May 18, 2012
By Cristina Martinez
“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James 1:27 (NLT)
I spent this past year at Princeton University writing my senior thesis about the children who age out of the foster care system. At 18 or 21, depending on the state, those in foster care are no longer eligible for assistance through the child welfare system. I travelled around the state of New Jersey interviewing aging-out foster youth, social workers, agency directors and policymakers, trying to understand the complexities of the foster care system and the process of aging out. Through my many interviews, I realized that although these young adults are my age and live within an hour’s drive of where I attend school, we live vastly different lives.
As a young adult leaving college, I feel the anxiety and fear that often accompanies such a major life transition. For the over 25,000 young adults in the United States each year who age out of the foster care system, the hardships associated with transitioning to adulthood are greatly exacerbated. Almost half of these young adults have not graduated high school; 25 percent of them will be incarcerated within two years of leaving the system, and over 25 percent of them will end up homeless by their twenties. This population is at risk for economic insecurity, housing instability, involvement with the criminal justice system and early childbearing.
Public policy over the last 40 years has provided increasing support for the wellbeing of this population. The age at which a child ages out of the federal foster care system has been extended to 21 instead of 18, but states still retain the right to end foster care at 18. Despite all of the work being done to support older youth in the system and those who have aged out, there remains much room for improvement. Limitations on federal money require 18 to 21 year olds to be in school or working to receive funds, which is logical from a policy standpoint—but who is teaching these young adults responsibility, self-sufficiency and self-motivation?
Interestingly, recent psychological and sociological research has emphasized the twenties as a formative decade in a person’s life. Books released in the past year, such as Coming of Age in America: The Transition to Adulthood in the Twenty-First Century and The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them, discuss the importance of the transition to independence. In an interview on National Public Radio, the author of The Defining Decade claimed that, throughout their twenties, young adults actually have the chance to redeem a terrible childhood by making wise choices and creating new families. Of course, the author is not discussing children coming out of foster care. With the odds stacked against them, young adults leaving the system have little opportunity to use their twenties to reform their lives. Furthermore, they have no social support to do so.
While the church has raised awareness about caring for orphans through ministries like Hope for Orphans, the Christian Alliance for Orphans and Cry of the Orphan Campaign, older teenagers and young adults are often left out of the picture. Fostering or adopting a child is already a difficult decision to make; the idea of taking in an older child is often harder.
The body of Christ doesn’t only have a responsibility to care for younger orphans, but for the fatherless in general. Public policy may not be able to correct every issue of injustice relating to orphans, but the church most certainly can step in and change one life at a time. It is the work God has called Christians to do. There are approximately 300,000 churches in the United States and about 25,000 foster children who age out of the system each year. The math is fairly obvious; we must remember those who are leaving “orphanhood” as defined by the government and are entering adulthood unequipped and alone. Organizations in many states can assist communities in helping these young adults; these agencies can be found through a simple Google search. There are also national organizations, such as Foster Care to Success and the Child Welfare League of America, which provide financial and practical ways to respond to the Biblical call to “bring justice to the Fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17 ESV).
—Cristina Martinez is graduating this month from Princeton University with a degree in Anthropology and a certificate in Values and Public Life. She has won a fellowship award to start a mentoring program in Philadelphia for those aging out of foster care.