Not Just Another Birthday

Charlie McNeelyCharlie McNeely, FosterClub All-Star

Summary: A young woman who grew up in the foster care system reflects on the process of leaving care when she turned 18.

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My only lesson or training on transitioning out of foster care when I turned 18 was the fact that I had no choice but to face the harsh realities of becoming an adult. There were no classes, no workshops, not even handouts. My only warning was an approaching birthday that reminded me that soon enough I would learn for myself what this "transitioning" thing was all about. ­­

Obviously, the way I transitioned out of the foster care system was not ideal. By the time I was 18 I had to basically have my life planned. I did not have the luxury of testing the waters or finding out who I was—I had not had opportunities that allowed me to know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I felt that there was no room to make unnecessary errors or freedom to change my mind. Most kids who did not grow up in the foster care system are given that time to bump their head a few times, make mistakes and have someone to go to when they are in need. Many young adults transitioning out of the foster care system do not have this luxury.

I remember being on my own at 18 facing a lot of adversity. In my first apartment, I didn't even know the procedure of paying rent. Simple things like this were usually learned the hard way, often creating embarrassing situations. I thought I just gave my landlord straight cash and didn't know I should be getting a receipt or stub for my rent every month. Some of the situations were more serious than simply being embarrassing. There were months that I could not come up with rent money and was faced with threats of being evicted.

College was another foreign world. I scrambled the months before I turned 18 to complete my FAFSA, turn in my transcripts, apply to colleges and for scholarships. But no one ever prepped me about what to do once I got to college. How do I get my stuff to campus? What do I need for my dorm room? I did not know that I needed a co-signer for certain documents such as loans and apartments. This process was all new to me, and I was thrown in to manage it on my own, simply because I had passed the 18-years-old threshold.

Once I turned 18, I was no longer the responsibility of the court in my state, so their services to me ended. On the day of my birthday, my health insurance ended. I haven’t had health insurance since. Since I am in school, I do get a 20 percent discount at my university’s health insurance, but I still can’t afford the proper health care I need.

Not only was it difficult to gather the resources and learn how to manage the things I needed for housing, education and health care, but it was also difficult to function socially. I wasn't sure of what relationships would continue once I was out the system. I spent a lot of days by myself, afraid of meeting new people because, aside from my siblings and a few close friends, the majority of my relationships were mediated or assigned by the courts. As far as healthy adult relationships, unfortunately they were non-existent. When I exited the system, the adults exited out of my life; their work was done. I had some harsh realities to face during my time of transitioning out of care.

To expect any 18-year-old to handle the transition to adulthood completely on their own is too much to ask. But factor in the significant trials and tribulations that a young person from foster care has faced, and it becomes clear why so many foster youth do not go to college or launch successful careers. It is not because they don't want to have a better quality of life, but they are ill-equipped and unprepared. Often, they have lived in a system that won’t allow them to practice or take age-appropriate risks. The supportive adults in their lives go away when they are emancipated from the system. These factors can discourage a foster youth from following through on their goals and dreams.

Today, many foster youth have more services available to them than I did, and that is so awesome. My hope is that new opportunities and policies, such as those outlined in the Fostering Connections to Success and Increased Adoptions Act, will benefit the 700 young people who will transition out of the system tomorrow, along with the 25,000 who will age-out this year. It is also my hope that the courts, along with other stakeholders in the foster care system, will work together with youth to ensure resources are in place—including connections with supportive adults—well before a youth hits their transition birthday.

Editor’s Note:

Twenty-four-year-old Charlie McNeely spent 15 years in Oregon’s foster care system, entering the foster care system at age 3 and aged out at 18. She was in more than 10 placements. Charlie is now determined to effect change for foster youth by being a positive and active volunteer in her community. She is currently a senior at Portland State University, majoring in both community health education and school health education, with a minor in psychology. Charlie served as a 2010 All-Star intern with FosterClub, the national network for young people in foster care.

About FosterClub

The FosterClub All-Star Program provides leadership and service opportunities to young people ages 18–24 who have spent their formative years in foster care. For these young adults, who have beaten the odds and thrived in spite of difficult circumstances, the All-Star internship is an opportunity to communicate their unique perspectives and share their resilient spirits with their younger peers still struggling through foster care. In addition to participating in dozens of youth events across the country over the summer, the FosterClub All-Stars advocate for system improvement and promote public awareness nationally throughout the year. For more information, visit www.fosterclub.org.

 

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