Exiting foster care can be a bumpy road

BY MATTHEW E. MILLIKEN : The Herald-Sun
Jun 14, 2009

DURHAM -- Most teenagers are happy to turn 18. DeShaun was especially eager. In 15 years as a state ward, he'd been shuttled from one home to another more than nine times.

DeShaun, a former foster child who spoke on condition his last name be withheld, could have continued in government supervision through age 21. But he'd gotten his GED at 17 and wanted to get on with life.

So like many foster children, DeShaun signed emancipation papers six months ago when he turned 18, making him a full-fledged adult in the eyes of the law.

Like any confident 18-year-old, he's brimming with plans. He may advance them this week at a Winston-Salem event that will teach him and other local current and former foster children about entrepreneurship.

"I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life," the trim, good-looking teenager with a thousand-watt smile said Friday. "At first, I thought it was easy, but when you've got so many different choices, it's just hard."

Incomplete applications to N.C. Central University and a school for aviation mechanics languish in his room. He figures he'll go to school -- but not just yet.

Each year, an average of seven Durham County residents, 239 state residents and more than 20,000 U.S. residents ages 18 to 21 "age out" of the foster care system.

Within 18 months of leaving foster care, only 54 percent of those who have aged out of the system have earned high school diplomas while 84 percent have become parents, according to 1992 and 1989 studies cited at www.fostercaremonth.org. The studies indicate that 51 percent were unemployed after 18 months; 30 percent lacked health insurance; 30 percent received public assistance; and 25 percent had been homeless.

A short conversation with DeShaun hints at some problems faced by former foster children.

One family confined him to his room except for school, chores and meals. At Christmas, that foster family's young son got a PlayStation 3; DeShaun got nothing.

Foster care cut DeShaun off from his parents, siblings and cousins. Recalling that separation brought a note of regret into his voice, unlike other childhood reminiscences.

"Every day that goes by you think about what's going on," DeShaun said. "You worry that if your mom died you wouldn't be able to see her funeral. Or forgetting what your mom looked like, forgetting what your dad looked like -- just forgetting your real family."

DeShaun, who said he doesn't know why he was placed in foster care -- neglect and abuse are typical reasons -- now enjoys closer family ties.

That's one of the joys of independence. But his family has offered little by way of material support or life lessons.

After a brief homeless stint in January, DeShaun stayed with different girlfriends. That didn't work out.

And, he said, "Every time I moved to a different place, my stuff kept disappearing. ... Either I was losing or they were taking, I don't know. I couldn't quite keep up with what was going on."

So far this year, DeShaun has only found work at a fast-food restaurant, which he disdains.

For the last few weeks, DeShaun has lived at Genesis Home, a shelter that mainly helps homeless families. He calls his new situation all right but chafes at the 10 p.m. curfew and restrictions on visitors.

Genesis Home, which has two Durham County-funded slots for former foster children and hopes to fund two more former foster slots, offers counseling and coaching to all its residents. But DeShaun, while friendly with staff and other residents, prefers making his own way over taking advice.

"I just wish there was more for somebody my age to do," he said. "But there isn't, so there's not really much I can do but go to school. But I'd prefer to work until I can go and get out of the situation, but -- I'm fine."

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