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08.09.139:00 PM ET

The Case for Older Foster Children

Regina Calcaterra survived homelessness and abuse before she emancipated herself at age 14. Now an accomplished lawyer, politician, and author of the upcoming ‘Etched in Sand,’ she makes the case for adopting teenagers instead—and giving them a home forever. As told to Caroline Linton.

When I grew up in foster care in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and by the time I was in foster care in 1980, I had emancipated myself at the age of 14 so I could make my own decisions about how I was going to grow up as opposed to my mother. I was told during my emancipation process that, “Well, now that you’re emancipated, the next thing you have to [do is] plan what you’re going to do now that you’re 18.” Basically you’re told now that you’re 18, you’re no longer in social service and you’re no longer in the foster-care system and essentially you’re going to be homeless. What they do in the meantime, back then in the ’80s, basically they gave me a checklist that taught me independent living skills. It was simple things like “Do you know how balance a bank account?” “Do you know how to call LILCO [Long Island Lighting Company, the predecessor to today’s LIPA] to turn the electricity on?” That was basically the independent training that they provided to prepare me to go out in the world at the age of 18.

Now we’re going to fast-forward thirtysomething years later, and they’re doing the exact same thing. What they’re doing is for kids who are aging out of foster care, they try to teach them how to live independently on their own at the age of 18 or 21. It’s because kids are pushed out of care at 18 or 21 based on what state they’re in or based on what it is they’re doing. In some states, if a foster youth will go to vocational training or college, they’ll keep them in foster care until they’re 21, but then they still cut them off when they’re 21. All that means is that from 18 to 21, they’re still getting the Medicaid card and they’re still getting a couple hundred dollars a month to pay their rent and that’s it.

The reality is, unfortunately, that there is a substantial amount of the homeless population in the U.S. that are former foster children and a substantial amount of the incarcerated population in the U.S. that are former foster children. Because once you turn young adults out onto the street at the age of 18 or 21 with no safety net whatsoever, they are going to start getting desperate and they are going to start making mistakes just to figure out how to survive. And they’re going to end up going down a path.

Just to give you an idea of the complexity of this number, every year there are over 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S., and of those 400,000, 40,000 age out to nobody but themselves. So every year in the United States, we are taking 40,000 kids and putting them out on the streets and then what is going to happen to them? They are going to start spiraling down unless somehow they were fortunate enough to start putting the dots together and figure out how to get their life together on their own and not fall through the cracks.

I never did anything in my entire career related to child-care services or family law because I never wanted to be defined by my background, I wanted to be defined by the work product of my profession. So I never mixed my profession with my background. But how I started to get involved in this issue was in 2005, The New York Times—when they used to have a Metro section—had on the front page of their Metro section an article about an organization called You Gotta Believe that was founded by Pat O’Brien, who believed that young-adult foster-care children should have a home. And we have to start changing people’s minds. Rather than teaching them to live independently, why don’t we think they’re adoptable? And why don’t we try to find parents out there who are interested in adopting these older foster children? That’s a tremendous solution to a bigger problem, because some people would argue that they could just throw more resources at these kids to see if they could still land on their feet, but the reality is that we all need a safe place to put our head down that we need for the rest of our life. We need unconditional love—and a forever home gives you that. It gives you a safety net that you can build on—these kids don’t have a safety net. The message of this has gone nationwide—we’ve been really pushing it out. What it does is change people’s views about what an adult foster child is because people think—and this is what I’ve always found in my experience, and you can see that in my book and it still exists today—is that foster children are bad children. The reality is that foster children have bad parents. And you take these kids that have bad parents and it doesn’t mean that they should never have a parent at all because every kid should have a parent.

The concept of this group is that these kids actually deserve to have parents. I joined them and became a part of their cause and now I’m a board member and a tremendous advocate for what they do because every year we see a difference when we’re placing kids in homes. Just a few years ago, You Gotta Believe took 50 New York City children—young adults—in forever homes. And that is 50 kids who are not going to be wandering on this planet without a face connection for their entire lives. If you do that for one child, it has tremendous effects because if you give one child a safe place, that child one day is not going to be dependent on the system. That’s what the objective is: that we as a society are not going to be paying for them. They will be self-sufficient because they are going to be taught self-sufficiency by their parent and their parent will take care of them. There’s a small likelihood that they are going to deviate to go to jail or end up homeless or even worse, because a lot of these kids are killed or die. As a society, we’re no longer financially responsible for them and they’re also not going to be impacting our society that way because all we really needed to do is to find them a forever home.

On the other hand, once a kid gets stable, there’s a chance they will go to college and that one day they will one day have children of their own—and they will have been taught how to have a home, how to be stable. These are things I even knew as a kid—I was so transient, I mean the concept of stability was something foreign—how to parent, how to be responsible, and if this child is educated, it means they are going to work to get their kids educated.

That’s why in my book I talk about in the end You Gotta Believe because this is an opportunity to raise awareness. I mean, this isn’t a book about You Gotta Believe—this is a book about the plight of these kids who were basically parentless. But if I had any opportunity to start bringing this up in such a large forum with such a large platform I’m going to be getting from writing this book, this was it: to have people to start thinking differently about older foster children and conceptually they can be adopted, they just need a forever home. You take care of them like you take care of any other child. I mean, a baby, you’re up late at night feeding them and changing diapers, when you have a teenager, you’re up late at night waiting for them to come home. It doesn’t mean you’re getting any sleep, by the way. You’re dealing with parenting a teenager, which is what happens. But they’re self-sufficient and independent because this is how they’ve always lived and they want you to be there.


Regina Calcaterra is the author of Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island.