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When Adopted Youth Turn 18

from the Summer 2009 Adoptalk

by Diane Riggs, Adoptalk Editor

The process through which adolescents separate their identity from that of their parents is challenging for everyone. For children adopted from foster care, however, the process is infinitely more complicated. The push to be independent conflicts with attempts to connect, and past traumas leave many youth uniquely ill-equipped to make it on their own. As a result, some adopted youth face enormous challenges when they reach the age of majority.
 
What can parents do? Diligently prepare for the future well before teens turn 18, and settle in for the journey ahead.
 
Preparing for Launch
 
If your teen has delays, deficits, mental health issues, or other problems, prepare for issues that may arise when the teen approaches 18. Experienced parents we surveyed recommend the following:

Let your children know adoption is forever. It is not unusual for a child who was adopted from care to consciously or subconsciously believe that the adoption will end when she turns 18. Abandonment issues may resurface with a vengeance.
 
As one mother recalls, her daughter “had a meltdown just before turning 18 over not being able to get a pair of sneakers…. The tantrum devolved into a claim that no one had ever celebrated her birthday (in spite of 10 parties I remember throwing for her). As we talked and she calmed down, the real issue came out. She had a deep-seated fear/belief that at 18 we would no longer really be her family.”
 
Be honest—with your children and yourself, and realistic about their ability to cope with life (school, relationships, etc.). It is not fair to expect that a child who has experienced abuse, neglect, prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol, or the loss of his birth family will function in the same way as a child who has not endured early trauma.
 
Children adopted from care should have a lifebook with age-sensitive birth family information. They should understand how past experiences affect their ability to function, and learn what supports they need to live up to their potential.
 
Apply for services early and persistently. Keep meticulous, dated records of your child’s school history, assessments, and IEP reports; medical visits and diagnoses; and how your child’s disability interferes with daily life. This information is key to determining eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicare, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
 
Eligibility determinations can take up to six months, so apply for SSI as soon as you can prove a claim, and appeal if the claim is denied. Children who are not SSI qualified before 18 may not be able to qualify as an adult. In addition, as one parent discovered, when youth get a little older, “they do not want to appear ‘different’ from their peers, so refuse to apply for SSI. Yet, because of their disability, they can only find jobs that pay minimum wage and don’t include health coverage.”
 
See if your child is eligible for Job Corps, vocational rehabilitation or developmental services (run by state social services or workforce divisions), or mental health supports. The National Mental Health Information Center has links to state mental health resources. Local programs like the Minnesota Life College, a vocational program for young adults with learning disabilities, also exist. Regrettably, in both the U.S. and Canada, long waiting lists and inadequate services are all too common.
 
Allow some freedom before a youth turns 18. “Start the transition early,” a Pennsylvania mother advises, “even though the child is not ready mentally and you want to protect him. Don’t talk yourself into believing that, because your 16-year-old is mentally 14, he still needs complete protection. Let him learn from his mistakes when he is young, because when he turns 18, and his mental capacity is 16, he may not want your protection.”
 
Emphasize practical life skills. Lessons about independent living skills are as important as math or science lessons. Independent adults must know how to interact with strangers, stay clean and healthy, manage money, pay bills, hold a job, shop for necessities, plan menus, have a place to live, communicate needs and problems, and so on.
 
For children with individualized education plans (IEPs), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that IEP teams incorporate transition services when a child is 16. Services must be measurable and goal-centered, and help youth with independent living skills, post-school adult living objectives, and employment. If your child needs extra help with daily living skills, ask that transition services be added to his academic schedule at an earlier age.
 
The Workforce Investment Act of 1998, amended by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, funds job training for low-income at-risk youth, including current and past foster youth, and youth adopted after age 16. Administered by state workforce boards, programs offer tutoring, GED instruction, internships, occupational skills training, and follow-up services. Find state links here.

Craft a life plan with your child. To help guide your child more safely through adolescence, cooperatively develop a life plan by the time your child is 14. According to HaysKids, plans should record what the youth wants in life, where she will live, how she will earn a living, and how she will avoid trouble. Each part of the plan should create a goal toward which the youth can work.
 
Plans must be patiently created over time, as each child is able and willing. Goals can be set for the short- and long- term, and be subdivided into individual steps. To keep youth focused, parents should discuss the plan with them regularly, decide if objectives are attainable, revisit the plan when youth diverge from their goals, and update goals as adolescents’ skills and desires evolve.
 
Support ongoing education for youth. For foster youth adopted after 16, the Orphan Foundation of America and John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program offer financial support for vocational/technical schools and colleges. The Orphan Foundation runs a competitive scholarship program, and Chafee state Education and Training Vouchers award up to $5,000 per year for school.
 
Effective July 1, 2009, through the Fostering Adoption to Further Student Achievement Act of 2007, a youth adopted from foster care on or after her 13th birthday can apply to technical schools or colleges as an “independent student.” When applying for grants or other financial aid, only the student’s income (not her parents’) is counted, thereby opening the door to many supports available to low-income students.
 
Some states also offer tuition waivers for in-state colleges and technical schools to youth adopted from care. Currently, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia have programs, some of which require youth to have been adopted from care at a certain age or receive adoption assistance.
 
