According to the National Foster Youth Institute, over 23,000 children age out of the foster care system each year in the United States. That’s enough to populate a small town. While this number is incredibly high, many people don’t understand the dangers these at-risk youth will face. What’s so bad about turning 18 and leaving foster care on their own? Their lives will just continue as any other young adults would, right? Actually, no. The sad reality is that many of these newly legal adults will face a great deal of adversity.

When a child has been raised in foster care, they may or may not have any contact with their biological family. Even those who have remained in contact with their birth families may not be able to rely on them for the support and encouragement that they desperately need. If they were raised in an institution or group home, moved frequently from house to house, or have lived with a foster family that they don’t feel a strong connection with, they may feel that they have nowhere to turn and no one to reach out to. By the time they turn 18, over 40 percent of children in foster care were been in the system for more than three years. Many children age out of the system without having a connection or being reunited with a family. This can lead to a wide variety of unfortunate experiences and outcomes.

The following are some of the issues commonly faced by young adults once they have become emancipated from foster care. Many of these issues tend to have a direct correlation with each other, and the difficulties they face can present a vicious cycle of hardship. While some children who age out of foster care adjust quite well to independent life, many more face obstacles such as:

 – Homelessness

According to an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, “between 11% and 36%  of the youths who age out of foster care become homeless during the transition to adulthood,” and up to 46 percent had experienced at least one episode of homelessness by age 26. The risk was especially high in young adults who dealt with unstable foster placements, had been physically abused, and had symptoms of mental illness. Males who age out of the system and kids with a history of running away or exhibiting delinquent behavior are also more likely to become homeless.

No one should have to worry about where they will sleep at night, regardless of their past. With many of these youth still experiencing the post-traumatic stress of being removed from their biological families and placed in unfamiliar homes, they may not have learned to effectively cope with the emotional and behavioral struggles they face on a daily basis. They may not have learned the necessary life skills to be successful in an adult world. The ability to secure transportation and housing, apply for and maintain a job, and become an instant adult may seem incredibly foreign to them if they have never had a positive example to follow.

Even if they have been raised by the kindest of foster parents or mentored by caring youth leaders in their group homes or institutions, they may feel that they don’t belong to anyone, anywhere. The instability in their lives may have impacted their ability to form bonds with caregivers. They may also have a difficult time connecting with resources in the community that could assist them with housing, especially if they already have a negative view of state institutions. Therefore, they may go out into the world with a sense of isolation and may not feel that there is anyone who can give them the assistance they need. If they try their best and fail, they have no one to go home to and often end up with no home to call their own.

 – Unemployment

One of the biggest obstacles faced by those aging out of the foster care system is the ability to support themselves financially. According to Children’s Rights, in a study spanning multiple states, it was found that up to 47 percent of children who were in foster care are currently unemployed and 71 percent make less than $25,000 per year.

The struggle with stable employment can be impacted by education level, lack of reliable transportation, lack of previous work experience, and too few personal references.

 – Unplanned Pregnancy

According to the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota & Lutheran Social Services, also known as CHLSS, the estimated number of unplanned pregnancies experienced by those who age out of the foster care system is incredibly high, approximately “7 in 10 girls who age out will become pregnant before age 21.”

Unplanned pregnancy seems to have a higher incidence amongst this population due to many socio-demographic factors including poverty, family disruption, and child maltreatment.

According to a study done with California foster youth in Findings from the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study, about two-thirds of those foster youth pregnancies ended in live birth, with another 18 percent in miscarriage, and 16 percent in abortion. More than 90 percent of the offspring resulting from these births will live with their parents. When already dealing with financial difficulties, too little education, and unstable living conditions, becoming a parent at this young age can negatively impact these areas even more.

 – Substance Abuse

There is an extremely high rate of substance abuse among young adults who age out of foster care. According to CHLSS, It is believed that one out of two kids who age out of foster care will develop a substance use dependence. Yes, you read that correctly. Half of these kids may struggle with addiction.

Many young people turn to drugs and/or alcohol as a way to cope with unpleasant feelings. While this may numb the pain temporarily, it can cause even more harm in the long run. When surrounded by others who abuse drugs and alcohol, joining in provides a feeling of belonging and normalcy—a feeling that they may not have felt in a very long time, if ever. It can be easy to become physically and emotionally dependent on these substances, and once an addiction takes hold it can feel almost impossible to escape its grasp.

Once these young people are out on their own, they may not have access to insurance that will cover medical detox and rehabilitation when needed. They may also lack the support system they need to encourage their sobriety. If they are facing mental health challenges, homelessness, or unemployment, the incidence of substance abuse rises.

 – Low College Attendance/High School Graduation

Children who become emancipated from the foster care system are less likely to reach their educational goals than children in the general population.

Of the children who age out, 1 in 4 will not graduate high school or receive a GED, according to NFYI. This can greatly impact their opportunities for quality employment.

