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While reading the true story of Reggie Kelsey it appeared that there were many psychological, biological, and social aspects that lead to his final outcome, death by suicide. This paper will focus on the sociological aspect of what led Reggie to decline in society, was simply that Reggie aged out of foster care. Three and a half months after he aged out of foster care Reggie was found dead in Des Moines River. Foster care, though a temporary placement for youths, until they reach eighteen years old was the one conclusive factor that kept Reggie alive. Foster care, a social agency, was involved in providing social services that were to ultimately prepare Reggie for transition into dependency; these transactions should be viewed as a macro systems problem.
Reggie was pushed out into the world without possessing the skills that would have kept him alive because there was a time allotment on how long he could use the services of foster care. Though Reggie had a helping network it was weak, and he lacked several resources that would have kept him from being homeless and from death. Though youths who age out of foster care are seen as regular teens, most of them lack the stability of family, food, and shelter that a normal teenager would have. In stage five of Erikson’s psychosocial development, which involves the transition period from childhood to adolescence where they establish their identity; it is clear that Reggie’s inability to integrate his role into his new environment after aging out, suffered and left him uncertain about his identity. Aging out of foster care when not developmentally ready left Reggie without power, coping skills to adapt, structure, and strict supervision needed for survival, especially for a person with an IQ level that considered him to be mentally delayed.
Imagine one day having a strong, well connected supportive network that kept you living and the next day that system abandons you. According to Atkinson (2008) “approximately 20,000 youth age out of and exit foster care each year,” and the majority of them face challenges because they have been abandoned by the only support system they know (p. 187). Avery and Freundlich (2009) reported that many youth lack social support, economic resources, and independent living skills which cause them to be less inclined to become successful adults. Avery and Freundlich further noted that “foster care support, which provides housing, financial support, and a range of health, education and other needed services, typically ends when youth are developmentally unprepared to assume full adult roles and responsibilities” (p. 248). Youth like Reggie Kelsey who age out foster care because of some type of neglect or abuse are more likely to have problems “forming positive interpersonal relationships, reduced educational attainment, increased delinquent behavior, and engage in high-risk behavior” (Atkinson, 2008, p. 183). They simply find it difficult transitioning from one social environment to another, with significant problems impeding their way to becoming successful adults. When aging out of foster care, youth experience challenges such as homelessness, unemployment, and lack a support system. All the challenges from aging out of foster care generated Reggie’s symptoms that led him to become suicidal.
Atkinson (2008) explained that “maintaining successful housing presents a significant barrier for youths after emancipation from foster care” placing them on an often irreversible path to failure (p. 188). Since Reggie did not have stable housing when he aged out of foster care, he was not under a constant supervision that could have kept him alive. Being homeless is not an ideal situation for any persons, but for adolescents particularly it leads to having identity diffusion, where they suffer from a serious lack of direction and ability to make sound decision. “Chronic stress has been found to negatively impact learning, memory, and executive functioning” (Avery and Freundlich, 2009, p. 251). Homelessness can also viewed as great stressor and coupled with psychological variables are aspects that lead to suicide in adolescence.
Unemployment plagues youths that age out of foster care significantly to where they end up involved in criminal activity, in poverty, or on public assistance. Being unemployed can be a blow to an adolescence ego because they are not able to support themselves they result to criminal activity to take care of themselves, or feel like life is not worth living. Living more independently was the most common living situation for young people who remained in the foster care system after age eighteen years. According to Atkinson (2008) “Close to two-thirds of adults in their twenties receives economic support from their parents” (Atkinson, 2008, p. 193). In the case of Reggie, he had no support financial support from parents, he was on his own, and with little to no employment skills it would shows that the odds were truly stacked against him.
Avery and Freundlich believed “”independent living” is simply not a feasible option for the majority of youth in foster care who lack the social scaffolding of stable family and community networks” (p. 253). Reggie may have had a helping network that worked within the social service system but he lacked the connections that a state based system provides. In the absence of a distinct social network for foster youth aging out of care decisively infer unacceptable subsequent foster care outcomes. Youth that age out of foster care already feel sense of powerlessness, and hopelessness, and as they move towards independence they still need a social environment to fall back on; they can not do it all by themselves especially at eighteen.
