For most of us reading this article, we didn’t have life completely figured out when we turned 18 years of age. I turned 18 in the middle of boot camp with the United States Marine Corps. I declined to notify my Drill Instructors that it was my birthday, lest they plan a special “celebration” for me. When I emerged from boot camp, I was a United States Marine who had little discipline and income. However, I also had a family to fall back on if things got hard. Most of us who achieved some level of success in life benefited at least one trusted adult during our coming of age into adulthood. Sadly, that’s not the case for many foster youths who age out of our nation’s child welfare system. So let’s talk about those youth for a moment.
The Impact of a Trusted Adult is Obvious to All
Now, it wouldn’t take a massive research initiative to prove the impact of having a trusted adult in a young person’s life is beneficial. We saw it in our own lives when we became adults. Those of us who have children now can’t imagine abandoning our children during that pivotal season of life. Not to mention, most of us know people we grew up with who did not have such a support system, and we can see the hardship that brought our peer’s lives. So we don’t need the data. Fortunately for you, we have the data anyway.
Youth Villages is an organization based in Memphis, TN, which currently operates the most extensive program in the country, showing positive results for former foster youth in multiple areas of life. These results were quantified in a massive research study from MDRC, which spanned multiple years. MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization, and this study was funded by grants from The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The study showed improved outcomes related to immediate needs, such as housing, food, clothing, and avoiding violent relationships. In areas where it did not show an improvement, Youth Villages went back to the table to innovate and follow the data wherever it would lead them. What Youth Villages does for former foster youth is truly remarkable, and I’m not just saying that based on the data or due to the fact that I worked for them for over 13 years. Yet, because I worked for them, I can testify to the impact of transitional living services first hand.
Stories from the Front Lines of Adulthood
As the Assistant Director for their largest foster care and adoption program, I got to know many of the youth who would receive transitional living services quite well. This is due to the unfortunate fact that youth who age out of foster care have often spent a substantial amount of time in care. I could tell you about the 13-year-old youth who entered foster care, and I can recall him telling me that “every man goes to jail at some point in his life.” I remember this conversation because it dawned on me that he was not exaggerating in his life. Every adult male that meant anything to him in life had indeed gone to jail.
Fast forward six years later, and the youth did not get adopted, nor did he return to the biological family for any substantial time. He did, however, have an amazing transitional living worker in his life. He was attending community college, working a job, and is perhaps one of the most personable and intelligent youths we had. He wasn’t perfect as a young adult, but he did have someone he could call, which made all the difference in the world.
Now, I could rinse and repeat that story with a different youth’s name time and time again; The young teenage mother who received advice on caring for her baby from a transitional living worker, who was also an experienced mother herself. The 19-year-old male who didn’t have a suit or a tie for an interview and so, the transitional living worker not only bought him a tie but showed him how to tie it. You know, stuff our parents did for us, and we will lay down our lives to do for our kids.
I’m incredibly thankful that we have the data to guide and inform the future of transitional living, but I didn’t need it personally. Not to mention it almost seems criminally negligent to spend so much money to care for youth in foster care and then cut off the only support they have at the age of 18. I’m thankful for my years at Youth Villages. More importantly, I’m grateful for transitional living workers from sea to shining sea, helping steward the most vulnerable young adults in our nation to adulthood. It’s a feel-good story for all to celebrate and for programs who have the will and the capacity to replicate.