Thursday, May 23, 2013

Aging Out - How Foster Teens Can (and Can't) Make It On Their Own

May is National Foster Care Month.

There are over a half-million kids in foster care. While most of them reunify with their families or are adopted, around 20,000 age out of care each year. Aging Out is the 2004 PBS documentary that tracks the lives of three young adults who have aged out of foster care. It is alternatingly frustrating, inspiring, and heartbreaking. It’s available through Netflix.

David has been in ten families. He struggles with behavioral challenges, and wonders how he can “have feelings about having a family,” because he’s had to do many things on his own. He describes himself as “a true addict.” The film tracks him through several living arrangements. When he is rejected from the military because of psychiatric issues, he is exceptionally frustrated. He makes bad behavioral choices, and his longtime caregiver puts all of his belongings on the curb.

Daniella is 20 and pregnant; she and her 19-year-old boyfriend Veasna are in separate placements. They remain in care because of the financial benefits, but wish to live together. Daniella has moved twelve times in the last four years, and is growing increasingly frustrated with household rules that seem punitive.

Risa is the first in her family to graduate “from high school instead of prison.” She has been with her foster mother, Delores, for two years, and is getting ready to leave for college. Delores is Risa’s tenth foster mother. Risa explains, “I’m sure Delores is proud and everything, but [having your foster mother here] is not your actual mom and dad.” Risa struggles with drug addiction, but also is incredibly hardworking. She eventually has a psychotic breakdown, but Delores is there for her.

Strong Points
This film is emotionally moving. There are many underserved older children and very young adults in foster care. Aging Out captures the frustration that these young people feel – and the frustration that they cause. It portrays dedicated foster providers who refuse to reach a breaking point, some who do reach a breaking point, and some who don’t seem to care. Although it’s nearly ten years old, the problem it addresses is still very current. You can’t watch this film and not be at least challenged to think about helping these kids.

Kids probably shouldn’t watch this one. David is kicked out of his home for (seriously) misbehaving. He misses his taxi ride, and so the father figure explodes, putting David’s stuff outside and yelling at him.
David and Risa are both shown using illegal drugs.

The Saddest Part (I’d call this a spoiler if this was a movie review. It’s also traumatic)
The saddest part of the film comes from the epilogue. After her psychotic break, Risa returned to the Los Angeles area. She was found murdered shortly after. It’s heartbreaking. Risa was a likeable, strong, wounded but persevering girl. And she died. The film is dedicated to her memory, with the explanation that it hopes to help make it easier for kids to have successful transitions out of foster care.

More About The Saddest Part. (Research outside of the film.)
But I did some research, and in the years since the film was made, more has come out. Risa was killed by a friend. Risa’s friend killed two people in a gang-related murder, and then killed Risa several days later because he realized that she could be a witness against him. The killer also experienced abuse. He was sentenced to death, and “Aging Out” was shown in court to help the jury decide on the penalty. The filmmakers have made a second film (No Tomorrow) chronicling the life of the killer, as they struggle with his death sentence in the light of his childhood.

Aging Out is a powerful look at a painful situation. Come into it with an open heart, and you’ll leave heartbroken – but perhaps encouraged and emboldened to help fix the problem of underserved youth aging out of foster care.   If you want to learn more, here's a post on whether kids or adults are ever too old for adoption, some insight on what to expect if you foster/adopt, and an interview with actress and author Nia Vardalos sharing her experience on foster care/adoption

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