Discussion 1- Ethics
Though aging out foster care youths when they are not independently developed violates several NASW codes of ethics, the two that principally led to Reggie’s demise are sections 1.14 and 1.16. In section 1.14 it states “when social workers act on behalf of clients who lack the capacity to make informed decisions, social workers should take reasonable steps to safeguard the interests and rights of those clients”. By aging out Reggie, who was mentally disabled, the foster care system took away his basic right to thrive. The process of aging out foster care youths who are unable to make sound decisions without providing extensive care after is unethical.
In section 1.16 it categorizes when it is acceptable to terminate services for a client. There is one significant factor that correlates to all youth aging out of foster care, and in this factor, b, it states that “social workers should take steps to avoid abandoning services, withdraw only under unusual circumstances, and carefully consider all factors making sure to minimize adverse effects”. With this statement it can be visualized that when deciding to age out a youth there is no consideration taken to counteract any of these factors. The fatal determinant that youth face when aged out is that the youth have to face several adverse factors.
In Reggie’s situation there could be minimal responsibility placed on him resulting in his final outcome, but only if someone was trying to advert attention from their unethical mistakes. In section 1.14 vehemently relates to Reggie and sets aside those minimal mistakes, because as a mentally disabled child he relied heavily on the states decisions to safeguard his life. In the end the state aged Reggie out at eighteen which is not unusual; this is not an age that necessarily attest to the fact that a person is ready for all that accompanies adulthood.
Discussion 2- Practice
A 2007 article in the journal, Child & Adolescent Social Work, examines the practice issues for teenagers aging out of foster care (Scannapieco, Connell-Carrick, & Painter, 2007). The foster youth stated, foster youth and sub-systems involved with foster youth after they age out discussed three very important practice themes that should be addressed. The first theme was to have a youth focused practice; here foster youth thought the change needed was that they wanted to be involved in the decision-making. They expressed how they thought it was disrespectful to them because they were not asked what they thought they were just told; unlike an adult who has the ultimate say in their own lives.
The next theme that youth expressed was a challenge was communication and collaboration. There is a break down in communication when it came to the sub-systems, with missing important information and lack of accurate knowledge about supports and services available. Everyone identified a solution of a need for one individual responsible for facilitating the coordination of planning amongst the sub-systems. The last important theme suggested was the need for more skill building opportunities. The youth focus group felt they were unprepared for independent living and what training they got they were unable to practice them before being aged out. They wanted better understanding of their own health and mental health needs, also advocacy for better educational setting.
There were many different actions the foster care system could have taken to prevent Reggie Kelsey’s outcome. The actions that would have helped Reggie even if they still aged him out would have been intense independent living training, strict follow up meetings with caseworker and a monitor, or buddy-system release could have been incorporated. For an adolescent like Reggie with a mild level of mental disability training is important; there needs to be practice of everyday situations so issues that arise are not uncommon to him. This action helps because if he gets into a situation that he has had training he will know the best option, but depending on the situation he could be overpowered or influenced by another component.
A second action of follow up meetings and a monitor could have helped because the caseworker could have been in tuned to the needs of Reggie. A weekly schedule, then bi-weekly, then monthly, up until he was stable would have been best. Also the monitor anklet, or bracelet would give the caseworker a constant notation of where Reggie was. This the best plan of action for a person like Reggie even though they may feel like they are on probation it keeps them under strict supervision and needs are easily accessed. The last option of a buddy-system where foster youth are age out in pairs is a good option, each person is has a peer to relate and talk with. This would be helpful though the two are in the same boat and neither is a professional, and one may abandon the other.
- Atkinson, M. (2008). Aging out of foster care: Towards a universal safety net for former foster care youth. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 43(1), 183-212. doi: Article.
- Avery, R. J., & Freundlich, M. (2009). You’re all grown up now: Termination of foster care support at age 18. Journal of Adolescence, 32(2), 247-257. doi: doi: DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2008.03.009.
- Code of Ethics (English and Spanish). (n.d.). . Retrieved November 2, 2009, from http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp.
- Scannapieco, M., Connell-Carrick, K., & Painter, K. (2007). In their own words: challenges facing youth aging out of foster care. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 24(5), 423-435. doi: Article.
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