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!

4 thoughts on “How do we define aging out success?

  1. I really enjoyed your blog. I am also a former foster child, and I was also fortunate to have a good foster home in which resources & support were available to me as I aged out of the system.

    The idea for your Aging Out Institute is an outstanding one. It would be a valuable resource for both teens who are aging out of the system and those professionals involved, including foster parents, social workers, lawyers, judges, educators, doctors, therapists, etc., etc.

    I was intrigued by your criteria for “success.” I fully agree with you on the idea of self-sufficiency. I would add that higher education would also qualify. I considered myself self-sufficient when I was able to pay my own way through college with scholarships, work service, grants, and loans. Since I had a place to live and plenty of food, this meets your criteria!

    The other tenet is making a positive contribution to society. I would be interested to see further clarification/definition of “positive.”

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Great start! Love this conversation!

    I work with young adults who have aged out of foster care, and I am constantly frustrated by the lack of resources we have to assist our clients. In particular, we don’t seem to have the resources to prepare our young adults for “work readiness”, you are calling it “self-sufficiency” and I think that’s a better term.

    We are told that a young adult without basic work readiness skills will cost society upwards of half a million dollars over the course of his/her lifetime in corrections costs and welfare benefits.

    This is all further compounded by our young adults’ prolific child bearing. I see our young adults with a sort of love/hate relationship with their children: they love them, but are also extremely burdened by them. While I feel our clients didn’t get what they needed as children, they are also not able to give their children what they need, and the cycle continues. Abortion is an undesirable option, and the few clients I have seen give their children up for adoption have a hole left in their hearts.

    Neuro-psychiatrists tell us that adverse experiences during childhood affect brain development in such a way that abused children often grow into adults with hair-trigger tempers and the inability to conceive of the future and therefore to make and work towards goals. It seems the damage has been done. Many of our clients are 18, 19, 20 years old and still testing below a 7th grade level. About a quarter of our clients have felonies that further restrict their options for gainful employment.

    We certainly have superstar young adults. We have a young woman who got a B.S. in political science from Cornell University and who is now pursuing her M.D. She is very much the exception, however, not the rule.

    I wish we tracked the young adults’ achievement of self-sufficiency in some meaningful way. I can’t really tell you the percentage of our clients who become self-sufficient. I’m going to guess it’s somewhere around 25% but I don’t know for sure. I suppose no one (i.e., the government) tracks this because it’s difficult to define.

    I am very interested in the comments you will receive on this topic. Thanks again for starting the conversation.

  3. What is success as defined by society? Should it be any different for youth aging out of care than it is for their peers who are not in foster care?
    The National Youth in Transition Database gets at many of our society’s ideas about success: do you have a steady job, sufficient income, a place to live, have you been homeless, are you pursuing an education, do you have health insurance and are you getting needed healthcare, are you safe, are you having babies, have you been involved with law enforcement, are you receiving public assistance, do you have transportation, do you currently have a relationship that is trusting, supportive, and unconditional with at least one adult who will always be there for you?
    The number one indicator of success for youth aging out of foster care, as well as for us all, is connections to supportive adults. Any adolescent or young adult who does not have at least one long-term, supportive connection has little chance success–regardless of how you define it. Part of the definition of success has to be having a connection to someone who will provide consistent support and guidance–something that you had, Lynn, but that many youth aging out of care do not.
    Arguably, no one is self-sufficient. We depend upon each other every day on many levels. And while positive societal contributions may lead to personal satisfaction, some people may be perfectly happy without contributing to the greater good. We produce but we also consume. I hope that at the end of the day I will have given more that I have taken but a neutral footprint is all that many will ever achieve. Still others will never be able to contribute.
    Personal satisfaction and the opportunity to achieve one’s own potential might be the icing on the cake.

  4. Love this post. There are a lot of things that need to be looked at and addressed. My story is not the ideal, due to all the abuse that I suffered in foster care, BUT I am a staunch advocate of/for foster care for that very reason.

    There wasn’t much in the way of support and guidance when I aged out/became emancipated at the age of 15. Again, I am not the norm, however, here are a few suggestions.

    *The links are a great place to start. Building a database of relevant, useful, information is key and will give you a solid base to begin with.

    *Connect with as many foster care agencies/organizations that you can find. ALL of them have useful, relevant information, but try and focus on those agencies that specifically focus their time and energy on the aging out process. I would start with @jimmywayne who is a good friend and a solid supporter of youth aging out. You should also talk to @jeffprobst who founded The Serpentine Youth Project. He is another good contact as well as a good friend. Both men can help you with a lot of the resources that you need and a partnership with either one would be beneficial.

    *I can see that @CHSLarry, Larry Lowe, has been here. Larry is a great place to start as is @CHSHeather. Both can give you valuable information, useful links and resources that will aid you in building your database.

    *You should also log onto the Governments information gateway which has statistics, information, addresses and locations of agencies around the world that focus on foster care and the issues surrounding it. The link to the governments site is

    *Lastly, don’t give up. You have a daunting task ahead of you, but it is SO worth it. If you need any help or assistance feel free to email me or send me a message via twitter. I can be reached @jesicaangelique

    Again, thank you for sharing and thank you for all that you have done, and will do for foster youth. As I said on twitter you are ABSOLUTELY an inspiring follow.

    Ms. Jessica Angelique

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