Eighteen is no longer adulthood

Yet another study on the future of many children raised in the foster care system shows that their chances at success are so minimal as to be just this side of non-existent.

The New York Times recently reported on a study done in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin showing six in ten men who aged out of the foster care system had a criminal conviction by their mid-twenties. Three in four women in the same age group were receiving some form of public assistance, while struggling to raise children without a high school diploma. In a second group of the same age, one in five men had multiple criminal convictions, low education and incomes and often suffered from mental health issues and addictions.

The study does point out that children aging out of the foster care system who receive additional help with education grants, temporary housing and extended time in the system do better than their peers who don’t.

If you think about it for a moment, that makes eminent sense. How many of us, raised in good homes with stability, love and guidance, would have been successful if the day we turned 18 our parents had put our belongings next to the front door and told us it had been fun but now it was over?

Even worse, these children often have substantial bank accounts that accrued through their PFD’s and, if Alaska Native, their corporation dividend payments. This money is kept in a savings account for them and. if no adult conservator is appointed when they turn 18, they often receive a check worth thousands of dollars. That is usually the cue for their birth families to show up with all kinds of creative uses for that money. Once it’s gone, those same relatives disappear and the young person is left broke, uneducated, unable to get a job.

A lot of fixes are being proposed on a national level to keep these kids from repeating their parents’ mistakes. Far too many children in foster care come from parents who were once themselves foster kids. Others end up in the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Either way, they continue to cost society.

I can’t imagine what I would have done if my parents had just suddenly walked away from me when I turned 18. I was, to be quite frank, a mess. But then, lots of teenagers are at that age. You are both an adult and a child. You want independence but you always want your key to the family house to be operational. You want to make your own decisions but you desperately want your mom and dad to tell you those decisions are good ones.

If there is a worse time to turn these kids loose, I don’t know what it could be.

The idea that a child becomes an adult at 18 is based on a world that existed maybe 100 years ago, but is now gone. It was a world in which 18 was considered a man and 16 was considered a woman and both were considered old enough to marry, have children and form their own household. It was a world in which a high school diploma was a luxury, not a necessity, and most boys at 18 went into the labor force at a blue collar job while their wives of 16 or 17 kept house and raised children. It was a world based on an agrarian model that no longer is relevant in most of America.

Today we have extended childhood well into the 20s and 30s.  Cell phones alone have delayed the need for independent decision making by at least a decade.  Yet we somehow expect foster kids to buck this trend and be the adults of yesteryear when they turn 18. Then we wonder why they fail.

Many foster kids have been so damaged by their birth parents that they will always struggle to succeed. But many just need the extended support and guidance of adults as they pick their way through the minefield of adolescence into adulthood.

Given current circumstances, we need to reconsider the age at which we assume adulthood will commence. A few more years of costs in the foster care system could save us a lifetime of costs in the criminal justice and welfare system.