When the topic of adopting or foster care for teens comes up, most people run the other way. I get it, nobody wants to face head-on with teen sass, drugs, and promiscuous and risky behavior. While all those things are a probability, it shouldn’t mean taking the idea of adopting teens off the table.
You’d be surprised to find that with teens also comes meaningful conversations, gut laughs over sappy movies, and singing at the top of your lungs on a road trip to what teens consider “oldies” music.
The truth is, every stage of parenting is hard. Newborns don’t sleep through the night, toddlers destroy everything and suck out the little energy you have, and middle schoolers are coming into their emotions and it’s like playing mood roulette. So when I say fostering or adopting a teen is hard, it is not breaking news. It’s just a different kind of hard. As with many hard things, it is worth it and there is a surprising amount of unexpected joy.
My husband and I had the pleasure of parenting youth in foster care (including teenagers). We never had the opportunity to adopt, but that didn’t make us love them any less. The first child that came into our home through foster care was a teenage boy.
My husband and I were young and we thought we knew what we were doing, but wow we had a lot to learn in a short amount of time.
Fostering A Teenage Boy
He challenged us on every topic from bedtime hours to allowance; he just had a talent for arguing. What I came to realize is that these were trauma responses. Lying about where he was after school, shoplifting; they weren’t because he was a bad kid. Just that he had a lot of learned behavior. He was living in survival mode.
Those are behaviors that need to be corrected, but can only be done by building trust and safety in the home with your teen. That starts by learning their interests and sharing that with them. I spent time with this teen boy bonding over Starbucks, shopping, and cooking. I had to find things he enjoyed that we could spend time doing. We had to work at not just providing a safe environment but making sure he felt safe too. That meant setting up strong boundaries and seeing them through.
He ended up being reunified with his family, but he still kept in contact with us. He struggled to make it through his last couple of years of adolescence. On his eighteenth birthday, I drove to where he was staying and surprised him. I asked if he was excited to be an adult and to be free from all that plagued him in his teenage years.
This light-hearted, always-in-a-silly-mood child, now an adult, very seriously said how it was exciting but he also was saying goodbye to a childhood he would never get back and never really got to have.
This statement wrecked me. I wondered how many other youths in foster care felt the same way. How many others would have loved to take hold of just a little bit more of their childhood before facing the harsh realities of adulthood?
Fostering A Big Sister
Another one of our teenagers we fostered was a young girl. She and I were already close and it didn’t take long for her to just step into our family like she always had been there. Her relationship with our youngest daughter was so pure, and they became instant sisters. This young lady enjoyed helping with the littles in our home.
She had such a heart of compassion. When we’d get phone calls from the state asking if we’d take another placement, she always wanted to welcome them with open arms. We dealt with drugs, shady friends, and lies from this girl. Yet, she really did want to succeed in life. I know she wanted to do better, she was just being bogged down by the weight of her addictions and past hurt.
I helped this girl get into rehab, drove her to group therapy, and encouraged her to get involved in a church youth group. We fought like any mother and daughter relationship, but, no matter what, the love was there. When we visited her in rehab, the other girls longed to have visitors too. That really broke my heart—to think of all the teens without support.
I made a lot of mistakes, and there are so many things I have learned and educated myself in before fostering teens. There are things I wish I could go back and do, but even with all that they still keep in contact with me. They still say “I love you” and “I miss you”.
Even after everything we went through, I would say yes all over again to those kids. Because they taught me and grew me in ways I never thought possible. One of them calls me his “sister mom.” He will even join us for family get-togethers from time to time.
Yes adopting or fostering teenagers on the surface seems hard, but it is so worth it, and if there is no one willing to say yes to these teenagers what is the outcome? What will become of teenagers when they transition to adulthood?
Education and Foster Care
The sad reality is that many teens in foster care don’t have an easy time becoming adults and many struggle with basic life skills. According to Ifoster.org over 20,000 youth in foster care age out every year. The phrase “age out” is a term to describe youth who turn eighteen before finding a permanent home. This is a callous term to describe a child being without a forever family forced to face the world alone.
Recent studies done by The National Foster Youth Institute states that only about 50 percent of youth in foster care graduate high school, and only 3 percent ever make it through college with a four-year degree.
Let’s talk about that three percent who do make it through college. They don’t have a loving place to go home to on holidays or breaks. During one of my foster parent classes done through Washington State, they explained how some young adults who went through the foster system without being adopted would go hungry and spend Christmas break in an empty dorm room. For them, there are no brightly colored packages, no matching pajamas, and no visiting grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Many colleges now have programs to keep their mess halls and dorms open for students who can’t afford to go home for holiday breaks or don’t have families to go home to. But, I think back to my college days walking into my families’ warm home with a big bag of laundry. I was welcomed by a wood-burning stove, a good meal, and parents who wanted to hear all about what was going on in my life. When I broke up with my first serious boyfriend in college, I drove home and spent the better half of the night crying in my mother’s arms.
