On the Other Side: Reflecting on Transition
When I was a minor in foster care, I often felt utterly hopeless. Time and time again, I felt abandoned and forgotten by a system that was meant to help me.
I wanted to get a job, so I could save up and buy a car, because where I live, you need a car to get around. My caregivers were not willing to help me with transportation or achieving this goal. I was on my own here. I remember a lot of concerns about car insurance going up if I became a driver. Now, I know that there is a Florida program, Keys to Independence, which can entirely offset this cost! My entire world would be different if we knew about this and used it in time.
I wanted to graduate a year early from high school, because otherwise I would be 18 (aged out!) and a senior — I wanted to be 18 and going off to college. My guidance counselor at my high school did not think I could make this happen. Nevertheless, I registered for online courses while taking my junior year and come the end of spring, I was ready to walk, a year early. Because she was not there to help me and did not take me seriously, I missed deadlines to apply for Bright Futures, and I barely applied to college in time.
My point is: time and time again, I felt like my agency in life was being taken away from me. There was a system in place to help me in my time of need, but that system did not empower me, or offer me dignity in the process.
That is, until I turned 18. When I turned 18, everything changed. Suddenly, I was in charge, and I could make decisions about my future as I saw fit. I made it to college, and I graduated, though my finances were always a struggle — looking back, Bright Futures would have been a tremendous help. I got a job, and I saved up — but it took me until I was 21 to buy a car. Ultimately, I was lucky enough to succeed despite these setbacks.
Many are not. Ultimately, the goal of foster care is to create safe and stable youth that are able to transition to independence. But many youth are not properly prepared for successful transition.
It is so critical that system professionals dedicate energy, time, and resources to preparing students for success transition. I know that my independent living coordinator put a lot of energy into helping me, and that made all the difference. Speaking to other youth across the state, I know many have not been so lucky.
Transition planning should start early. Professionals need to help youth elucidate their goals: What happens when you turn 18? What are your goals at that point? How do we achieve those goals? What do we need to do now to get toward those goals?
For me, those conversations did not start until I was about 17. I know that for some others, those conversations happened even later, and that affected their outcomes, too. I have friends that spent a great deal of time in foster care and never knew that they qualified for benefits. Once we realized they qualified for benefits, we got them in touch with system professionals and it changed their lives.
What I have gathered from all of my musing on this is that our safety net for foster youth is strong… but it does not help everyone equally. I never got to use Keys to Independence. I have multiple friends who wasted thousands of dollars paying for tuition, only to realize they qualify for a tuition waiver. Others undoubtedly have even worse struggles than us.
Our safety net has holes in it, and those holes are in the shape of people. We have to close them. That will be done through partnership between system professionals, foster youth, and other stakeholders. We can do better together.
By Hunter Lyons, a foster youth leader and student activist. Hunter grew up in foster care and now both attends & works at the University of West Florida. He has a great deal of experience as a student organizer, having spent years working on advocacy efforts to help Florida students. Recently, Hunter started grad school and a job at his university, where he is a financial aid specialist tasked with getting federal emergency grant money to students in need.