Growing up in a trailer with her uncle and grandfather, Sharayah Lane always knew what her 18th birthday would mean: homelessness.
As expected, when that day came it was marked not by parties, but an immediate end to the foster-care reimbursement checks that allowed Lane’s relatives to cover the costs of sheltering her. No more checks meant no more housing.
“It was just common knowledge — when you turn 18, you’re done,” Lane said. “After the checks stopped coming, we all went our separate ways. For me, that was couch-surfing — keeping my stuff in my backpack and staying wherever I could.”
This phenomenon, known as “aging out” of foster care, is standard for nearly 20,000 wards of the state who turn 18 each year, and the results are no surprise. Former foster youth have off-the-charts rates of homelessness and post-traumatic stress. They end up in prison or hospital emergency rooms far more frequently than other teens their age. Many depend on welfare and food stamps. Most never attend college.
For me this report is chilling down to my core and reading it posts some deep, primal anxiety in the mom part of my brain. I did not have to hunt down this introduction piece, just google “aging out of foster care at 18” and you get millions of hits, stories just as bleak. I cannot imagine at 18 having no home, no support, no skills, no family, no love. Your life up until this point has been new families, new schools, court meetings, goal meetings, treatment meetings, black trash bags with your stuff, being the new kid and the list goes on and on. Your life is micromanaged. You get no say in where you live, what drugs are put into you, you are not allowed to get your permit, sleep over at friends, feel safety and permanency. Then at 18, poof you are on your own. If you are lucky you stay with your foster family because you are someone they love, not a check. That is not the norm. You navigate life without learning how to have healthy relationships, model stability, or understand the concept of home. For most kids 18 is an awesome number to hit and celebrate. For over 20,000 kids who age out at 18, this number is stark, terrifying and bleak.
Every tabloid and reality TV crime show that panders to suburban America’s need to see the underbelly of crime or darkness backs up this blackness. All of these shows at some point mention a troubled institutionalized patient/inmate who was raised in care. Yet we never make the connection…we just let the show take us to the next episode, to the next former foster child. Yet we never connect the dots, see the pattern, take the blame that we have some many folks in the system because we let children rot in broken system then throw them into the world. Yes to do drugs, to commit crimes is a choice; I do not discount personal responsibility at all. I do however say that if you feel unloved and unworthy, how much value can you put on the life of others when you don’t even see the value in your own? We need to take off our rose colored glasses and realize that no movie of the week magic happens that transforms these children from hurt, broken kids into healthy young adults once they get cut loose. Hurt people make bad choices not out of malice but loss.
Today my son is 18. This is a day to celebrate. To be honest we have been celebrating all week. 18 means for him prepping for college, working part time to save for his class trip to Europe and a car. It means having his moms help him not go into debt to get his education. It means a huge family graduation party, boyfriends, dancing and celebrating finding his path in life. Less than 2 years ago, my son was one of the 20,000 getting prepped to age out. My heart cannot bear to think what his life would have been like. I don’t go there.
Sadly I do not have to go there, you just google “aging out at 18 “, and my heart still hurts. On my son’s 18th birthday, my wish is that more kids once in care have an 18th birthday like my sons, not like that stats. Only we as adults can lend voice to making that change .