The effects of the rising foster population are particularly acute for teenagers. A lot of foster parents prefer caring for small children. Very few foster families in Durham—the Department of Social Services estimates there are five—regularly take teenagers. As a result, many teens are moved out of the county, far from any support network they may have and social workers who have to shoulder the extra commute to make sure their placement is safe.
“About one-third of our youth who are in care are thirteen or older, and if they come in at an older age, say sixteen or seventeen, they’re more likely to remain in care longer,” says Danielle Dolinski-Sloan, program coordinator for the DSS’s LINKS program, which helps older foster children prepare to leave the system. This means they may experience more placements, more instability, and, in turn, miss out on important life skills, not to mention quintessential teenage experiences like sleepovers and prom.
Roberto Medina, who entered foster care at age five, says he was moved too many times to count. He’s had placements in Durham, Zebulon, Garner, Roxboro, and Cary.
Moving around like that made it hard to make friends, and nearly jeopardized his high school graduation.
“With school I was social, but not a lot, because I knew I couldn’t stay with those friends forever,” says Medina, who is now nineteen. He never told any of his peers he was in foster care, nor did he tell them he was undocumented and entered foster care when his father was deported.
As a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Medina’s situation is unique. He doesn’t qualify for many of the benefits other foster youth receive, and Durham County doesn’t get reimbursed for the costs of his care.
For a little over a year, he’s had a sort of guardianship arrangement with foster parent Steve Combs, who started fostering teenage boys after working as a family court attorney in Wake County, where he saw siblings separated because the younger ones were easier to place.
Combs says fostering teens is just a different experience, more like mentoring. He helps them learn how to drive, budget, navigate adult relationships, and apply for jobs. With that foundation, Medina earned a cooking certificate, got a kitchen job at a convention center, and recently started taking business classes through Wake Tech.
“The misconception is either the older kids have behavior issues or they’re sixteen, you can’t really teach them that much, so why bother,” says Combs, who recognizes his home is probably the “last stop” before many of the teenagers he fosters are turned out into the adult world.
LINKS and the state’s Foster Care 18 to 21 Program—for those who turn eighteen in foster care—aim to ease that transition. Prior the state’s 2017 rollout of the 18 to 21 Program, the number of foster youth aging out of the system was rising along with the larger population, and legislators wanted young adults exiting the system to have a better shot at success and independence.
“A lot of youth aging out of foster care might not have the support that youth who are not in foster care may have,” says Dolinski-Sloan. “They may not have parental support, financial supports, someone to walk them through the steps of becoming an adult.”
As long as they are enrolled in school, working, or can demonstrate an inability to do either, they can stay with their foster families, live in a group home or dorm, or move out on their own. They continue to receive caseworker services, Medicaid, and access to scholarships, and may collect a stipend for their own care.
At the beginning of September, there were thirty-one individuals eighteen and up in Durham County custody—a number that has steadily grown since the program took effect.
Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.