’s the limit,” and others, “You’ll never amount to a hill of beans.” The truth is that, with realistic goals, a workable plan, financial assistance and a lot of support and encouragement, foster youth can and do succeed. The sky may not be the limit – the sky is out of reach for most of us – but foster youth can graduate and find well-paying jobs that they enjoy. They can buy homes, pay taxes, raise healthy, happy families, and give back to society.
The solution is support – adequate, appropriate, caring support.
- Support must start early. States and local communities dictate the mechanics of foster care — whether and how often children are moved from placement-to-placement and school-to-school. By middle or high school, however, social workers, case managers, school counselors and mentors should be working with youth to tease out their interests, talents and dreams.
- Supportive adults must understand the science of brain development and the effects of trauma. Adults need to reach young people on their own level, in ways that make sense to them and have meaning in their lives. They need to impart a sense of the importance of making good decisions — not just for now but for the future — to youth for whom everyday life may be a struggle.
- Supportive adults must understand the realities of college. Adults must understand college and course loads, not just from their own perspective, but from that of starry-eyed, eager, but often ill-prepared adolescents. We must not set youth up for failure by encouraging them to take classes for which they do not have the background. If they hated high school algebra and place into remedial math at the community college level, we are not doing them a favor by encouraging them to set their sights on an engineering degree.
- Supportive adults must help students understand the realities of financial aid. It’s in the news every day – young people can amass crippling student loan debt that may be impossible to pay off, especially without a good job at the end of their college career. It is critical that foster youth understand the difference between a grant and a loan, and that they learn to budget so that they can avoid massive student loans.
- Support needs to be consistent and longterm. Foster youth don’t just need help choosing a good career path, getting into a college or training program, or making their first visit to the financial aid office. In order to succeed in all of these endeavors and as their own cooks, housekeepers, financial managers and social planners, they need the same consistent, long-term caring support as any other young adult.