After Foster Care: What Happens Next?

Each year, thousands of foster-care children exit the system at age 18 without a net. The Obama administration told us what it is doing to catch them.

Edward Washington

On April 29, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation recognizing May as National Foster Care Month.

"For nearly half a million youth in foster care across our country," the president began in the lengthy statement, "the best path to success we can give them is the chance to experience a loving home where they can feel secure and thrive."

That he did it doesn't seem momentous, until you realize that he was renewing federal acknowledgment of the awareness month after similar proclamations had lapsed under President Bill Clinton. The Obama administration told The Root that it's just one small way they're working to help foster-care youth -- a renewed focus that includes fresh initiatives to help children move into permanent homes, as well as increased support for those who age out of the system.

The policy push may affect in particular African-American children, who, despite accounting for 14 percent of the U.S. child population, make up 30 percent of foster-care youths. According to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report (pdf), black children also stay in foster care longer than children of other races.

Of the 30,000 foster-care youths who age out each year and suddenly find themselves on their own at age 18, most lack a high school diploma, and only 6 percent go on to earn college degrees. Unemployment and poverty-level wages are common, and an astounding 40 percent of young people aging out of foster care will at some point be homeless. Even under the best of circumstances, without the lifeline of parents and a home to help them ease into adulthood, meeting basic needs can still be a struggle.

Without a Net

Edward Washington lived that struggle. The eldest of 12 children born to a single mother who had left his heroin-addicted father, he and his siblings entered foster care because of parental neglect when he was 14. He says, however, that moving into a group home -- with seven other boys, two house parents and a fatherly social worker -- provided a stable environment after the tough Atlanta housing project he came from. "A lot of people have bad experiences in foster care," Washington, now 29, told The Root. "But for me it saved my life."

The familial atmosphere shifted during Washington's senior year of high school, when he clashed with the new social worker who was assigned to his home. At 18 he started attending Morris Brown College and lived on campus -- until classes let out for the summer. His mother, financially unstable and without her own place, couldn't take him in.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

"I tried going back to the group home, but I couldn't stay there because I had aged out," he said. "I hid out in my dorm until the school made me leave. I'd never felt so helpless." Dragging his few belongings in a plastic trash bag, Washington returned to the projects where he grew up and crashed on old neighbors' couches for as long as he could. On nights when he couldn't find a place to stay, he'd sit in a nearby park and try to stay awake until the sun came up.