Several years before he was a Youth Quality Improvement Specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, Christopher Nobles faced the same challenges experienced by roughly 1000 Pennsylvania youth each year: the prospect of aging out of the state’s foster care system and facing a new life.
According to Nobles, the primary challenge for a young person who has aged out of the foster care system is the lack of a lifelong familial support structure. While the support of a steady home is something most eighteen year olds can take for granted, the sort of security a steady home provides is missing from the lives of children in foster care.
“There’s a great deal of psychological stress,” Nobles says, emphasizing that in foster care “You grow up sort of having to audition -- for everything.”
Exacerbating this lack of support is the piecemeal education many youth in foster care receive as a result of having to constantly move from place to place, says Helen Calahane, Principal Investigator for the Child Welfare Education and Research Programs at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. Nearly half of individuals in foster care do not complete high school, and homelessness and incarceration are often a problem for those leaving.
The adversity is daunting, but this doesn’t mean that every young person who ages out of foster care is doomed. Due to new legislation, Calahane says youth in foster care can now receive subsidies until they are 21 years of age, giving them more time to transition into independent life. Calahane and Nobles are part of a yearly retreat sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and PA Youth Advisory Board retreat, for those aging out of the foster care system. One of the crucial elements of the retreat, says Nobles, is encouraging and teaching youth that they can make a life for themselves with the skills they've developed. “There’s no lack of potential,” he says.