Coming of age is never easy. The transition from youth to adulthood is difficult for even the most well-adjusted family. With two nurturing, financially stable, emotionally available parents there to gently nudge the teen out of the nest, the most motivated, well-intentioned teenagers still make poor decisions. Risk-taking and limited foresight are normal, age-appropriate parts of the journey to adulthood.
Most youth can safely experiment with independence before they leap into it. When they do ultimately set out on their own, their families remain as safety net. They can come home. They come home for the holidays, for a weekend, for some good food, or for a hug after a breakup. They have a little room for error, and they generally find acceptance from their families even after a poor decision or two.
Coming of age from foster care, however, is an entirely different proposition. In the child welfare field, “aging out” is the term used to describe youth who leave foster care upon reaching adulthood without a permanent family. In 2012, more than 23,000 youth aged out of foster care in the United States.1
The term itself is not particularly terrifying. Aging out sounds almost like an accomplishment, a moment to celebrate the end of a long journey through foster care. Sadly, there is nothing to celebrate about aging out. Youth aging out of foster care have low rates of graduation, employment, and enrollment in higher education. They have high rates of incarceration and homelessness, with an increased likelihood of returning to the child welfare system as parents of abused or neglected children.2 While statistics are important, the horrific reality of becoming a young adult without a safety net is best illustrated through the stories of two young men standing alone at the edge of this cliff in Wisconsin today.
Before Emmanuel3 was born in 1996, his young mother’s recreational use of alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine had evolved into a full-blown cocaine addiction. During his toddler years, she tried several times to quit, but did not have access to adequate drug treatment programs to teach her the necessary coping skills to get clean safely and permanently. She became agitated and short-tempered when she was sober, physically abusing Emmanuel and his siblings on a regular basis.
Tanner B. Kilander, Marquette 2002, is a staff attorney at the Milwaukee Juvenile office of the Wisconsin State Public Defender. She represents children over age 12 in CHIPS cases, parents in termination of parental rights cases, and youth involved in delinquency cases.
One of these beatings resulted in four-year-old Emmanuel, along with his five-year-old sister and baby brother, being removed from their mother’s home by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF). The children were placed with their grandmother under children in need of protection and services (CHIPS) orders, and their mother was ordered to go to drug treatment and get mental health counseling before her children could come home. She never did. Mental health services were hard to find, and an adequate support system even harder.
Over the next 14 years, Emmanuel’s life took a path all too familiar for foster children in the United States. His grandmother’s health declined, rendering her unable to care for the children. He moved from relative to relative, group home to group home. He changed schools repeatedly throughout elementary and middle school, barely passing each year. Group home staff fed and supervised him, but in large part he was raised by a series of individuals who punched in and punched out at the end of their shifts, not by people who loved him.
Emmanuel, however, was resilient. With the help of his favorite group home director, he auditioned and was accepted into a local arts high school as a dancer. He found stability in his school and his talent, working relentlessly in his dance rehearsals and performances. His academics improved, and by the time he was a sophomore in high school, he had found a level of maturity that escapes most college sophomores. He got his first job at 15, and started saving money. By 17, he was working two jobs, performing several times each semester at school, passing his classes, and staying out of trouble completely. He maintained relationships and spent time with his family members, even though none of them could provide him with a stable home.
Shortly after his 17th birthday, Emmanuel moved into an apartment through a supervised independent living program in his community. The program had strict requirements, some of which were statutory: he had to have a job, be attending school and on track to graduate before his 19th birthday, and be the subject of a CHIPS order. The rules were equally strict: no visitors after 9 p.m., no overnight guests, and cooperation with case managers and drop-in visits from staff. The benefits were tremendous, though. His entire apartment was paid for, along with his transportation to and from school and work, food, and an allowance. He was required to put his paychecks into savings, to accumulate for him to use when he was no longer eligible for the program.
Effective Aug. 1, 2014, some Wisconsin youth aging out of foster care have a greater margin for error.
