“Dear Foster Girl, Woman” is an occasional column written by Georgette Todd, a writer and former foster youth.
Dear Foster Girl, Woman:
What is the best way to prepare foster youth for the real world?
Assuming that the foster youth is not in a county with a lot of resources or in a state that extends foster care benefits until age 21, there are several ways to generally approach this complicated situation.
1. Get Interested and Involved. Everyone has interests, strengths and weaknesses. Find out what those attributes are as soon as you can. The sooner you discover the individual make-up of the youth, the more informed you’d be in helping him/her. For example, if a foster teen is just not into school and chronically runs away, then find out he or she does like to do. Hobbies can become potential careers by transferring skills:
Beauty conscious? Cosmetology.
Working out? Gym trainer.
Tinkering with cars? Mechanic or body shop owner.
A higher educational path shouldn’t be the only option since there are other avenues to succeed. To quote one foster youth I’ve worked with: “Drug dealers could be accountants [or retail managers].” As controversial and flippant as that statement sounds, there’s some truth there. So once you find out what your youth likes and dislikes, talents and areas of concern are, then you’ll have enough quadrants to help map out a future.
2. Show Them the Way. Am I talking, “the way” to success? No, I mean the way people live. How does one get an I.D.? Knows how to dress appropriately? Get a job? Open a bank account? Save money? Apply to live in an apartment or in a house? You could navigate Craigslist together, show open house ads with rental fees, get a nice suit at Goodwill for job interviews, practice mock interviewing, discuss income flow and bill paying and so on.
Basically, walk foster youth through, accompany them every step of the way initially as you had done for you when you were a teen, or how you prepared your own kids for adulthood. Really, it’s mind boggling how a lot of people forget that foster teenagers are still just teenagers. The Independent Living Skills Program (ILSP) can only do so much (1.5 hours per week with one overworked instructor).
3. Get Help. You don’t know everything and shouldn’t be expected to, but you’re bound to know someone who knows someone who can help either get your foster youth a job, or a garage apartment, or a lead somewhere that can help in some way. Non-profits and government programs should be looked upon as an added resource, but they should never be the only source of sustainability.
The sooner a youth can literally transition completely away from a system, or from any other well-meaning but limited entity, the more confidence and self-knowledge youth will have in order to live independently. You’ll have a better chance in helping your youth transition successfully if you don’t just rely on your professional roster either.
Try tapping into your own personal network of college buddies, friends or family, book club members, fellow church patrons, neighbors and gym pals. Keeping healthy boundaries in tact, consider someone from your personal life who can help link your transitional youth to a resource, or at least generate ideas that you have yet to think about.
While none of the above suggestions can guarantee a completely safe and successful transition, they all provide realistic approaches to mitigate some challenges emancipating foster youth face. In the end though, it’s up to the individual youth to take advantage of the help offered or be self-directed enough to seek out assistance.