Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Supporting them into adulthood

Independentsw asks:

I'm wondering why you don't see each child all the way through to real adulthood? Is it that you can't afford to support them w/o [the agency], or are there other reasons? This is not criticism, only inquiry.

I ask myself that too. I've been thinking a lot about what we have done and haven't done and whether we can/should do more to support these kids. In fact I have been working on this post on and off since I read your question yesterday. I don't, by the way, take offense at the question. It is something that I have been asking myself so it seems worth trying to write about.

Allowing them to live with us past the point where the agency would reimburse us for room and board would be a challenge, but I cannot say that it would be impossible. Our budget would be tighter, but we could do that.

The thing is, we thought we were seeing them into adulthood. The agency for which we work has what appears to be a really good transition program. With our birth kids we are on our own. We have been assuming that expecting the foster boys to take advantage of the benefits the agency offers while offering them love and support was the best thing we could do for them.

In other words, we thought of ourselves as part of a team and thought that the kids were being offered everything they needed, just not from a single source. I still think that is true, but I also think that having the support divided up like that is anxiety-producing for the kids.

There are only two boys (so far) where this was/is a "live" question: Carl and Evan. So, I am trying to think this through.

I keep realizing that without the emails much of Carl's story did not get told. At the beginning of Carl's senior year I would have told you that the next year he would be in college and that he would come home for all the holidays, and probably the next summer too. I did not expect that I would receive room and board money for him during those times. I had visions of sending him care packages, buying him small luxuries he could not afford. I thought I would do all the things that parents do -- except pay the big bills.

And then Carl's plans never materialized. He did not do what he needed to to go to college and he did not come up with an alternative plan. Hubby and I were ready to support any plan that he came up with. We were not ready to support him lying around the house doing nothing.

I did not know what to do. We discussed various options through the summer, but nothing took. The social worker came up with the idea of enrolling him in Job Corps. He was not thrilled, but, again, he did not come up with an alternative. So I took him out there -- five months after he graduated. I drove out to pick him up and bring him home every other weekend. I bought him small things that he could not afford. We brought him home for the winter break. The social worker called and said she could only give me room and board money for Christmas Eve through January 2. I told her that I was willing to accept any room and board money that they wanted to give me, but that Carl was welcome to come home for the entire vacation if he wanted. He did.

While he was there I talked a lot with him about his plans for after Job Corps. He always had a new idea. Again, we were prepared to support him. I imagined him coming home after he was done with Job Corps and while he was applying for jobs.

Then he showed up with this crazy idea to follow Tori Amos around the country. That was when I started the "tough love baby" thing. I felt like everyone was trying to help him and he was sabotaging every possible plan. I committed to loving him and giving him emotional support only. I said I would not rescue him, but I wired him $50 to get home when he was stranded. We let him suffer through being homeless, but we stored his belongings, checked up on him and were prepared to bring him home if he got sick.

I guess what I am saying is that at each step we thought we were doing what was best to support him becoming an adult. It is only looking back that I wonder whether I should have offered him more time, before, after, or instead of, Job Corps to live at home and work part time jobs and pull his life together. Hubby is convinced that we would have ended up in the tough love place anyway. He thinks it would have been worse because we would only have got there after getting frustrated and angry. I really don't know.

And now we are going through it all over again. Evan worked out a plan with his social worker to go to the technical program. I did tell him that if he didn't want to move out right away he could stay here for at least the first term. He could either take the commuter bus into The City or attend classes at the remote campus 5 miles away. His response was something like, "You have got to be kidding." Actually I think he said, "My people are in The City."

I told him that he could come home for breaks. He asked about the summer and I told him that if the bedroom was empty he could certainly have it. If it wasn't, he could have the futon in the rec room until he figured out what he needed. He did not like the idea of the futon (who would) and we talked about what his options would be: living with his grandmother; having the agency find him a room he could rent for three months; finding a summer job that came with housing.

Again, I assumed that I would continue to be the "auntie" that he could call on for many small things, but that the major financial support would come from somewhere else.

