COMMENT: Let's All Help the Youth 'Aging Out' of Foster Care
by Maura D. Corrigan, Detroit Free Press, November 15,
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Imagine this: It
is your 19th birthday. Your few belongings are packed. The
adults you have been living with bid you goodbye. The door shuts
behind you; you are on your own -- and very much alone. You have
no job, no family and no idea how to handle your new
That scene is taking place all over Michigan for hundreds of
young adults who must leave the foster care system and venture
out on their own.
At any given time, Michigan has over 19,000 children and youth
in foster care. The vast majority of these young people are
victims of abuse and neglect. Some return to their biological
parents or are placed with relatives; others are adopted. But
the majority of foster children are not adopted or returned to
their biological families.
Indeed, after age 11, a child's chances of being adopted are
virtually nil. As a result, many foster children simply remain
in care until they literally "age out" of foster care, usually
by age 19. These young people enter adult life without an adult
support structure and without important life skills.
Those of us who have raised children to young adulthood know
that turning 18 or 19 does not magically transform teenagers
into totally self-sufficient adults who can find and keep a job,
locate housing, budget and save money, and raise children of
their own. In fact, most college graduates find that independent
living is a new and challenging experience. Think of all the
times your adult daughter or son has called you for advice on
subjects ranging from career choice to how to cook a turkey.
Foster youth who age out of the system have even greater needs
for adult guidance. Studies of aging-out foster youth present a
consistent picture: higher rates of homelessness, unemployment,
and involvement with the criminal justice system when compared
with others in the same age group.
In a recent report entitled "Troubled Water: Foster Care Youth
and College," Dr. Gary Anderson and Dr. Rosalind Folman of the
Michigan State University School of Social Work find that young
adults out of foster care are 51 percent more likely to be
unemployed, 27 percent more likely to be incarcerated, 42
percent more likely to be teenage parents, and 25 percent more
likely to be homeless. Within four years, 60 percent of them
will have had a child.
Statistics also indicate that over half of these former foster
youth will find themselves back in the legal system within two
years of "aging out." Other information indicates that these
youth are at high risk for substance abuse, domestic violence
and poverty, precisely because they lack the instruction and
support that other young adults receive from parents and other
As a mentor for a former foster youth, I have come to appreciate
how much foster youth need adult guidance -- and I have come to
realize that adoption cannot be the only solution for them.
When, in 2003, Michigan held its first-ever Adoption Day --
which the Michigan Supreme Court co-sponsored with the Family
Independence Agency -- the focus was on the thousands of
children available for adoption in our state and their need for
permanent, loving homes.
Those of us in the justice system understandably and properly
concentrate on getting children into permanent placements. But
we must also realize that many children and youth are just never
going to be adopted. We cannot simply throw up our hands in
response; we must ask ourselves what we can do for these foster
I am convinced, from my visits with various community groups
around the state, that there are many people of good will who --
although they are not prepared to adopt -- want to help foster
children and youth, but don't know how or where to go to
volunteer. The needs of foster youth are profound and varied --
but how to connect them and this great wellspring of private
On Nov. 23, Michigan Adoption Day 2004, Michigan citizens will
be offered a way to help these very vulnerable young people
(details of this new program will be released that day). As
counties around Michigan celebrate the finalization of over 300
adoptions, all of us will celebrate with them and the adopting
families. But we will not lose sight of those who will not be
adopted. My hope is that Adoption Day 2004 will herald the
beginning of greater hope, and a better life, for those who age
out of foster care.
MAURA D. CORRIGAN is chief justice of the Michigan Supreme
Court. Write to her in care of the Free Press Editorial Page,
600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.
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