Aging out of foster care with positive outcomes

Studies show improved outcomes when kids have a mentor

By Darren Washausen

I would like for you to consider becoming a mentor to a child in foster care as they enter their teenage years and begin to face the reality of aging out of foster care as a young adult. I know that you’re likely hesitant to enter into the life of a child who may have experienced more pain and trauma during childhood than you have in your lifetime, but that is exactly why you should! These children need you.

I know your apprehension probably sparks several reasons to conclude mentoring isn’t for you. I would urge that you choose to not make an immediate decision. Do a little more research and then pray about your next steps. If God calls you into this role, follow in obedience and he will provide what you need.

I understand that you see kids who were formerly in foster care in the news, many times associated with bad things and you hear about the behaviours and challenges of children in foster care from others. Why would you want to engage? First, I would say that those kids on the news could be an opportunity missed because they didn’t have someone like you. Hard to believe, right? It’s true. 

Seeing the child in foster care

The majority of kids aging out of foster care have a nearly impossible set of challenges that would overwhelm most any teenager. Then add onto that a history of trauma and bad experiences in childhood. Let’s just pause here for a moment and unpack a few details about the kid aging out of foster care.

What you can see right now is a teenager standing in front of you. You note that their clothes may not fit that well and they are potentially a bit pale in complexion. They may have had a medication change causing them to gain or lose significant weight requiring a social worker to help in finding a new wardrobe. Their complexion could be the medication or that there isn’t much time to be outside in their group home. Your observation of the body of this teenager leads you to a conclusion of a typical kid.

The second thing you see is their behaviour as they move about the room, maybe interacting with others or possibly seeking to be isolated. Wow, not sure how long you could tolerate this kid, right? I mean they are moving around the room talking at the top of their lungs, pushing and shoving others, can’t sit still, and trying to ask you some really awkward or inappropriate questions. You see this behaviour and you are ready to be done. Well, that is exactly what this kid expects of you! Another person in their life to run off.

What’s on the inside?

Before you run out the door, can we talk about what is going on with this kid on the inside? Yes, the inside. Externally, you can see their body and their behaviour. But consider their brain, their body chemistry, and their beliefs . . . things you can’t see. Kids who experience foster care have usually experienced neglect or abuse and significant trauma. When your brain experiences trauma which can start before a child is born, the development of the brain is altered. The trauma forces a growing brain to focus on the protective functions for survival and as a result, the reasoning part of the brain is underdeveloped, making it more difficult to meet the expectations of caregivers and teachers. Also, when your brain is concerned about survival or danger on a continual basis, the body produces chemicals that will put you on constant alert.

Think about a time you may have had a close call with a car accident. Or had to drive 10 miles on an icy road to return home. Imagine living in that alert state of mind 24 hours a day. You can be exhausted trying to guard your survival!

What’s in the mirror?

Given the discussion above, consider the beliefs of a child in foster care when they look in the mirror. The child is ready to age out of foster care:

  • What do they believe about themselves when mom left them when they were two years old?
  • How is their belief of themselves impacted when a foster family moved away and they had to move to someone else’s house or maybe a group home?
  • What do they believe about themselves when they are struggling socially to connect with kids at school or being bullied?

Their questions may be:

Who can I trust? Who really sees me or cares about me? Can anyone help me? Will they want to help me?

You are the answer

Get the picture? Kids aging out of foster care need a caring, unconditional relationship with a trusting adult. You are capable of this relationship and studies show improved outcomes when kids have a mentor. As a mentor, you are a source of hope. You are someone who cares, and someone who can ultimately introduce them to Jesus!

On your journey with a youth, I am certain there will be many opportunities to share your knowledge and life experiences in meaningful ways. Remember those kids in foster care may miss many of the learning opportunities available to children in stable families. Baking cookies, learning to cook, doing laundry, navigating a dating relationship, filling out applications for jobs, interviewing for jobs, and getting their driver’s license may be just a few of the opportunities you can have together.

I hope you can see that being a mentor is something you can do to support a kid aging out of foster care. Yes, there are others in the village providing counselling, health care, and social work for this child. But YOU are the friend who is there unconditionally as they become adults.

Darren Washausen is the president and executive director of Orphan Care Alliance (OCA) in based in Louisville, Kentucky. Darren has been married to Stacia for 37 years and they have a daughter, Britt, and two sons, Noah and Andrew. Noah was adopted from Congo in 2011 and Andrew was adopted from Russia in 2004.