The move was a big one for Emmanuel. He was excited to be on his own, out of the incessant drama of the group homes. But the loneliness was crushing. After each long day of school, rehearsal, work, and an hour-long bus ride home, he walked into the same empty apartment he’d left in the morning. Nobody asked him how his day was. Nobody washed his uniforms, made him dinner, or packed his lunch for the next day. He was independent, but alone.
Emmanuel was lucky, though, in that he had people who loved him. He had his grandmother and his aunt, his siblings, and other extended-family members. Recently, he and his mother began talking for the first time in many years. Emmanuel is loved, but he is still alone, and he has no safety net. If he makes one wrong move (even an age-appropriate wrong move), such as cutting a few classes or sneaking a late-night guest into the house when he knows he shouldn’t, his entire future hangs in the balance. He will have nowhere to live and no way to get to school or work, and all his goals will go up in smoke.
Marquis’s mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder but did not obtain treatment. When Marquis4 was five, she jumped out of a second-story window at the command of voices inside her head. Marquis tried to stop her, holding on so tight that he was pulled out of the window with her as she jumped. He sustained a broken leg, and was placed in a foster home under a CHIPS order. Marquis suffered from night terrors and flashbacks, exhibiting destructive, violent behaviors toward other children at school and in the foster home. At age six, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Marquis’s mother, like Emmanuel’s, failed to meet the conditions the court imposed for the return of her son. Marquis’s father had been incarcerated since Marquis was an infant, and he did not wish to participate in the court proceedings or Marquis’s life in any way. When Marquis was seven, the court terminated his parents’ legal rights, and the foster family adopted him. His foster-care story was supposed to be over.
But as Marquis grew older, his outbursts grew more frequent. His grades and attention span deteriorated, and he was frequently suspended from school for fighting. Marquis had several short psychiatric hospitalizations, culminating in a three-week stay when he was 12 years old. His adoptive parents became less and less engaged in his treatment with each hospitalization, and this time when the hospital called to let them know he was ready to be released, they said they could no longer care for him. For the second time in his short life, Marquis became the subject of a CHIPS petition.
Marquis was released from the hospital to a residential treatment center for mentally ill youth located nearly three hours from home. His adoptive parents came to see him every other Saturday for two hours but were unwilling to work with the social workers or treatment center to get Marquis returned to their care. No adoptive relatives were interested in Marquis, and his biological family members’ relationships with him had all been severed after he was adopted.
Marquis spent the next five years bouncing around treatment centers and group homes statewide. His adoptive parents stopped visiting after the first year. As far as his biological family knew, Marquis was still living happily in an adoptive home, because the termination of his biological parents’ rights ended their right to notice of future proceedings.
Holiday after holiday, Marquis watched other youth at his facility go home to spend time with their families while he stayed behind by himself. Sometimes staff members would invite him to their own homes for Christmas, but he felt out of place. His birthdays came and went wholly unnoticed, and he detached more and more from the adults in his life. He changed schools 11 times in five years, and was still in the ninth grade at age 17. He was in special education programming at school, but as Marquis describes it, “They just stick me in front of a computer with headphones and tell me to be quiet and read stuff on this website. I usually fall asleep or leave.”
When Marquis was 17 and a half, his group home contacted his social worker and asked to have Marquis removed from the facility due to his angry outbursts and frequent curfew violations. That was the last straw for Marquis. This would have been the 18th time he had moved since his return to foster care at age 12. Tired of lugging garbage bags of his belongings from facility to facility, he walked out.
Youth aging out of foster care have high rates of incarceration and homelessness, with an increased likelihood of returning to the child welfare system as parents of abused or neglected children.
A few weeks ago, Marquis celebrated his 18th birthday sleeping on the couch of a person he barely knew, with virtually no education, an untreated mental illness, no income, no family, and a deep hatred of the system that raised him.
