Salaya Leal of Austin, Texas, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while panhandling earlier this month. She was 24 and had struggled since aging out of the foster-care system at 18. (Photo: Facebook)
Earlier this month, a young woman named Salaya Leal was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on the side of a road in Austin, Texas. And while it would’ve been a tragedy no matter who had died, the fact that Leal, 24, was someone who had aged out of the foster-care system after years of struggle was a blow to many foster-care and adoption advocates.
“My hope is that this puts a very human face on those who age out of the foster system — one of the fastest-growing homeless populations in the country,” notes Susan McDowell, executive director of LifeWorks, Austin’s major advocacy and support organization for at-risk teens and young adults. Though the organization did not work with Leal directly, McDowell tells Yahoo Parenting, her story is like those of many other young people who come through their doors. “She was very bright and full of potential,” she says, “but without the skills or support that she needed to be self-sufficient.”
Leal grew up in foster homes, according to local news reports, but aged out of the system when she turned 18 (the same as in most states, although some allow youth to remain in the system until age 21). She eventually earned her GED, but struggled with homelessness. “She really wanted to get a good job, and she really wanted to have a ‘normal life,’” Christine Emanuel, a court-appointed special advocate volunteer who bonded with Leal, tells Time Warner Cable News of Austin. She notes that Leal often had trouble sleeping and would get up to panhandle on the side of the road in the middle of the night. “This life was so hard on her,” Emanuel says, “so she never really had a chance.”
About 400,000 kids of all ages are in foster care each year. And statistics are heartbreaking for the approximately 20,000 kids who age out of the system each year with no permanent family connections: About 25 percent have no high school diploma; nearly 40 percent have been homeless; 33 percent have not had enough food at some point within the past year; 60 percent of young men are convicted of a crime; and about half struggle with substance abuse. Further, only half will be employed by age 24, while 71 percent of women will be pregnant by age 21 — and one individual in four will experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It’s why organizations like LifeWorks, as well as Ampersand Families, in Minnesota; the Teen Project, in California; and Project Wait No Longer, in the D.C. area — which focus strictly on this particular young-adult population — are so vital. But they are “pretty rare” across the country, according to Susan Grundberg, executive director of another one of those providers, You Gotta Believe, based in New York City.
“Nobody ever ages out of needing a family,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. That’s the idea behind one of YGB’s statewide campaigns, “Nobody Ages Out,” which aims to make sure every young person in foster care is connected to a lifelong committed parent before turning 21 (when kids age out in New York). Hearing about the fate of Leal, Grundberg notes, is “devastating,” because of the system-wide failure it represents.
“When you hear conversations about ‘aging out,’ it’s always, ‘how do we pour services on children we have failed?’” she says, explaining that these kids have an extremely difficult time maintaining jobs and apartments, and that trying to help them at that point is often too little too late. Instead, she stresses, “Everyone in the system has to prioritize placing kids with permanent families — it can’t be put off because of behavior issues, or because they’re ‘not ready.’” And parents must receive proper preparation as well, she notes, so they don’t give up on young people when the going gets tough.
And it inevitably will be tough to parent a teen or young adult who has been through 15 to 30 foster-care placements — creating “a lack of adult consistency, not to mention a lack of educational or medical consistency” —notes McDowell. “Ideally, what happens in foster care is that a kid can bond with and stay with a family,” she says. But as many near adolescence — a time when pulling away from parental figures is natural and when behavioral issue can arise — the pattern of leaving one placement for a new one “snowballs,” until many hit age 18 or 21 with no support network at all. “We all have to work to minimize the number of placements in foster care,” she says, “and to prepare youth for what’s next [in life].”
Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the national Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, whose goal it is to find permanent placement for those in foster care, tells Yahoo Parenting that she feels “so sad, and a little bit angry” hearing about Leal. “We made a promise to these children, whether they were 2 years old or 15 years old, that we would find them a family,” she says. “This is really sort of one of those untold stories in this country.”
Leal, Soronen notes, “was somebody’s child. She was a young girl, at some point, who had every hope and promise that every young person brings to the table, but then lost that because of circumstances beyond her control.” To put an end to this national crisis, she says, people, including some social workers, need to stop blaming kids for being in foster care. (She discusses 10 ways to help kids from aging out in a blog on the foundation’s site.) “We have to feel morally compelled to find every child an adoptive family,” she says, “no matter what their age or background.”
Or, as Grundberg says: “People [need to] think about their own lives and what family means to them, and where they’d be without family — as imperfect as they may be — and how we expect kids to leave the system with nobody, and to survive out there. It’s not fair. It is their right to have a permanent family, and they need it. Otherwise, it’s a lonely existence.”