Aging Out and Foster Care
My home comforts are a distant dream for foster youth. Unfortunately, even the few youths who are successful after aging out of foster care, still don’t have the basic need of having a family to get them through young adulthood. Although the law says we become adults at 18, that does not mean we are ready to face the adult world alone.
A survey taken by The National Foster Youth Institute states that 70 percent of foster children would like to attend college. That’s a huge contrast to the 3 percent that actually graduate with a four-year degree.
Many youths in foster care are facing multiple placements, a term used to describe the home they are staying in. When switching from home to home and multiple school districts before graduation, it is difficult for many children to fill out college applications, or even seriously think about college when they are not really sure where their next home will be. It’s hard to fathom success and wellness when you are surviving one day at a time.
Another risk when teens do not get adopted is a lack of safe housing. According to fostercare2.org almost half of youth in foster care end up homeless just eighteen months after aging out. When I worked in a group home, I was shocked to find the majority of the teens in foster care, were given a tent and sleeping bag and sent on their way when turned eighteen. The program had support and funding to teach independent living skills and the youth had an option of staying in foster care until age twenty-one. Despite the program and staff’s many efforts to transition the youth to adulthood, they are often without emotional attachments and choose to be on their own. This way they don’t have to be accountable and dependent on the state.
Drug use and Foster Care
Another terrifying statistic put out by National Center for Youth Law is that 25 percent of those youth in foster care will be incarcerated. In fact, 80 percent of inmates in the state of California spent time in foster care.
A young man I got to know during my time fostering, expressed the anger he felt for using drugs in the first place. He wished he could take back ever trying them, but the lure of numbing past trauma and painful memories of his childhood for the short time a high lasted outweighed the consequences at the time. Now years later facing prison time and the loss of his children, he said he would give anything to go back and make different choices.
Perhaps if this young man had a positive adult role model in his life, he would have made better choices, and wouldn’t be continuing the vicious cycle of brokenness he was passing onto his own children. The heartbreak was felt by all in that courtroom; a grown man letting tears fall as he mourned, his whole life on display, he begged a judge for a chance at parenting his children again. There was so much heaviness he carried, as he tried to heal from a wounded past, tried to heal from his addictions, and tried to break the cycle in his own family.
I’m not saying his life would be free of hurt, pain, and addictions, but I do believe if he had been given the chance of having a sense of family, of normalcy before aging out of foster care his life would be drastically different.
Teen Pregnancy and Foster Care
Teen pregnancy is another issue many young girls in foster care deal with. According to The National Center for Youth Law, by the time young women who have aged out of foster care are 21 years old, 71 percent of them become pregnant.
During my time fostering, I had one young lady tell me the longing she felt to become pregnant. She wanted someone to love her unconditionally. She had a heart for children and deep inside she felt that a baby couldn’t leave her or disappoint her as her family had done. I wonder if this is why many women who have spent time in foster care end up pregnant at such a young age and without a lot of support.
Another reason could be lack of education because the average teenager in foster care has had at least 4-5 homes and attends multiple schools. Many of them miss their sex education leading to a high number of unplanned pregnancies. Whether it’s the first or the latter, the fact is women who spend time in foster care are having children at an alarming rate when they are still children themselves. That has to stir some hearts to do better for our youth.
You Can Be The Difference
The statistics are overwhelming, I hope this article stirred something inside you to want to help, reach out and even consider adopting or fostering teens. You could be the one that saves our children from becoming a statistic. You could be the one who changed the course of a young man or woman’s life.
A few years ago one of the teenage girls in my care come to an apartment viewing with me when we were needing to find a new place to live. I asked her what she thought of the home and she shrugged her shoulders. I reassured her that I wanted her opinion because she would be living there too. I told her I wanted her to like where she was going to live. The girl began to cry, and said, “Nobody’s ever cared about where I lived before.” It was a heart-wrenching, but also a tender moment for the two of us. I cried and held her in what would later be our living room.
These troubling statistics do not have to become a reality for teens in foster care. Adopting a teenager doesn’t have to be this scary thing. Yes, it is hard. Yes, you will need to be educated, and become trauma-informed. Yes, it will take work. All wonderful, life-changing things take hard work. Saying yes to a teen and giving them a permanent home could be the best, yes you ever say.
Rachel Luttrull runs The InstaMommas, a Christian blog/podcast with her sister. She studied Early Childhood Education at Eastern Washington University. She is married, and a mom through adoption, and has fostered 26 children, ranging in ages from 0-17. She has a momma’s heart through and through and loves to share her experiences through writing. She currently teaches preschool and enjoys biking, hiking, and anything musical.