It’s a quiet crisis that most Americans rarely think about: Thousands of teenagers are living without parents. Every year about 20,000 of these teens become too old for foster care and are released — turned loose without the stability of a permanent family.
Their future chances aren’t bright. In one assessment by the National Council for Adoption, nearly 40 percent of those former foster children had spent some time homeless, 60 percent of the young men had been convicted of a crime, and only 48 percent were employed.
But there is hope for a growing number of foster-care teenagers. Many older people in their empty-nest years are stepping up to take in and even adopt kids who are considered too old by others. And some child advocacy groups such as iFoster in California are targeting teenagers for special help before they are released from state care. Amy Gill, 62, of Toledo, Ohio, had raised three biological children and was already a foster parent when she met her future husband, Richard, who had raised twins of his own. They fostered some children together and then began adopting children from foster care — primarily teenagers. “Teenage years can be a challenging stage, but we enjoy it,” Gill says. “We have a knack for it.”
Kids no longer raised by their biological parents or family members are placed by the state in foster care. Some of those kids get adopted into a new family. But the older they get, the less likely that will happen.
That’s why parents like the Gills are so critical to solving the crisis. “Who’s better suited to raising older kids from difficult backgrounds than older parents who’ve already raised kids?” asks Ryan Hanlon with the National Council for Adoption. “There is a need for experienced parents with a home, time and other resources.”
The Crenshaw family of Danville, Ill., had all that and a preference for older kids. “I said, ‘no babies,’ ” says Raenell Crenshaw, 55, who, with her late husband, Floyd, adopted three older children from foster care. She was prepared for the challenges that come with teenagers. “These kids do not act out by choice,” she says. “Get to know their stories so you don’t accidentally trigger troubling behavior.”
Being ready for tough situations is key, says Ellen Singer, a social worker at the Center for Adoption Support and Education. “It’s when prospective parents expect it’s not going to be hard or challenging that it’s risky.”
Harvey Schweitzer, an adoption attorney near Washington, D.C., advises prospective parents to do thorough research. “I want to look at court reports. Physical and psych exams, school records, grades,” he says. “If those things aren’t readily provided, don’t take the step of meeting the child.”
About 400,000 American children are currently in foster care, and about 50,000 are adopted each year. But the youngest children are most likely to be adopted.
Foster parents who are willing to help older children are far too few, says Reid Cox, cofounder of iFoster, a nonprofit providing life skills to children aging out of foster care.
Cox is a winner of AARP’s 2017 Purpose Prize, presented annually to five people over 50 who have made the world a better place. “For every infant, there might be about 10 adults who want to adopt, but perhaps only one adult for every 10 teens,” he says. His organization focuses on foster children at “transition age,” when the child needs to plan to leave foster care at about age 18 with no support system. IFoster invests several thousand dollars in preparing a teenager to be self-supporting, with a laptop, cellphone, job-skills training, clothing and connections to employers. “It changes their trajectory at the time of greatest need,” Cox says.
But he and others say a “forever family” is the goal for every kid. Older parents are viewed as prime candidates to provide stability for children in their teens. The Crenshaws and the Gills have become spokespersons for AdoptUSKids, which, with the Ad Council and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, launched a campaign to promote the adoption of older kids and teens in foster care. Using the slogan, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent,” the partnership tries to give a positive, realistic view of parenting older children. “Not every child is going to be very challenging or difficult,” Hanlon says. “Some will have issues. What they need is parents who are willing to step up.”
Information About Foster Care and Adoption
- AdoptUSKids: adoptuskids.org; 888-200-4005 (toll-free)
- U.S. Children’s Bureau: acf.hhs.gov/cb/focus-areas/foster-care
- Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys: adoptionattorneys.org