December 05, 2019
As has been reported repeatedly, West Virginia’s children are in a state of crisis. With over 7,000 children in state custody, the foster and kinship care system is being overwhelmed with the need for citizens to step up and fill in the gaps being left by the opioid epidemic. It should be noted that West Virginians are rallying to the cause to help their neighborhoods and communities to try to provide a future for our state’s children. However, one demographic that is often overlooked when thinking about foster and kinship care is teenagers.
Teenagers are arguably the most vulnerable population in foster care. Historically, children under the age of 5 make up over 80% of the adoptions from foster care. Most statistics fail to even provide a breakdown beyond age 6, instead lumping together ages 6-18 in one overall statistic. Many teenagers in foster care find themselves not only completely missing the family connections they have known for years, but also woefully unprepared to enter adulthood. Due to their age, many teenagers are passed over for placement or adoption and are instead left to the state’s group homes. Once these teenagers age out of the system, they are left on their own with no marketable skills and no support system to fall back on.
Teenagers in foster care, whether pre-adoptive or in a long-term placement, face difficulties not seen by younger foster children. Preparing teenagers for adulthood can include teaching them to drive, opening credit cards and bank accounts, sex education, and thinking about their careers. For many foster parents, even if they have the desire to assist in preparing the teenagers in their care, there are roadblocks every step of the way. Foster parents are often not provided with the paperwork or legal authorization necessary to obtain driver’s licenses or open accounts. Additionally, activities like driving require insurance which can impose greater liability on foster parents. On top of that, any parent who has raised a teenager knows precisely how willful a teenager can be even when they have raised from infancy. To ask a teenager who has been forcibly separated from their family to now listen to a stranger regarding aspects of their personal life is almost too much.
Nonetheless, these children do need protection, love, and support. If West Virginia is to break the cycle of dependency it is the teenagers, the children who are closest to adulthood, who are going to be on the front lines of change. In addition to supporting the foster and kinship programs, West Virginia provides opportunities for foster children to attend college and trade schools after high school. We, as West Virginians, must continue to work to prepare these children as best we can to be a positive part of society and show them that West Virginia, all of it, has their backs.
For additional reading regarding the difficulties teenagers in foster care face obtaining drivers licenses, consider reading Behind the Wheel: Driving as a Route to Independence for Foster Youth by Penn State Dickinson Law Professor Lucy Johnston-Walsh. For information about post-secondary education opportunities for teenagers in foster care, see the West Virginia MODIFY program.