WHEELING - Turning 18 years of age is a time of celebration for many young people because a relatively smooth transition from high school into higher education, the work force or military service likely awaits them.
But for foster care children who turn 18 without being adopted, attaining legal adult status can sometimes send them down a dark and lonely path with an uncertain future.
"A girl who was in foster care, on her 18th birthday, went home from school as usual. When she got there, all of her stuff was packed on the front porch. The foster mother said, 'See 'ya,'" said Pam Jeffers, Transitional Living Program manager for Wheeling-based Youth Services System, in describing the recent experience of a local young person.
Photo by Casey Junkins
Exploring ways to help foster children and other homeless youth transition into productive adults are these Youth Services System employees, from left, Lori Bresnahan, Transitional Living Program case manager; Mike Toothman, public information officer; and Pam Jeffers, Transitional Living Program manager.
"The foster mother said she had done her job in keeping the girl until she was 18 - and was now finished with her," Jeffers added, noting the school the girl attended helped her find temporary living arrangements.
Unfortunately, this is but one example of the problems that Jeffers and other YSS workers face in attempting to help disadvantaged young people successfully transition into adulthood. The organization offers hope to some who otherwise may not see much of it.
"For most young people, if you are driving home late at night and the water pump on your car goes out, you can call your dad. These kids have no one to call," said Mike Toothman, public information officer for YSS. "They need someone to help them with basic, everyday problems - and they really need some sort of an adult role model. With our programs, we try to provide that."
Children enter the foster care system for a variety of reasons, Toothman said, but he noted the most common reasons are abuse or neglect on the part of the biological parents. Others may have a parent, or both parents, in prison. A smaller number of foster children are orphaned.
If the foster children reach the age of 18 without being reunited with their biological parents - or being adopted by a new family - they are usually considered to "age out" of the system. This means they are legally adults, carrying all the responsibilities that come with adulthood - without the skills or preparation to do so.
Being a foster parent is a lot of responsibility, and most of them do the best they can for the children in their care. Some of the foster parents develop relationships with the children that allow them to stay with the foster parents after turning 18 or after graduating from high school.
However, many of the children do not have this type of relationship with their foster parents, so some of them are simply left unprepared for what awaits them in the "real world." Because of the difficult circumstances they face before and during their time in the foster care system, the children often have emotional problems. They also tend to struggle academically because they face so many other challenges in life that school sometimes does not seem to matter much.
Toothman said about 25 percent of the children who are in foster care are unable to attain a high school diploma or GED by age 21. Many also cannot get a driver's license because they don't have anyone to help them learn how to drive.
"That is an example of how many challenges they face," said Lori Bresnahan, Transitional Living Program case manager for YSS, regarding the driver's licence issue. "Even if they have a chance to get a job or go to school, they often cannot get where they need to go because of transportation problems."
Fortunately, the YSS Transitional Living Program can assist these young people in getting a driver's licence, finishing high school, starting college, finding a place to stay, etc.
"These kids need a safety net - we try to serve as that safety net," said Jeffers.
In managing transition programs for several years, Jeffers said YSS has a number of success stories. She said this shows that with a little bit of help and compassion, the foster children can become productive members of society.
"Success is judged individually. Just to start college, or get a GED, or get a diploma - these are successes for many of these kids," Jeffers said.
One person who completed the transitional living program now owns a business in Wheeling, Jeffers said, while another went on to become a registered nurse.
For more information on YSS programs, call 800-977- 8918 or 304-233-9627.