Dear Dr. Wes and John: What advice do you have for foster kids aging out of the system?
Dr. Wes: Research on kids aging out of custody is usually pessimistic. Homelessness, early pregnancy, drug use, low income, legal charges and ongoing contact with social services hit former foster kids at higher rates than nonfoster kids. Many states, including Kansas, have attempted to improve independent living services for new graduates, with varying results. Since this question came from "the box" in my office rather than the Internet, I can assume you're graduating from the Kansas system, where things have begun to look up in recent years. Given the complexity of this issue, we'll only hit a few dos and don'ts.
¢ First and foremost, recognize that you have little margin of error. You must avoid costly mistakes more than your peers. They have family to fall back on if they blow college, become unemployed or get involved with the wrong boy or girlfriend. For many foster kids, that may not be a good option. So, play it safer than your peers, and avoid trouble with the law, drugs, creditors, etc.
¢ Find a mentor. This may be a court-appointed special advocate, therapist, caseworker, foster parent or some other person you've gotten along with well during your foster care stay. It should be an adult who has enough years of experience to give good advice and understand the difficulties of transitioning to adulthood. The system may offer an adviser for this purpose, but I usually recommend young people seek their own mentor so that the fit is a good one.
¢ Don't hook up with the wrong people. The very worst mistake I see system graduates make is getting involved with people who are not good influences - especially romantic partners. There's an underground joke that goes around the system that the real independent living plan for most girls aging out of custody is hooking up with a bad guy. There's really nothing funny or helpful about this, yet it's so common as to be a cliche. Loneliness may get the best of new graduates, and they are easy targets. Even if one avoids bad romance, it's hard to avoid bad roommates. My rule is to skip both by setting high standards.
¢ Stay in school. This is often hard because foster care makes for a tough academic experience, often with many moves and different schools. No matter how down on your luck you feel when leaving foster care, there's no better way to change that luck than to learn to support yourself. Your brain is your best asset, and there is some sort of post-high school education for everyone: college, military, vo-tech, union apprenticeships, Job Corps. Sometimes it's best to do a short-term program like auto mechanics or hair styling and then use that to fund further education. Luckily, there are funds available for many college pursuits.
¢ Neither a borrower nor a lender be ... EVER. It is so easy to get caught up in the payday loan cycle, and some working graduates can even swing credit cards now. DO NOT DO IT. If the reasons are not obvious, ask your mentor. Likewise, I am always astonished at how easy it is for some kids to be separated from their money through unwise lending. It's nice to be generous, but as I noted in the first point, you have no margin of error. You will be forgiven if you keep what little bank you have to yourself.
John: Finish high school strong. The stuff you learn in class may seem pointless, but good grades will help you even if you don't apply what you learn directly. For one, learning to study in high school will make further education - the key to social mobility - easier. Even to an entry-level employer, a history of good behavior and reasonable grades indicates an employee with a healthy work ethic. Economists estimate that if you add the value of all the cash, oil, diamonds and everything worth money in the world, the value of our brains is three times that much. Invest in that capital, and the rest will come soon enough.
Before you leave custody, find a secure job and put 110 percent of your effort into it. If you can impress your first supervisors, they can help you get a better position and slowly climb the career ladder. If you are sloppy and show up late, you'll lose your job and be hard-pressed to find another one.
Strip unnecessary spending to the bone. Americans, particularly young ones, aren't very frugal.
Don't be afraid of failure. This doesn't mean that you should be a risk-taker, but don't allow worries of disappointment to paralyze your initiative. There are many employers that will not hire you. But try anyway. Many of your plans will prove unworkable. Plan anyway. Then have a Plan B. Life is not like golf, where every botched shot counts against you. It's like football, where how far you run matters more than how many players tackle you along the way.
Finally, never lose hope. Because the future seems far away and inconsequential, it's easy to get caught up in the concerns of the present. If you want to improve your future, visualize it. Write down your long-term goal, and then create a list of short-term goals to achieve it. My father used this technique, and it got him to make short-term sacrifices in order to complete his larger career goals. If you believe you are destined for a meager life, you are. But if you can remain optimism and work long hours, the future is yours for the taking.
Next week: Last year's Double Take columnist Marissa Ballard returns on winter break to share some advice for first year college students.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.