Gaps in the Law
Emmanuel and Marquis represent the best- and worst-case scenarios for a young person aging out of the foster care system in Wisconsin. Before Aug. 1, 2014, Wisconsin law prevented individuals like Marquis from receiving continued services, placement, and protection from the DCF after they turned 18 years old.5 Youth were only eligible for continuation of their CHIPS order (and, as a result, the continuation of DCF services) after age 18 if they were still in high school or an equivalent program and on track to graduate before their 19th birthday.6 Marquis’s failure to advance beyond the ninth grade made him ineligible for an extension of his order, regardless of his special needs. Even if Marquis had later entered a high school equivalency program, a new CHIPS case could not be initiated after he turned 18.7
For Emmanuel, the law was more accommodating. His projected graduation date was after his 18th birthday but before his 19th birthday. He was stable and supported enough to qualify for the supervised independent living program, which required the extension of his court order. He would have access to all services and programs available to 18 year olds through the DCF, although those were limited in number.
Gaps in this version of the law set up many youth to fail. A child who graduated before he or she turned 18 would not be eligible for an extension of any kind, rendering the most successful youth homeless on their birthdays. By age 18, many teens aging out share Marquis’s anger against and distrust of the DCF, and do not want their CHIPS orders extended. Unfortunately, before the Aug. 1, 2014, change in the law, the decision not to extend a CHIPS order beyond 18 was a permanent one, even if the youth changed his or her mind one week later. The law governing teens fumbling toward adulthood had no room for missteps.
A Step in the Right Direction
Effective Aug. 1, 2014, some Wisconsin youth aging out of foster care have a greater margin for error. 2013 Wis. Act 334 revised several statutes in Wis. Stat. chapter 48, giving courts the authority to extend CHIPS orders until age 21 for youth who are enrolled full time in school and have an active individualized education program (IEP).8 There also are limited provisions for youth to leave and reenter the DCF system after age 18.9
Sadly, the needs of the aging-out client often do not peak until the court case has ended and the client is trying to survive alone in a big, cold world.
These changes would specifically give a young man like Marquis access to additional services until age 21, if he decided to reenroll in school and get a new IEP. Those, however, are big if’s. At Marquis’s age, with his mental illness and history of educational failure, the likelihood that this change would be meaningful for him is small. A young person with no special education needs, like Emmanuel, would not be affected by these changes in any way.
Lawyering Beyond Litigation
Even with the recent changes to the law, the harsh realities of aging out persist in Wisconsin. Youth not attending school regularly are often those with the greatest need for assistance, and there is no legal safety net for those teens. Even those who find some success in school rarely have the maturity to stay focused without any day-to-day adult oversight. Standard DCF group homes have strict rules on the number of 18 year olds who can live in a home with minors, leaving a shortage of available beds for young adults. Finally, the teens themselves often resist continued court or DCF involvement, because many of them have been waiting years to get out of foster care and are convinced that they are better off on their own. Only a few are right.
Various agencies statewide have created programs to assist young adults who have recently aged out. Without a CHIPS order in place, however, the programs tend to be limited in scope. Teens can learn to balance a checkbook, cook, do laundry, and other basic daily living skills, but these programs rarely have the funding necessary for assistance with housing.
Counsel for youth aging out are often the only connection their clients have to available services. Relationships with case managers, families, and courts are often broken, and for many young people, their lawyer is the adult in their life that they have known the longest. Lawyers practicing in this field should be familiar not only with the changes to the law but also the voluntary, free programs in their communities that clients can access in six, 12, or 18 months after their court orders have expired and the formal programs have ended. Sadly, the needs of the aging-out client often do not peak until the court case has ended and the client is trying to survive alone in a big, cold world.
1 The State of America’s Children, 2014 Report, p. 37. Children’s Defense Fund 2014.
3 Emmanuel’s story is based closely on the experiences of one actual young man in Milwaukee County. His name and some details have been changed to protect his identity, but the material facts that make Emmanuel’s story his own are entirely accurate and are published with his permission.
4 Marquis’s story is not based on one particular youth; rather, it is a compilation of real circumstances that arise again and again for many youth. Every part of Marquis’s story happened to an actual foster child, but parts of different individuals’ lives have been compiled to create Marquis’s story. None of the people whose experiences are referenced were named Marquis.
5 Wis. Stat. § 48.365(5) (2012).
8 2013 Wis. Act 334; Wis. Stat. §§ 48.365, 48.366 (2014).
9 Wis. Stat. § 48.366 (2014).