How do we define aging out success?

This is the first blog post of the Aging Out Institute. My name is Lynn Lehman, and I am a former foster youth, myself. The adults who were in my life during my time of crisis were a positive support to me when I needed them most. These people included the houseparent couples and relief houseparent couples at both the group home and youth shelter where I was placed for several months in North Carolina, my grandmother (with whom I stayed for a few months in MD), as well as the foster parents who ultimately took me and my sister in as teenagers (in PA) and supported us through our own transition into adulthood. As these foster parents also happened to be relatives through marriage, we had their support beyond the age of 18. I know we were extremely fortunate, as the vast majority of foster children who age out of the system must do so on their own.

I’ve known for quite a long time that I want to do something to give back in some form of fashion around the challenge of aging out. With an education in psychology and training & development, and career experience in adult education, online learning, and research, it seemed like a natural move to apply my knowledge and skills to some form of online assistance for those who are deeply entrenched in the aging out process.  So, I am in the process of developing an institute – the Aging Out Institute (AOI) – that will grow over time to provide three major things for those involved in foster care:

  1. A repository of links to resources and research that is out on the Internet regarding aging out;
  2. A community of individuals who care about improving aging out in the United States; and
  3. A unique research agenda that focuses on determining aging out best practices – at the program level.

My plan is to build up the repository of links over the next few months, building interest and visits to the site in the process.  Once the site is getting a fair number of visits every week, I will consider opening up the community.  The research will begin right away, but only through short polls and online discussions through blog comments.  More formal research will have to wait until AOI has a significant number of connections with foster programs throughout the U.S

When I look through the research available on the Internet, I see a lot of statistics regarding homelessness, drug addiction, college attendance, etc., but I don’t see much in regards to a link between specific aging out program elements and aging out success. This is what I want to focus on. I want to build a model of program criteria that have been proven to lead to success, so that foster parents and child welfare workers can use the model to design and improve their own programs.  This will require gathering information about programs across the country, filtering through the program elements and determining which work the best. This will most likely be a multi-year process, but one that will be well worth it.

To start, I want to think about what success looks like for foster youth who have aged out of the system. How do we know if they are successful if we haven’t defined it?  The challenge is that success is extremely personal. I felt successful when I finished college and was able to get a job and my first apartment. Someone else might feel successful by getting a job right out of high school. Someone else might feel successful by getting married and starting a family.

What I am looking for is success as defined by society, and I do believe that there must be one, two or three basic achievements that indicate success in the eyes of our culture.  My first stab at this is that success is self-sufficiency through positive societal contributions.

Self-Sufficiency: One goal of most Americans is to be self-sufficient.  This typically requires the ability to acquire a job, a place to live, and food.

Positive Societal Contributions: It is possible to be self-sufficient as a result of criminal activity, so a caveat must be made that the self-sufficiency must involve a positive contribution to our society.

So, my question to you is…what do you think?  Do these two concepts capture the bare essence of aging out success?  Please comment and let me know what you think!