As we come to the end of May with a final reflection of National Foster Care Awareness Month, I am personally conflicted between joy and satisfaction in knowing that several of the youth I have worked with walked with their classmates to receive diplomas and my sadness of the loss of another.

Unless youth in foster care are reunited with their natural families, successfully placed with extended family or adopted, they end up “aging out” of the system, most often at the age of 18, but sometimes extended to 21 depending on the circumstances of their case. Some of those youth who have been diagnosed with a type of disability will continue in other state services. However, those who do not have the additional diagnosis will be transitioned into adult living services with the goal of obtaining independence and self-reliance.

According to a 2015 report, from 2005 through 2015, an average of 193 youth aged out of foster care. In research completed by the Utah State Department of Human Services in 2010, “Assessing Outcomes of Youth Transitioning from Foster Care,” the statistics for the future of these youth considering potential for work, post-secondary education, arrests, early pregnancy, mothers in poverty and mental illness was grim. No matter how real or bleak these statistics seem, they are not always a true reflection of individual cases. There are many factors that are not included in these statistics including the foster parents.

In foster care, you work in the shadows to protect the safety, privacy and confidentiality of the youth and their families so you refer to them by initials rather than names. It is because of my ongoing respect of this process that I will refer to my young friend simply as JM.

When I met JM two years ago, he had been in foster care for some time. He had several siblings whom he loved and was close to turning 18. Although he did have struggles with learning and a developmental diagnosis, he did not qualify for additional services and was set to age out of the foster care system. Like all of his peers, he looked forward to the age of 18 as a way to finally establish his independence and start living the life he wanted. He understood that he would no longer be directed by a system and team of adults who made all of his decisions for him. So when JM turned 18, he made the decision to move out of his foster home and create his own life.

It is at this point that JM began his journey to becoming a statistic. He did not have a personal support system, so he began to make bad choices. Without any viable work skills, he was unable to support himself and without the drive to finish school, he was headed to becoming a dropout. He also made some decisions that brought him to the justice system, though luckily, they weren’t serious.

What was different for JM, however, and not reflected in any of the statistics, is that his foster parents never gave up on him. Although I can’t find numbers to prove it, I suspect that the number of foster homes who continue to support youth who have aged out of the system is low. But fortunately for JM, this was not the case, and his foster parents continued to stay in touch, support him in school and stand behind him through his court appearances. Although it was hard for them to watch him struggle and turn them away, they were patient and stayed in the background letting him know that they were there if he needed them. When he finally realized that he did, they opened their home to him and he moved back. They did not have to do this, there was no contractual requirement, only their moral, ethical and personal commitment to see him succeed.

Sadly, two days ago, his short life ended and as I write this, the cause is still unknown. But what is known to me and everyone who has worked with JM and his family is that at some point from the time he moved in to the time of his passing, he was no longer with a foster family, but instead, with his true family.

I hope that someday, this family and other foster families like them will understand that despite the outcomes, what they do for these youth when they no longer have to, truly matters. I hope that my story can encourage rather than scare away potential foster families because there will always be a need for this type. And to all of these families, on behalf of JM whom I am sure would say this if he could, thank you for caring and loving beyond what you contractually agreed to do.

As St. Mother Teresa said, “It’s not about how much you do, but how much love you put into what you do that count.”

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