While 70 percent of children in foster care would like to attend college, according to NFYI, the unfortunate truth is that 4 percent of those who age out of foster care will receive a college degree by the time they reach 26 years old (compared with 36 percent in the general population), according to Children’s Rights.

 – Higher Incidence of Criminal Activity

The rate of incarceration among those who have aged out of foster care is much higher than it is in the general population. According to a 2013 study, men who were emancipated from the foster care system were more likely to be incarcerated than women.

How Can We Change These Outcomes?

The statistics aren’t promising, however, it is never too late to work toward a change for the better. For those considering adoption, there are many benefits to adopting an older child or teenager. While they may come from a troubling situation, most often they are in the system through no fault of their own. Most of these children have dealt with severe neglect or varying forms of abuse. These types of experiences can cause post-traumatic stress issues that are not quickly or easily healed. Learning to trust authority figures doesn’t always come naturally. Some children lash out in anger. Some may exhibit delinquent behavior. However, a majority of them just want to feel the love and acceptance they have been missing. With time and patience, consistency and stability, trust can be built and bonds can be formed. Many foster children want nothing more than to have a permanent family. Just because they have reached a certain age doesn’t mean that they would prefer to be on their own. Adopting an older child or teenager can literally save their life. A supportive family can help build a young man or woman’s self-confidence and aspire them to set and achieve goals.

Many organizations are working to improve outcomes for children in foster care. One of these organizations, Children’s Rights, advocates for those growing up in the child welfare system. By focusing on foster care reform, they develop and enforce strategies that ensure children get the educational instruction, health care, and support that they need. They also work to find permanent placements for children in a timely manner. Organizations such as this focus on keeping sibling groups together, preventing abuse in the child welfare system, and enforcing frequent social worker visits. By improving the lives of children while they are living in foster care, they can help children to have more positive outcomes as adults.

Studies suggest that extending foster care to age 21 may help combat issues that newly emancipated youth face, however, it does not negate them altogether. Even so, when extending this deadline, young people have more time to find stable employment and to learn the skills they need to become self-sufficient.

Another valuable resource for youth in foster care are mental health professionals. Because virtually all foster children have experienced trauma, it is important that they learn to cope with their emotions and focus on the healing process. Mental illness, trauma history, and behavioral challenges have a large impact on a person’s ability to lead a successful and fulfilling life. Addressing these issues in a professional environment can help youth to build positive relationships and set healthy boundaries. It can also assist in goal setting and building self-esteem.

Working closely with biological families so that children may return home safely is the ultimate goal. This may require extreme lifestyle changes for the parents in question. Treatment for substance abuse, parenting classes, and ongoing support can be helpful steps toward the healing of families. Social workers often work diligently with biological families so that they may regain custody of their children. While there are many success stories, reuniting families is not always a possibility.

How Adopting an Older Child or Teen Can Positively Impact Their Life (And Yours!)

Many people say that they would prefer to adopt an infant, but there are many benefits to adopting an older child or teenager. You get to skip the dirty diapers and sleepless nights that come along with having a baby, but you still get the joy and fulfillment that comes with being a parent. Older children are typically enrolled in school, which is helpful for the schedule of parents who have full-time jobs. Older children can often communicate their needs easier than babies. Family activities such as vacations and hobbies can be much more fun when you have older children to interact with. Sharing special experiences with children who are old enough to appreciate them can create wonderful memories.

A majority of children in foster care know that they want to be a part of a family. Many of them look forward to being adopted. Unfortunately, with each year a child remains in state custody, their chances of being adopted drop. This can lead to feelings of unworthiness and despair, which in turn can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. By adopting an older child, you can change the trajectory of someone’s life. You can help them to avoid many of the unfortunate circumstances they may otherwise face. A healthy support system, a stable home, and positive role models can make all the difference in the world.

Even with a strong desire to join a family, there may be some feelings of grief or loss as a child leaves behind their current community, school, or friends. It is important that you are open-minded, empathetic, and realistic when bringing a new child into your family. Patience is a necessity. You must be willing to make a lifelong commitment to the child in your care, even during the most trying times. While it may not always be easy, it will certainly be worthwhile. Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations. While the current statistics are troubling, it doesn’t mean they can’t be improved. Each child that finds happiness and success is one less child that slips through the cracks. As you build a family, you are building a bright future full of possibility for a child who deserves that chance.

Leslie Bolin is a happily married mama of 3 amazing kids. She is also the birth mother to an adult son. She is just beginning the reunion process, which makes her nervous and excited at the same time. Leslie enjoys educating others about adoption and has done her fair share of outreach, writing, and public speaking on the subject. She has an Associate of Arts degree in Social Work and plans to continue her education. Leslie enjoys spending time with her family, finding peace in the beauty of nature, and laughing as much as possible. She believes that smiling is contagious and that music is good for the soul. She is a firm believer that even the most difficult moments can be turned into something beautiful when we use our stories to help others.