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Holiday holds different meaning for foster youth

Guest Columnist
Published:   |   Updated: May 13, 2013 at 02:48 PM

Happy Birthday, America. This week, we gather to celebrate the independence of our country and the freedoms we enjoy.

Independence is a recurring theme throughout our lives, beginning with our very first steps. We celebrate our 18{+t}{+h} birthdays amidst plans for high school graduation, college enrollment, military enlistment or employment. These and other important life choices are made with the support and guidance of loving families.

Not so for Suzi. At 18, she was escorted to the door of a foster care facility, suddenly homeless. Sadly, Suzi had "aged out" of the foster care system, a harsh reality facing foster youth who are not adopted before their 18th birthdays. The traumatized teens, victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment, are handed notebooks containing their important personal papers and sent into the world ill-equipped, frightened and vulnerable. Carli, also among about 800 youth who age out of Florida's foster care system each year, says "It's like becoming an instant adult - I felt so alone."

Florida provides limited monetary and tuition assistance through programs such as Road to Independence, which requires a youth to be enrolled as a full-time student. But most are behind in school and struggle to graduate or earn GEDs while finding safe homes and jobs paying more than minimum wage. Few know how to manage a bank account or budget, have a driver license or vehicle.

Studies show that more than 50 percent of former foster youth never complete high school, and 62 percent are unemployed.

Some communities and individuals are stepping up to fill the voids, but more is needed. Beyond safe shelter, youth need transitional living services that provide instruction on money management, employability, daily living skills and sound judgment. Equally important are adult counselors and volunteers to guide, mentor and care for these young adults struggling with the overwhelming reality of their impending independence.

In North Central Florida, Children's Home Society of Florida's Haven House embraces this population, providing stability and guidance to local girls in foster care venturing toward their 18{+t}{+h} birthdays. Even after aging out, girls can remain at Haven House to finish the school year, increasing the likelihood that they'll graduate. With support from our staff and volunteers, our local independent living services prepare foster youth to take steps necessary to reach their goals and thrive independently. But as hundreds of teens age out of foster care every year, more must be done for the young adults in our community.

At 21, Adam credits transitional living services for helping him more easily shift from 11 years in foster care to his own apartment. Pursuing a degree in culinary arts, Adam is grateful for the chance to reach his goals. And if he stumbles upon a roadblock, transitional services, caring staff and generous volunteers are there to help.

As a society, we must do more for these youth. True, we rescue them from broken families, physical and emotional harm, but until we help these young adults successfully transition to self-sufficiency, we're not fulfilling our assumed parental obligation. How can we, in good conscience, wish them "Happy 18th birthday?"


Jennifer Anchors is executive director of Children's Home Society of Florida, Mid-Florida Division.

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