At age 18,Schylar Canfield,was living on his own in an apartment he rented through an independent living program that helped him pay his rent. He had been in foster care since he was 8.
But as he prepared to graduate from high school on time after academic problems related to moving through 11 foster homes in 10 years,he had no idea of the changes he would encounter the moment he received his diploma.
The day after his high school graduation,Canfield was told that he had to leave his apartment immediately. With no permanent place to live and only a high school education,Canfield went from house to house relying on the generosity of people he knew to make it through each night.
His story is not unusual. Each year,more than 25,000 foster youths reach an age at which the foster care system is no longer responsible for them. They are forced out of the system into a world of independence many aren't prepared to handle. This is what is known as “aging out.”
In most states,foster youths age out at 18 unless they pursue some form of higher education,extending the cutoff age to 23 in some states. Each state has its own laws on aging out.
The Child Welfare League of America found in 2004,the most recent year for which statistics are available,that 25 percent of former foster children had been homeless at least one night in the 2 ½ to four years after they left the system. Just 38 percent maintained employment for one year over the same time.
Statistics on the group's Web site said about 30 percent of former foster children have no health insurance and 84 percent became parents in a little over a year after aging out of the system. The site wasn't clear about what year those statistics came from,and a spokesman for the league wasn't sure.
In May,the unemployment rate of 16- to 19-year-olds was 15.7 percent,up 1.3 percent from May 2006,according to the United States Department of Labor.
About 46.6 million Americans lack health insurance,according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage rose from 15.6 percent of the population in 2004 to 15.9 percent in 2005.
Children not in foster care who are living with their families are allowed to remain on family health insurance policies until they finish college or reach age 23. Children in foster care are covered by Medicaid,but once they age out,they no longer automatically qualify.
Foster care advocates are trying to change that. A House bill would extend mandatory Medicaid coverage in all states to youths in foster care through age 21.
Canfield,now 23, is considered a foster care success,even though he was uninsured and homeless for several years. He's now a senior communications major at Montana Tech of the University of Montana and works for Foster Club,an outlet for foster care teenagers to network with others who have aged out and learn how to fend for themselves.
Canfield wanted to succeed in life to prove wrong all the people who said he couldn't do it.
“The first time I ever wanted to go to college and do something with my life is when I had a foster parent say I am nothing,I will grow up to be nothing,because I came from nothing,” Canfield said. “I didn't want to be one of the statistics,I didn't want to fail,and I wanted most of all to prove people wrong that just because I came from nothing,doesn't mean I'm meant to be nothing.”
The only good thing that came out of being in the system and being forced out of it,Canfield said,was that it made him grow up and learn a lot more than any ordinary 18 year old.
“One thing that the foster care system did was make me tough,” Canfield said. “It made me independent,and it made me believe in myself more than anything else.”
Lupe Tovar,25,of Tucson,Ariz.,benefited from a private program that bridged the gap from her 18th birthday until she finished college at 23.
The Casey Family Programs allowed Tovar to continue working with the same social worker and provided a college scholarship.
But her transition to independence still had its rough spots. The day she officially aged out of the system,at 23,she signed a form indicating that she had learned certain skills in preparation for independence. She didn't receive any words of advice or guidance – she was simply out.
“It was like,‘Oh,OK thank you. We just needed you to fill that out,' type of thing,” Tovar said. “It was just extremely unthoughtful,impersonal and almost careless.”
Tovar was one of the lucky few who made the transition from teenager to adulthood without becoming another negative statistic.
“I think that I was kind of tired of having to live within this mold of not speaking and not expressing and not bonding and not doing all of these things that when I did see it … I wanted more of that,” Tovar said. “I just did whatever I had to do to make sure that eventually I would reach happiness or I would reach success.”
After being in more than 11 placements during 19 years in foster care,Tovar graduated from Arizona State University. She is the program coordinator for In My Shoes Inc.,a non-profit organization that specializes in mentoring youths in foster care.
Often,those who age out have no emotional or financial support and are left without any proper training in how to handle such mundane issues as filling out paperwork to enroll in school. The process of aging out rarely offers guidance to youths leaving the system.
Tovar said some type of support should be offered. She said something as small as a book on finances or a care package could better mark the celebration of independence.
“I don't think it's as supportive as it should be,or celebratory,” Tovar said. “It kind of seems like ‘you've made it,' when it's just the beginning.”
David Ambroz,another foster care alum,was able to stay away from the negative statistics that define so many foster youths. At age 27,Ambroz is an attorney and executive director of Los Angeles City College Foundation,a program offering financial help to students. After suffering abuse at the hands of a foster parent,Ambroz sought and gained emancipation at age 17.
Ambroz said that to make an 18- or 21-year-old be independent without the necessary help and guidance is impossible. He said that most adults who have familial and financial support aren't fully independent until they are in their 30s,and it's wrong to expect an 18-year-old to be able to handle that alone.
“Here we are imposing this theoretical 18-year-old age on kids that can't even drink,” Ambroz said. “It's not the foster kid's fault that they're having trouble transitioning to independence at 18,it's our fault for imposing a theoretical framework on reality and it doesn't fit,and there's not enough oil on the planet to fit that square peg into that circle.”
Eileen McCaffrey,executive director of the Orphan Foundation of America,agrees that forcing youths to be independent at 18 isn't realistic in these modern times.
“There were jobs years ago where an 18 year old was considered an adult in many ways … and could actually go off and make a living to some degree,” McCaffrey said. “Young people should be allowed to stay in care until 21.”
The foundation helps foster youths by providing internships,scholarships,education and training vouchers,mentors and care packages to those who otherwise wouldn't receive them.
Although the word “orphan” is in the name,the foundation's purpose is to help all youths who have become part of the foster care system.
“We work with young people who have lost the love of natural parents through death,abandonment,abuse or neglect,” McCaffrey said. “Our scholarship program also works with young people who have lost their parents,who are traditional orphans.”
Despite many setbacks and lack of support,there are many success stories of foster care youths going on to do great things. Canfield,Tovar and Ambroz are only three of the thousands of successful foster care alumni who didn't let their childhoods dictate their futures.
Tovar and Canfield had similar words of advice to the current teenagers in foster care who will soon age out. Both said not to be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. No question is a dumb question. Ambroz offered advice that all three alumni experienced.
“Get an education,” Ambroz said. “There's no reason anymore that you cannot get an education.”