Georgia’s Gold Dome. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Opinion: Aging out of foster care can mean misery ahead

If one good thing can be said about the substance abuse crisis in our country, it is that it has put a new focus on its innocent victims: foster kids.

In 2019, the state Department of Family and Children Services took custody of 13,800 children, with the vast majority of those coming from homes where neglect or substance abuse was an issue.

But while the stories of these children are often unspeakable, their futures aren’t much brighter either. Many of these kids are in state custody until they become young adults – bouncing from foster home to foster home.

But if we are to prevent the cycle of foster care from repeating, we have to address the problem of what to do with foster kids once they age out of care. Since most have moved from one foster placement to another, they have no close relationship with an adult who can encourage them. Nor do they have the financial means to complete their education, go to college or technical school to support themselves.

They also lack life skills to make it in the real world. They aren’t sure how to look for a job, where to find a place to live or how to navigate the challenges of everyday life. Most come from extended families who are also dysfunctional.

About 700 foster kids age out and leave state custody each year in Georgia. Life becomes a daunting challenge for them, and few ever make it on their own. Instead most follow in their parents’ footsteps in a very short period of time.

For example:

  • Across the country, about 25 percent of foster children who age out will become homeless in their first year of leaving the system. Fifty percent will be homeless within the first four years of being on their own.
  • An estimated 71 percent of girls are pregnant in their first year out of foster care.
  • Eighty-one percent of boys have an encounter with law enforcement within four years of leaving foster care – usually committing crimes to survive while living on the streets. Eighty percent of those incarcerated in prisons have spent time in foster care sometime in their lives.
  • Less than 11 percent of foster children who age-out will have a high school diploma. In their lifetime, only 3 percent of former foster kids will ever earn a college degree.
  • Estimates are that within four years of leaving foster care, 50 percent will be unemployed. Seventy percent will rely on welfare programs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources estimates that foster kids who age out and fail to make a life for themselves cost taxpayers $350 million a year in lost productivity, incarceration and welfare and other government assistance programs.

When an 18-year-old former foster kid is all alone making minimum wage, he or she cannot afford rent. Without family or a mentor to guide them how to find affordable housing, transportation or to budget their money, they easily fall prey to alcohol and drug abuse and wind up living on the streets. And so, the family cycle repeats itself as they too have children – who usually end up in foster care.

I was a foster child who at age 18 also aged out of the system after being raised by wonderful, supportive foster parents who made sure I got a high school diploma. Thankfully when I went out on my own, these foster parents continued to stay in touch and gave me the guidance I needed as a young adult trying to make it on my own in the world.

Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly are expected to look at Georgia’s foster care crisis during this year’s legislative session. I believe it is important they examine the need to engage local communities to mentor these young adults and to find ways to bridge them financially so they can obtain educational skills necessary for employment.

For without a connection to an adult who cares, even someone who can give them a little advice when they are in a bind, few foster kids will ever make good choices and become productive adults. This a societal challenge that can easily be solved without the need for such despair in lost lives, talent and human potential.

Richard L. Jackson, of Cumming, is chairman and CEO of Jackson Healthcare and a former foster child.

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