Martha Shirk and Gary Strangler, On their Own: What Happens to Kids when they Age Out of the Foster Care System?
The plight of the 25,000 young people who turn 18 or 21 while in foster care each year, and thus "age out", is just beginning to gain public attention. Although most Americans do not believe their children are capable of supporting themselves until the age 25 or older, these young people, who come from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, are expected to be fully independent at an early age. The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 expanded independent living services for this vulnerable population, but it falls short of providing the resources necessary for a true safety net.
In this book, Martha Shirk and Gary Strangler provide an account of the lives of ten former foster youth and give an inside look into what happens to young people after foster care services end. The rich descriptions reveal how each young person's well-being is intricately tied to the resources and limitations of his or her social environment. The importance of social supports, independent living services, and individual strengths permeate these stories. For many of the youth discussed in this book, the positive impact of just a few caring adults was evident. For example, Holly, with the ongoing support of her social worker and others, was completing her Master's degree at the time of the book's publication, despite the abuse she suffered as a child and many changes in her living situation. The lack of a caring adult was equally influential in determining outcomes. Reggie, a young man with developmental disabilities and psychotic symptoms, was asked to leave a youth shelter on his 18th birthday with no plan for aftercare, carrying his belonging in plastic bags as he went to school. He was found dead less than four months later.
Independent living services can also be instrumental in supporting good outcomes. Children's Village in New York proved to be an excellent fit for Lamar, who moved through the program's varying levels of independence, then graduated from college, married, bought his own home, and started a business. Lamar's two brothers, however, were more difficult to engage in the Children's Village setting. One died in a car accident while on a drug run, and the other was in prison at the time of the book's publication. Some of the youth demonstrated extraordinary leadership. Giselle, who immigrated on her own to the United States from the Caribbean at age 15 to avoid her father's sexual abuse, flourished as a writer and peer mentor once she found a paying position at a foster youth advocacy organization. She then became guardian to her younger sister, saving her from her father's abuse as well, and traveled back to her homeland to make television appearances about sexual abuse.
The book provides vivid detail about these young people and others, and is an excellent addition to the emerging literature on this topic. Given the heterogeneity of pathways to adulthood in this population, an understanding of individual lives and experiences is valuable. Practitioners will appreciate the attention given to the interventions that proved helpful in specific situations, and policymakers will gain further insight into how policies differentially affect each young person.
Sarah Taylor, University of California, Berkeley