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Sunday, October 9, 2011

An Opinion on The "Aging Out Dilemma Plaguing the Foster Care System."

Aging Out Dilemma Plaguing the Foster Care System:
By: Christine McFarlane

I recently read an article in the Huffington Post about the “Aging Out Dilemma Plaguing the Foster Care System.” Bill Baccaglini, the Executive Director of the New York Foundling, wrote the article and in part, this piece is reflective of what I went through when I aged out of the foster care system here in Ontario, and a response to the article by Bill Baccaglini.

Baccaglini opens his article with the statement “imagine that because you’ve been abused or neglected as a child, you’ve spent the first 21 years of your life separated from your biological family, bouncing from one foster home to another and changing schools every few years. At 21 years old, you have never paid rent, bought your own groceries or managed your own expenses.”

Furthermore, “with no family or other support systems in place, you’re told that you are now an adult and responsible for functioning in the world on your own.” Baccaglini asks his readers “would you be able to do it?

When I think of that question, it stirs up a gamut of emotions. I wonder to myself, how did I do it? And I also ask myself, would I want anyone else to go through what I did, just because they aged out of the foster care system also?

My response to the above question, would be no. I would not want others to go through what I did, and something needs to be done to help support youth coming out of care, instead of having them flounder further with no support or guidance.Going from a place of support and having people around you to almost nothing is difficult. It tests your very being. I can’t go back to change the things that happened when I left the foster care system, but I wish that at the time there had been more programs in place, that could have helped me to make the transition from being in care, to being on my own, or at the most that I had listened to those who tried to advise me back then about what could happen, and how I could have dealt with the issues that popped up for me.

I graduated from high school and left my third and final foster home. I moved back to the city that I had spent my earlier years in and moved into an independent living home that was run by the Roman Catholic Children’s Aid Society. This was a home that was supposed to teach and help me with living on my own. At this home, though I lived with several other girls and one staff member, and had a semblance of some support and a routine, a multitude of personal problems popped up, and made my transition more difficult than I would have liked.

At 17 years old, you tend to think that you can take on the world and everything in it. You also don’t heed advice given to you because you tend to think that the person, who is giving you the advice, just doesn’t get it, or is out to get you.  I was still a huge child at heart, and I was thrust into a world that no one could have prepared me for. Amongst the many things that happened to me upon my leaving my foster home, was my adoptive father coming back into my life, and my sister I had not seen since I was 10 years old came back into my life too.  Though I loved that my sister was back in my life, it was very difficult for me to have my adoptive father back in my life. The pain that I had been sheltered from came back when I saw him again, and I took it out in the only way I knew how at that time, by hurting myself.

Being away from the friends I had made and away from the only foster parents who had given me a sense of stability was difficult to say the least. My mental health began to falter. Before I had left my foster home, I had been suffering from an eating disorder, and my eating disorder became even worse as I tried to adjust to my new living situation. I went through extremely intense anger and a lot of self-destruction. Issues that had been festering inside of me for years began to haunt me once more.

The self-harm included not eating, or if I did eat, making sure it didn’t stay inside me, taking pills to numb myself, using knives and scissors to cut myself, and attempting suicide. The group home that I was in couldn’t handle the issues that I had, and after one particular suicide attempt, and a hospitalization, the Children’s Aid told me “enough was enough.”

They gave me two weeks to find a place of my own, and essentially after that I was on my own. Thus began a life of relying on social assistance and apartments that were absolute dives. I remember my first apartment, how it was infested with cockroaches, the noisy neighbors who were always yelling and fighting, and how my apartment view was a parking lot off of an unsavory bar. I recall that when I looked out my window, late at night, I would often see patrons from the bar relieving themselves against the brick wall aligning my apartment building, or a fight would begin and I would hurriedly have to shut my window and its curtain so that I didn’t have to witness yet another person getting decked.

Back to the article, Baccaglini states, “under the current system, when young people in foster care turn 21, they have the rug pulled out from under them. They must sink or swim. But if they sink, we all pay a price.”

Yes, a rug was pulled out from me, but I also played a role in having that rug pulled out from under me. If I had known any better, which I can admit at the age of 17, I didn’t, I know that I would not have chosen to be kicked out of the Independent Living group Home I had been in, nor would I have chosen to be reliant upon social assistance.

Not all foster kids choose what happens to them, when they leave the system. I certainly didn’t.  At 17 I didn’t expect to be paying for my own apartment, paying for hydro and a phone. Nor did I totally expect that I would be living on my own.

Baccaglini says, “because of their life experiences some kids need more support than others-and they may need it for longer.” In my case, after several years of floundering on my own, going into debt, and struggling to learn how to budget on my own, I was put under the care of a trustee. This action though I must admit was hard to deal with at first, has helped me the most.

Aging out of the foster care system or getting kicked out of the child welfare system is a difficult transition. Transitioning from foster care to being on your own is hard, but support systems are needed.

Baccaglini asks what's the solution? And then suggests First, we need more and better programs to prepare these kids for life on their own. Once they are on their own, they are likely to still need help with housing, jobs and enrolling in some form of academic or vocational higher education. They may also need social work or mental health assistance to deal with issues like parents coming out of prison or siblings with drug problems. For those kids, providing this kind of support until age 23 could mean the difference between a productive life and a life in the corrections system or a homeless shelter. These age appropriate programs that work beyond the system are a very good investment indeed.”

I believe Baccaglini is right, more programs are needed, and programs are needed so that these foster kids who age out of the system don't sink. Programs should help aging out foster kids to prepare them for life on their own. It is essential, because when you're out on your own, for the very first time, it's almost certain that you will sink, if you don't have the proper supports to assist you and that can have much more affect on an individual experiencing it, than what the system really cares to believe or understand. I know because I went through it, and though I am years away from that experience, it has taken years for me to rise above what  I went through and to come up on top of it.

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