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.”