Be open to birth family connections, and supportive if challenges arise. A youth may see turning 18 as a time to return to his birth family. Some adopted teens still want their birth family to reclaim them, but many birth parents cannot measure up to a youth’s lofty ideals. A young man adopted at 16 sought out his birth mother in his early 20s, but when she asked him for money, he quickly reconsidered maintaining the relationship.
 
Some youth, though, successfully balance relationships with their birth and adoptive families. A single adoptive father in Ohio proudly reports that, though some of his boys reunited with their birth mothers, they still call him Dad (even in front of Birth Mom), rely on him for advice and support, and fondly remember growing up together in his house.
 
Consider different options for youth who have permanent neurological impairments or severe mental health issues. Children who are prenatally exposed to alcohol or genetically pre-disposed to serious mental health disorders may need, as one dad put it, “cradle-to-grave support.” Below are tips from some parents whose children have these conditions:

  • Seek mental health services as soon as you can. Document episodes that illustrate symptoms, prior hospitalizations, diagnoses, and functioning.
  • Encourage your child to appoint you as her health care proxy in the event she cannot make medical decisions.
  • Learn about FASD and mental health disorders from parents and online. Visit the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the National Institute of Mental Health, or Canada’s Public Health Agency.
  • Help youth develop higher executive skills that allow them to plan, make good decisions, and self-regulate judgments and impulses. For example, a youth with FASD need external supports—check lists, larger tasks subdivided into steps, clear structure, etc.—to compensate for his brain’s inability to process effectively on its own.
  • Repeatedly educate your child about her abilities and disabilities. Like children with diabetes, youth with mental and neurological disorders can only take care of themselves if they understand their limits and can ask for help.
  • Introduce youth to a task or hobby at which they can excel and that reinforces positive behaviors. Give them hope that they can lead a satisfying and productive life.
  • Notify local law enforcement that you have a child whose invisible neurological damage prevents her from making wise decisions. Teach officers about de-escalation techniques to keep minor incidents from blowing up.
  • Secure things in the house that might tempt an impulsive teen to steal, break valuables, or hurt himself or others.
  • Be supportive and sympathetic so teens want to stay closely connected. Listen respectfully, suspend judgments, and resolve disputes calmly. Though much easier said than done, it is worth the effort to keep a teen (with teen desires, but the life skills of a 10-year-old and social maturity of a 7-year-old) from getting hurt or into legal trouble.
  • Solicit support from adults whom the child knows and respects. As a Minnesota mom wrote, “You will need other adults surrounding you as your child begins to believe that the adult transition fairy has sucked out all your brains and you don’t know anything!”
  • Remind yourself that neurological and chemical dysfunctions underlie many troublesome behaviors. Some youth with FASD simply cannot apply what they’ve learned at home to situations in other places. Even if a new situation closely mirrors previous ones,  they will make the same poor choices over again.
  • Embrace adoption as a lifelong commitment. Children, whether they join a family through birth or adoption, have a right to the best possible care as long as they need parental support.

Parenting Youth 18 and Older
 
In some respects, parenting can get even harder after a youth reaches 18. The instinct to protect and safeguard youth is still alive, but without your teen’s consent or a guardianship order, you lack the authority to impose your will. Suddenly you might be just a spectator, anxiously watching the trajectory of your young adult’s life journey. At this stage, veteran parents have four key suggestions:
 
1. Be there. Youth who jettison from their adoptive homes as teens often return later, so be prepared to warmly welcome them home. As a parent from British Columbia phrased it, “Keep the door and the wallet and the heart open—no matter how empty each feels—because youth will need them more than ever before.” If a youth pulls away, find non-intrusive ways to remind him you are still there for him.
 
For young adults whose abandonment issues are unresolved, work to sustain relationships and reassure them that they will always be part of your family. If possible, keep your child’s room open so he always has a place to stay. Make plans for the future. Schedule a weekly time at which you call your children to check in. Let your children know if you will be away from home and how they can reach you.
 
2. Let go of what you cannot control. Hard as it is, parents must accept the loss of control over a teen’s behavior and decisions. Parents can, however, still offer  advice if youth ask. As Greg Keck writes in Parenting Adopted Adolescents, “Letting go is more like standing beside someone instead of prodding from behind or leading from in front.” Letting go does not mean you are abandoning your child.
 
3. Set limits, but remain flexible. Youth with special needs may require and demand more help than you can provide, so know your limits. “The best advice I ever got,” reported a Missouri mother, “was to respond to young adults with the kind of emotional support that makes the relationship stronger, but to not rescue them.” For instance, instead of paying off a youth’s court fine, lend moral support by going to court with him. Help your young adult make a workable budget, but don’t pay off her overdue bills.
 
There will be times when parents cannot avoid extra expenses or demands on their time. When needs are so great, parents have to maintain a degree of flexibility and be willing to help out when they can.
 
4. Celebrate successes. One dad says that, since his children reached their 20s, they have been closer to him than ever. Another parent asserts that three of her adult children—including one who had severe attachment issues—“initiate contact regularly and are a joy to be around.” A couple who welcomed their son home when he was 15 have been able to celebrate his marriage and the healthy birth of hisson/their first grandchild.
 
It can be done. Through consistency, realistic expectations, adequate services and supports, and mutual respect, adoptive parents and their teens can cross the bridge to adulthood with both their relationships a
nd a hopeful future intact! END


North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848
e-mail: info@nacac.org
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