Constance Iannetta still remembers the care package a caseworker gave her as she was getting ready to start college. It was a large hamper filled with dorm room essentials: extra-long twin sheets, a shower caddy, toiletries, and gift cards to Target and the local grocery store.
As a child who was aging out of the foster care system, Iannetta didn’t have the family support that so many college-bound high school graduates take for granted.
“That gift not only gave me some essentials, but it made me feel cared for and supported when all my fellow classmates were moving in with their parents helping them,” said Iannetta, who now serves on the Board of Directors of the Foster Care Alumni of America organization.
May is an exciting – but stressful – time of year for so many high school seniors. Graduation is approaching, college is right around the corner, and they’re largely getting ready to be on their own for the first time. It is both thrilling and terrifying for all teens, but for those who have spent their final years of childhood in the foster care system, the fear factor goes up a few notches.
“Being removed from your home, whether your parents were abusive or neglectful or not, is tremendously traumatic for a child,” said Sandy Santana, Executive Director of Children’s Rights, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of children in foster care. “He or she is dealing with severe trauma, and that affects every aspect of the child’s life. It’s no surprise that kids in foster care have worse educational outcomes than other kids.”
He’s right: only 58 percent of children in care will graduate from high school by age 19, compared with 87 percent of the general population. And only 4 percent will earn a 4-year college degree by age 26. “It’s a challenge for most young adults to transition to independence,” he said. “But it is much harder for kids aging out of care.”
Depending on the state, children “age out” of the foster care system between ages 18 and 21. So, at a time when most young adults are still relying on family for financial and emotional support, plus a place to crash on school breaks, children aging out of care are often fully on their own.
Iannetta said for those who are already in the life of a foster child, it’s critical to continue to be a support system for them.
“Let them know you will continue to be in their lives, that you will continue to be a support as they enter this exciting new phase of their lives,” she said. “It is heartbreaking if you are in the care of a family and suddenly contact is cut off.”
For those who aren’t foster parents or social workers, though, now is the perfect time to reach out and offer these teens some support. You can become a mentor to a child who is aging out of care. You or your child may already know a teen from your local school or community who needs support. If not, you can contact your county’s child welfare agency and offer yourself up as a resource. “The most important thing they need is a connection to a responsible and caring adult,” Santana said.
More ways to help:
Grant a simple wish! Youth in foster care have the same wishes as any other teen getting ready to graduate from high school and start their college experience: A colorful comforter for their bed, cool new sneakers, a laptop, some new clothing. You can grant a wish (or two! or three!) at One Simple Wish. You can even browse the wishes by age, state, price range and type of wish.
Check out all the programs over at Foster Care to Success. This organization provides foster youth with college funding and support services, including scholarships, grants, mentors and care packages.
Support youth aging out of care by joining the LifeSet Network, which connects former foster youth with supporters from across the country.
But more than anything else, you – and your own children – can be aware that these kids are out there and they’re often on their own. You can be the parent that sends them a care package of chocolate chip cookies and slipper socks. Your home can be their haven for Thanksgiving and winter break. Your support can provide them with the most valuable thing of all: the knowledge that someone is in their corner, rooting them on.
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Meghan Moravcik Walbert is a writer, a mom, and a foster parent turned foster advocate. Her writing has been featured in a variety of publications and websites, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Today’s Parent, Lifehacker and Brain, Child. She lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with her husband, her son, and her anxiety-riddled terrier. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and her personal blog, phasethreeoflife.com.