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Care leavers are those children who have left foster care, or who at 18 are no longer provided with foster care or housing as wards of the state. The term is more common in the UK and in Australia, but is beginning to be used in the US. More commonly, kids and young adults considered care leavers in the US are referred to as having “aged out” of the system.
In most countries where foster care exists, there is some help for kids who reach 18 and find themselves without homes. Some countries will do their utmost to help provide these kids with financial assistance and housing assistance until they are 21. Yet there are disturbing statistics about care leavers.
In the UK, some care leavers decide to live on their own at the ages of 16 years or up. These children have an alarming low rate of high school graduation opposed to their peers who are not in system care. Moreover, in the US, aged out kids are less likely to attend college, to maintain jobs for a year or more, and are more likely to commit crimes and end up in jail. Even when state care has been excellent, care leavers are less likely to have good financial management skills and knowledge of basic care like knowing how to cook, shop, or do laundry.
These statistics alone suggest that the type of care provided for these children is inadequate to prepare for adulthood. Moreover, what many of these young adults lack is a family setting to which they can return for support and advice. There are organizations, online and through various state agencies that may help bridge this gap for some care leavers, but some have become damaged by the very system that supported them, due to inadequate care in group home or foster home settings. Even when group homes and foster homes provide great care, children in foster settings are usually there due to difficult circumstances in their primary family, and damage to the psyche from parenting found abusive or inadequate cannot be underestimated.
There are some tremendously good foster parents who stay committed to their foster kids who turn 18 and step in as role models and support for these children. They may not be receiving extra financial help from the state for children who have aged out, and sometimes great foster parents simply can’t afford to continue care at the same level with kids who are legally adults. A few pilot programs have attempted to work with care leavers, sometimes creating housing situations for them together, or finding foster parents or mentors who are willing to provide that home base setting. These programs seem successful but are not universally adopted, and there are many former system kids who don’t have access to such programs.
Care leavers continue to pose a challenge to a society. As former wards of the state, they are in essence the state’s young adults or the “village’s” children. Advocates for these young adults suggest that more programs be available to these new adults to help them navigate the world, continue to pursue education, and make sound choices that will not only benefit them but the whole society. Most importantly, these new adults need support, counseling and continued access to government services that will help them set their feet on the path to personal success.