Most parents do whatever they can to prepare their children for adulthood and the real world. Parents provide food, clothing, and shelter. They also provide advice and guidance on how to become a successful adult. Parents provide life experiences that help shape a child’s view of the world, development of relationships, and general life skills.
When children spend their youth in the foster care system, it can be difficult for them to receive necessary guidance and life experiences. As a result, they enter adult life lacking tools required to succeed. In fact, many children have mixed feelings about turning 18 and aging out of the system.
A study released by Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative in May 2013 (http://jimcaseyyouth.org/) clearly shows that children aging out of foster care do not have the necessary skills for adult life. On average, taxpayers are on the hook for $300,000 per youth over the individual’s lifetime for public assistance. So what can an attorney do to help the youth aging out of foster care?
In many states such as Florida, youths have the option to extend foster care services beyond the age of 18. Doing so provides extra assistance to them to help them gain more life experiences and generate life skills necessary to become a successful adult. Extension of services means that someone will accompany the 18-year-old student to school meetings to assist with obtaining school services and a diploma. The youth will obtain assistance with applying for government benefits such as Social Security benefits (which change when the child turns 18), food stamps, and Medicaid. Often, the young person has no idea how to make a dentist appointment, how to obtain a driver’s license, or how to access other government and medical providers. And they have no idea who to ask to help them find assistance.
Many 20 to 30 year olds today have actually returned to live with their parents as a result of the economic downturn. Unfortunately, foster children do not have the same luxury. Programs to assist the aged-out foster care child provide the needed assistance with rent, food, and job services. However, so very much more is needed.
Financial education programs are vital to help youth cultivate proper money management habits. Workforce development programs can also provide crucial education to prepare youth for gainful employment. Attorneys are in a unique place to provide additional support to youth aging out of foster care. Just as these youth lack the connection to a stable family to provide financial, educational, and nutritional support, they also lack the connection to advocates who will fight for them.
Attorneys can assist in finding additional resources to help the youth by finding answers to a barrage of questions: Is the youth handicapped? Is the youth eligible for any government assistance? Can the child receive economic recovery for any injury? Are there any assets such as probate, trusts, or other assets that might benefit the youth? Answering these, and many other, questions can potentially provide additional monetary support so the youth is not sent out into the real world without any training wheels to assist. By using your knowledge and training as an attorney, you can provide much needed aid to young people who need all the help they can get.
Kids aging out of the foster care system may often appear to be streetwise, but they are targets for unscrupulous individuals in the community who will befriend and cajole young people out of what little assets they possess, seek to move into their limited housing space, and (in short) use young people who don’t have strong support systems to call out to when they are in peril. Attorneys can not only volunteer their time to local advocacy groups but they can also lobby local and state governments to set up programs such as mentoring youths, providing economic incentives to stay in school; providing entry-level job positions with patience for those who have little to no job experience; and developing programs to teach young people to shop wisely, handle budgets, and set up savings accounts.
Like other at-risk individuals, young foster care graduates will often seem to fail or slip off set guidelines and schedules, and they need ongoing advocacy to keep their options open. Without a foster mother or group home supervisor, the new “adult” may become depressed and stop attending school, thereby losing not only a chance at a high school diploma or GED, but also financial support to further their education. Without a constant adult in their lives to encourage and assist the young person, he or she will end up with low or no education, no job outlook, no home, and basically no hope for a normal adult life.
Whatever you do, you will be helping a young person as a mentor and as a guide into adulthood and will hopefully be breaking the cycle of foster care life for children of foster care. The reality is that often the young person doesn’t even know what kind of legal hurdles he or she may encounter, but you can become the lifeline to help with traffic tickets, child support, personal injury, credit problems, and a host of other areas. You won’t regret it, and you’ll be making a difference.