These vulnerable kids need - and deserve - any help we can give them

Posted August 2

I faced some of the biggest challenges of my life somewhere in that period of time when I moved from my childhood home in Idaho to go to college, putting physical miles between me and my safety net — my mom and dad.

Like many others my age, I relished flexing my puny little "I've got this" muscles, entirely responsible for myself for the very first time. And I mostly did OK, but I also made some dumb decisions while I was exploring independence and living on my own for the first time.

I was lucky. My folks were only a phone call — or in extreme crisis, a few hours' drive — away. Among other things, in those years, I needed them to help me figure out a memorable financial crisis, to talk through a career decision and (the absolute worst!) to comfort me when I had my heart crushed for the first time. That one required a trip home.

While it was an exciting time for which my parents tried hard to prepare me, it was also a time of uncertainty. I know now that one of the challenges was simply that my brain was still being built and I was less mature and less capable than I thought and than I would become over time.

Science says the brain isn't finished developing until around age 25. And the very last part of the brain to mature, the prefrontal cortex, is one that's tested pretty heavily on that bridge between being a teen and really being an adult. It handles impulse control, complex thought and reasoning.

Simple brain biology provides a special challenge for youths in foster care because their brains are still being built, too, but they often lack the support they need at a time when it's really crucial. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have recognized that the nominal age of adulthood, 18, is too young to abandon foster kids who are leaving the system because of their age. Utah, by the way, is not one of them.

Those states have approved plans to extend foster care for a few more years so that older youths who are in foster care can receive services and support as they cross through that morass of new experiences and physical changes and gradual maturity. Those years are prime for developing relationships, learning to hold down a job, pursuing higher or specialized education (foster children go to college at much lower rates than the general population) and other steps that mark the march into full-fledged adulthood.

The problem is, a lot of them do it pretty much alone, especially if they are simply no longer eligible for foster program supports. The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently published a report called "The Road to Adulthood" that outlines the challenges and the work that's yet to be done to help older foster youths flourish as they enter adulthood.

These young people have already been disadvantaged, or they wouldn't be in foster care. Children are placed in foster care primarily because of abuse or neglect or something else that indicates parents were unfit or unable to provide for them. While most children eventually go home or to a relative who can and is willing to care for them, foster kids who age out of the system are in dire need of a consistent, loyal, loving connection — someone willing to commit to be their person, a human safety net.

They need someone — and hopefully more than one — to provide wise counsel, practical assistance and a place to run with a crushed heart. They need someone to help the negotiate the world.

They need someone to love and support them for the long haul.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco


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