May 03, 2012
Aging Out Then and Now: A Call to Action from John LeVan, Foster Youth Alumni, Class of 1979
[Ed. note: This post is part of a series of blog posts Juvenile Law Center will be publishing during National Foster Care Month to call attention to issues facing foster youth who are aging out of the system.]
Much of my childhood was spent in foster care in Pennsylvania. During that time, I moved approximately 25 times and went to five different schools. The experiences of growing up in foster care and the feelings of fear, worry, loneliness, confusion and depression that are associated with the realization that next year, next month, or next week you will be on your own transcend time. When I aged out of the foster care system in 1979 at the age of 17, I felt all of those feelings and more.
My grades in high school were very poor and my SAT scores were not good. I ended up entering Kutztown College in the fall of 1979 after passing two classes in a summer remediation program. My main reason for wanting to go to college was simply to assure that I would have a place to live. Within two years I was homeless and had failed out of school. While homeless, I broke into churches at night to sleep and stole food to eat. Like so many foster children before and since, no one had prepared me for life after care. Not surprisingly, without guidance or help from anyone, things took a turn for the worse once I was on my own. It took several years for me to get back on my feet.
By the end of 1985, seven years after leaving the foster care system, I was able to raise my grades to a 3.1 average and graduate from West Chester University with my degree in Social Work. Ten years later, in September of 1995, I got married. In 1998 I was hired as a case manager/worker for the Chester County Department of Aging. Six months later I was promoted to supervisor. One year later I transferred to my current position as Foster Home Finder for the Department of Children, Youth and Families. In May of 2000, four months before I turned 40, my wife gave birth to our son, who, at the age of 12, is playing guitar and/or bass in three bands, writing songs, and doing well in school.
Although the turnaround described above is quite dramatic, I cannot tell you that it took place because of any one person or any specific event in my life. For me there was no single or simple answer that can account for how or why I made it. Rather, it was a combination of factors, including having great friends/supports who never gave up on me, a stubborn will to continue, a desire to learn, a fear of failing, courage, the time to find myself, and of course a bit of good luck. In order to reverse the trend of failure among our foster system graduates, we need to come up with ways of providing youth with the many tools, supports, relationships, and resources we know they need to be successful.
It saddens me to hear that the difficult experiences I faced in 1979 continue to exist for far too many youth across the state and nation. As a youth who aged out, I was a success despite the system; the child welfare system must be determined to help youth achieve success. There is no reason we cannot do more for these youth and there are so many reasons why we have a social and moral responsibility to do more. Unlike many problems in society, we do know how to solve the problem of youth aging out of foster care. First and foremost, we need to find them families. If we do not, we must stand behind them, support them, and give them time to grow up, heal from what is often a history of abuse and neglect, and get the skills they need to make a meaningful future for themselves. I wish my success for all youth in care and work each day to do my part to make this a reality. What will you do? What will our lawmakers do? I hope the occasion of Foster Care Month will renew our obligation to these youth.