Aging out of foster careby Ellen Guettler, Minnesota Public Radio
Each year 24,000 American teenagers in foster care leave their foster families or group homes and try to make it on their own. It's called "aging out." They get too old to qualify for state services anymore. In Minnesota, most foster kids age out when they turn 18.
A study released Wednesday shows that foster teens do better if they stay in care until they're 21. The study says when kids stay in foster care longer, they're more likely to go to college. They have higher incomes. The young women are less likely to become pregnant.
Kids who leave foster care at 18 are more likely to be unemployed or poor. Many will be homeless or become victims of violence. We hear the story of one young woman in St. Paul who aged out of foster care and had nowhere to go.
St. Paul, Minn. — Tyondra Newton walks up the steps of a small stone building. Her friend Jamah Boward trails behind.
Halfway up, they hoist themselves onto the staircase wall, throw their legs over and land on a flat black-tarred roof.
"We had our blanket, our clothes and stuff," says Tyondra.
Tyondra says it's the roof where she and Jamah slept when they had nowhere else to go. "She was scared so I slept in the front, so nobody could see her," says Tyondra.
OUT OF FOSTER CARE, INTO A HOMELESS SHELTER
Tyondra is 19. Her round cheeks are marked by deep dimples when she smiles. Her eyes often glance downward, shyly. On her neck, her nickname, Ty, is tattooed in curly script.
Ty went into foster care when she was a baby, because her mother was addicted to drugs. Ty lived in so many foster homes and institutions she lost count.
When she aged out at 18, Ty walked out of her foster home and into a homeless shelter. She stayed in shelters for the first year on her own, and in one of them she met Jamah.
Jamah is an orphan. Her family was killed in Liberia. The two girls with no one else clung to each other. Ty says she was with Jamah the night their options ran out.
"One night we had absolutely nowhere to go. We called almost every shelter," Ty recalls. "They were all full for our ages. I knew it was getting dark and I knew I didn't have noplace to stay."
Ty remembered this low-roofed building, which overlooks the playground she spent time in as a child. And so, they climbed up there to sleep. It was hot and dark, and they were scared to be caught trespassing. And scared of the men who walked through the park.
"It felt like I hit rock bottom," she says. "When I was little I saw people sleeping on the streets, and I never understood because -- I just didn't understand. I mean, when I used to stay in shelters, I knew I was homeless. But when I had to sleep outside, I just knew -- my life is over. I was nobody."
IS 18 TOO YOUNG TO BE ON THEIR OWN?
Ty's story is not uncommon among foster kids who age out at 18. One out of seven of them will become homeless by the time they're 20. They're not ready to survive on their own at 18 years old.
"The most important resource that you have during the transition to adulthood is the family, willing to provide economic support, emotional support, etc," says Mark Courtney, a professor at the University of Washington. "Many of these young people don't have that kind of support, or it's even a threat to them."
Courtney studies young people who age out of foster care.
You're not going to be independent at the age of 18," Courtney says. "All the sort of major markers of what we associate with the transition to adulthood are happening later in life."
Most young people today depend on their parents well into their 20s. Courtney says the state is acting as a parent for foster kids, and it shouldn't cut them off when they turn 18.
"I'm a parent, and if I had a friend who behaved that way toward an 18-year-old, I would be horrified, and I would tell my friend that I was horrified," Courtney says.
Tyondra does have some family. Her two older sisters also grew up in foster care. Ty wishes she could depend on them, but they haven't fared much better than Ty herself. So she continues to go it alone.
"I HAVE MY OWN APARTMENT"
After a year in and out of shelters, Ty finally finds a place to live. Her new home is in an apartment building called Seventh Landing. It's permanent housing for young people who have been homeless.
It's just a single room, with a bathroom. But she's delighted to have her own place.
"I have my own apartment," Tyondra says.
Ty pays 30 percent of her income to live here. Most of the young adults in Ty's building have come from foster care. They've all been homeless. There's a coffee shop downstairs that employs tenants, and it's where Ty spends part of her week working.
"And I work as a nursing assistant. I'm also working part-time at this phone company. So, that's three part-time jobs," she says with a smile. "Back then I had none."
Ty wants to become a full-time registered nurse. She starts classes for her degree in the fall.
Now that her life is a little more stable, Ty's first priority is to help her family. She gives her sisters money for groceries, and she takes care of their kids when they have to work.
"Even though they weren't there for me when I needed them, I was there for them when they needed me," says Ty. "When I was growing up, I always felt like the one on the bottom. Now I feel like I'm the one at the top. I'm the one they call when they need something."
Ty longs to be with her family. She spent her childhood alone. She pays special attention to the kids in her family, because she remembers what it was like growing up with no one to dote on her.
MIGUEL COMES INTO TY'S LIFE
Ty's been living at Seventh Landing for eight months and I find her playing with a little boy named Miguel. He's the child of a cousin, and he's been with Ty for days. Miguel's parents aren't taking care of him, but Ty can't bear to have him go to foster care.
"I'm not saying that all foster homes are bad, but all of the ones I've been to have been," says Tyondra. "If Miguel stays there -- I'm just afraid for anyone going into foster care, I don't want that ever to happen."
But Ty doesn't know how long she'll be able to take care of him. The rules at Seventh Landing say she has to live alone, so Miguel can't move in with her. Instead, she's decided to look for an apartment where she and Miguel can be together.
"Somewhere down the road I am going to raise my family a totally different way from how my family was raised. I want us to be a family. I just want us all to be together," she says.
Ty wants a family so much that she's willing to trade away what little security she has. At Seventh Landing she could have gotten help finding work or applying for school. Instead, she decides not to take those nursing classes. She keeps working so she can afford an apartment where she can take care of Miguel whenever she wants.
A YEAR LATER, SHE'S MOVED ON
Ty leaves Seventh Landing, and I find her a year later in her own apartment. She's now 21. She's still taking care of Miguel. He stays with her for weeks at a time.
Ty supports them both by working at a local college cafeteria. But she doesn't have work when the college goes on break.
Shortly after she left Seventh Landing, Ty learned that she was pregnant. She hadn't planned on the pregnancy, but she was excited when she found out she was having twins. But then, after six months, there were serious complications and she lost the babies.
Ty is still with the father. But she says he's hit her in the past. She says she spent her childhood trying to get away from abuse, so she's not quite sure what's kept her from walking away from him.
But Ty is optimistic about her future. Her friend Jamah lives just down the street, and she still spends time with her sisters. She loves being there for Miguel.
But the struggles Ty has faced over the past three years are common among those who age out at 18. With no one to fall back on, their first years of adulthood tend to be some of the hardest.
- All Things Considered, 12/12/2007, 4:49 p.m.