So if you have been reading at all recently you know that he ditched the tech college plan and is going to Scotland. I think it is higher risk, he feels safer with it.


I think about the differences between what the foster kids and bio kids will get going out in the world. With the agency for which I work, the foster kids have the opportunity to get more financial help than my biokids will. No one is going to tell my kids, "If you work hard we guarantee you will get through college with no student loans." (That may sound resentful, but it isn't. I am thrilled that the agency works that way and I think my kids have nothing to complain about).

We will give all of them emotional support, care packages, a place to stay during holidays, and a place to go when they are sick.

There are two big differences:

First, the foster kids' support is divided up among different people. I am realizing now how much anxiety that produces. My birth kids know that if they have any problems they can turn to me and I will guide them. My answer might be, "You have to take out a loan" but they have one place to go for for advice. When they face emancipation they will think, "If anything happens, I can always call Mom."

The foster kids are being assured that if anything happens there will be people there to help them. They ask me what I will do and my answer has been, "Well, first you should check into the agency and see what services they can hook you up with. Then we will talk and see what we can do. Don't worry honey. Whatever the problem is, we will figure out how to handle it when it comes up." That just doesn't feel safe.

The other big difference is the bedroom. Again, when we started doing care we thought it was only going to be Carl. If he had gone to a traditional college we would have kept his bedroom available for him for the following summer, and for as many summers as he needed it. When he went to Job Corps he was supposed to be able to live there until he was finished. Suddenly the futon in the rec room looked like all the bedroom he was going to need.

Now we are committed to accepting new kids who fit our family. Evan moves out and his bedroom will eventually be given away to someone else.

That won't happen to Andrew. Though I have warned him that when he does leave for college he should pack up his valuables because I will use it as a respite room or a place for any of our wandering boys to crash for a few weeks if they need to, it will be his when summer rolls around. Andrew of course is afraid we won't keep that promise.

But I confess that difference bothers me. I find myself wishing that I had a small studio over the garage, or a room that did not qualify as a legal room for foster care that emancipated kids knew they could use if they needed. (I do have one, but Brian is in it).

So I have been writing so long about this because I really have been mulling it over. I have been trying to figure out what I can do or say to these kids that will make them feel safer, be safer, but that will still allow me to say yes to the next kid.


  1. I think you are doing a good job answering the tough question of "how do we support the kids who have aged out of our home, while still continuing to foster?"

    It's a tough call. The need for foster families is so great. It's like trying to empty the ocean with a teacup. For every kid you take into your home, there's still an endless number that remain.

    For what it's worth, I had a friend who made his bio-children move out on their 18th birthday. The two kids weren't doing what they were supposed to, so my friend gave each of them the boot on their birthday so they could enjoy some "reality therapy."

    The last I heard, both boys are doing well, though the choices they have made certainly weren't always what my friend wanted.

  2. independentsw5:43 PM

    Maybe part of the answer is accepting that there is no answer to, "How do we make it the same as/as safe as it is for bio kids?" As a CPS social worker, I've struggled with this for a long time: the truth is, it is worse for foster kids. They got a bad deal, they're not going to get what they should have, there is no situation that can equal or even come close to equaling growing up in a safe, healthy bio family (no, not even a safe, healthy adoptive family). Maybe we do foster kids a disservice when we talk to them as though what is there for them is enough. Maybe we should say, y'know, it sucks for you. You aren't getting what other kids get. There is no way we can make it up to you. What we can offer you is this (whatever it is). I'm sorry that it's this way for you, and I hope that you can create a good life for yourself with what you do have.

    What do you think?

