Saturday, August 04, 2007

Life-long parenting

I was recently in a conversation regarding some data on foster care alumni. There were statistics on homelessness, arrests, education, family status, drug and alcohol abuse.

Some of the young people were doing well. Others were struggling.

Though the conversations was supposed to include a wider range of people, it was just me, four foster alumni, and one social worker. Again and again the conversation came back to: we have to teach them about ____ before they leave care.

The list of things we decided they needed to know got longer and longer, until I was overwhelmed for them. I thought about how ignorant I was at 18. I thought about how much parenting I have had since I was eighteen.

I mean, I'm forty-four and I only recently got advice from my father-in-law about whether my current investments in my retirement portfolio are wise.

The first (but hardly the last) time I called my mother to describe a symptom of one of my children and ask if I should call the doctor I was twenty-seven.

The first time I did the bargaining for a (used) car and actually got it at the price I had intended to pay I called my father-in-law to tell him the story and be told how well I had done. I was thirty-two.

When my father came to visit once I asked him to look at some windows to see what we could do to fix them. He told me that there was no easy fix. Certain damage would have to be done and then repaired. I was thirty-eight.

And now I know my parents and in-laws are getting older. I am learning to accept that they will not always be there. Eventually, they will no longer be there to advise me. I will have to be an adult. Really.

Maybe I can put it off until I am sixty.

But youth who emancipate from care often leave on their eighteenth birthday. Some take advantage of laws allowing them to stay until they finish high school. But whatever age they leave, they are on their own. No matter how good a job we do, no matter how much information we get into them, they are not prepared for self-sufficiency.

In the meeting we kept talking about what else we should be doing for foster youth to make foster alumni able to take better care of themselves.

Suddenly it hit me. That attitude behind that question is part of the problem.

It is not possible.

The goal for every youth in foster care needs to be adoption or permanent placement, or something. Somehow every youth needs to be attached to some set of adults they can turn to.


The foster alumni recommended support groups in which they could mentor each other. I support that. If we can make it happen, I support it.

I don't know how to solve this problem. I know that there will continue to be teens in foster care and far few adults willing to adopt them; and I know there will be teens for whom adoption is not the answer.

But where did we get the crazy idea that someone could be a self-sufficient adult at 18?



  1. As someone who hasn't had parenting since I was sixteen, I couldn't disagree more. And I'm a lot more self-sufficient than my friends who have parents. I think parenting teaches the opposite of self-sufficiency.

    I would give them enough income and tuition support to get through their choice of career training, and let them be the judge of their own outcomes.

  2. I so completely agree with you! I like's idea of a "permanency pact." A teenager in foster care comes up with one person in their life, like a favorite teacher, a former foster parent, a relative, a mentor, or whoever, who will have a permanency pact with them. That person then acts as a de facto parent for the teenager as she ages out of foster care... helping them get jobs, offering emotional support, giving them places to do laundry and a place to come home to for holidays, counseling them about money, even co-signing on apartments for them. It sounds like the perfect plan... but my question is, is every foster teen able to find an adult who is WILLING to take that responsibility?


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