  3. As an adult looking back on when I was in this situation (teenager in foster care/teen homeless shelter), I have to admit there was a small piece of me that still harbored the glimmer of hope that either parent was going to get it together and that the middle-class promise that my parents were going to pay for college was going to happen. When I moved into the homeless shelter and nobody had it together and my grandparents(who constantly were rescuing my mother) were dealing with my grandmother's diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer and could not rescue me and 18 was just a few months away; that's when I realized, "Hey! There is no one looking out for me in the world anymore except me." There was no one to fall back on - no parents, no grandparents, not even a kindly social worker. If you didn't show any initiative to get your act together, then nothing happened with these social workers/shelter. I knew of at least two kids who turned 18 and had nothing "arranged" and the shelter workers brought them to a local motel, gave them a voucher for a few nights and $100 cash and that was it. (As a side note, the shelter did have a sister program in which they had a "group home" for aged out kids who could stay until 21 while they worked and got a degree or some training. But it only had I think 4 or 6 slots and they were always filled with a long waiting list.)

    It was an eye opener. And from that moment forward, I got it together. Realizing that no one was going to help me unless I did it for myself was the moment in which I "grew up". And yes there were moments in which it sucked big time, but I can tell you that it was worth it. I got it together, got into the local Comm college, pushed the social worker to get me into a special program for at-risk students so I got free tutoring and tuition, arranged for a cheap apartment, and got as many shifts at the supermarket as I could. I bought for $100 a 12 year old honda with a 100K miles on it, and learned how to drive stick because that's what the car was. And I learned that sometimes life isn't fair. Period.

    ANd I agree with independentsw that if maybe someone had told me earlier, and the other kids at all, "Hey, this sucks, but let's get you as much as we can," it would have been much much easier. Don't hide the truth from them. Better to deal with the bitter pill early and get your act together than to face a by-the-hour-motel and a $100 in your pocket and no future.

    Sorry for the hijack, just had a lot to say about this.

  4. Thanks M.

    I don't regard your comment as a hijack. I am glad you posted it.

  5. It's given me a lot to think about. Like what happens when the girls all turn 18? Elcie's support is federal and will continue but what about R & R.

  6. Wow. I never thought about all that stuff. My parents, who loved all three of us intensely, had to do for us what you do for the foster kids, but without the guarantees.

    I went off to college at 17. My parents gave me nothing towards college, and I'd known they would not be able to do anything. I'd been working since I was 14 to qualify for scholarships, and at 17, I worked hard to become considered "financially independent". Thought I visited, I never lived at home again. Through scholarships and MANY jobs each semester, I paid for four years of education at a good private college entirely by myself. It was scary, sure, but my parents simply didn't have the money.

    My younger brother screwed around and flunked out college. He came home to live with Mom. She gave him six months--he either had to have a good job (her definition of good, not his) and pay rent and his share of the utilities and food; OR he had to go back to school full-time and keep his grades up and pay something towards his food; OR she was driving him to the Navy recruiting office.

    He didn't believe she'd follow through, and piddled around from one minimum wage job to another. Six months later, they both cried in the car the entire way to the recruiter's office. The Navy Reserves turned his life around--when he got out of boot camp, he got a full-time job, bought a house, and went to college full-time, paying his own way. He graduated summa cum laude, while working full-time.

    Every human being is different. And yes, it's about support and safety, not just money. But I admire you, my own parents, and any parent who is able to find the strength to say "Here is the line. Here are the rules. Here is what I expect of you, and here is what will happen if you don't step up."

    I think parents of bio-kids who allow them to stay home for free after age 18 if they are not in school and not working towards a decent job are doing their children a very serious disservice.

    And then follow through.

  7. "m", I could not agree more. Life is NOT fair, and those who learn that early and stop expecting "fairness" do better in life, I think!

    Wow, I sound mean and severe...when I'm a very happy, bubbly person with a few very strong beliefs! Sorry to sound ranty!

  8. Very good points all around.

    I guess I wonder if most kids who come from cruddy situations expect fairness? I had to fend for myself most of my life, and the idea that the only one who would look after me, was me, was instilled very early on. Is it that the kids that come from the school of hard knocks (or the foster care system) are waiting around for life to be fair, or rather that they don't think that the chances of them moving up in life are very good - so they shut down and/or try to run away (emotionally)?


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