Harsh reality of foster children who age out of system

Kids aging out of the foster care system

Each year in Texas, more than 1,000 teenagers age out of the foster care system.

It happens when they turn 18 and the kids are legally adults.

There's a harsh reality when it comes to what happens to some of these foster children when the state says "you're free to go."

“What do you do when you never had a home to go back to?” says former foster child Nagee Walder.

“Those kids, they make their homes a 9mm, and they make their homes a pack of weed, and they make their homes knives and they make their homes blocks and they make their homes gangs," he said.

Walder was 3 years old when he entered the Texas foster care system. It was after his parents were convicted and sent to prison for killing his twin brother.

Walder spent the next 16 years in foster care. That care ended two years ago. He was 19.

He told us his foster parents only taught him one thing.

"Yeah, they taught me not to love myself," he said.

Walder shuffled between eight different foster homes. He says most were a nightmare. But that’s another story. This story is about what happens when these kids are told it’s time to get out. It’s called aging out of the system, and It happens to more than 1,000 Texas teenagers every year.

“I left when I was 19, but my mind frame was still as if I was 14," he said adding that no one prepared him.

Walder left without parents, without guardians, without a social security card or birth certificate.

There was no job training and zero information about the government help he was supposed to have access to after being an orphan. Compare that to a criminal in the state who gets out of prison. An entire division is dedicated to reentry and resources include housing, employment and medical screening.

Walder was innocent but he left a state-funded system with nothing and nowhere to go.

George Cannata oversees the entire North Texas Region for CPS. He says when a foster child ages out there's a team of workers to ensure the young person has everything they need But if it’s there, why isn’t it getting to the kids?

"It is not about one person," Cannata said. "It is really about understanding the need for a network around our youth."

"Definitey," he said when asked if it’s important that that network understand how to communicate and work together, because it's not happening. "It has to be a coordinated effort."

“I was going from hotel to hotel and going to day labor during the day just to make some money just to pay for the next hotel room," Walder said. 

“They're traumatized," said Madeline Reedy. "They're scared and they're unprepared."

She's the director at Transition Resource Action Center OR "TRAC." It's a non-profit facility in North Texas trying to provide guidance and support for young people transitioning out of care.

“There is a lot of benefits that our youth are eligible for," she said. "The problem is that our youth doesn't know how to tap into them."

TRAC helps them get the most basic things like a social security card, but it’s tough.

“Every young person should have a document, an identifying document and they don't," Reedy said. "They don't. I don't know why that is."

When we asked Cannatta why it’s an issue, he answered this:

“Well, then that is something that … I'm definitely interested in hearing about those cases so that I can look at that and figure out, how did we get to that point?"

Reedy says 60 percent of the girls she sees get pregnant within the first 18 months of leaving foster care. Fifty-percent who reach out are already homeless. 

And that’s not all.

“We have a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar," Reedy said. "We have some schizo-effective disorders. And just kind of the whole gambit. A lot of depression."

Cedric Reid entered foster care in 2004 when he was 14. He was beaten and tortured by his dad and stepmom.

“I remember wondering why God was letting me go through that. What did I do? (LONG PAUSE) What did I do to deserve that?" he said wiping away tears.

Reid spent four years in foster care and lived in at least 10 different homes.

“These foster parents, a lot of them, there are some that care, but there's a whole lot of them that don't." he said.

When Reid didn't get the attention and guidance foster parents are paid to provide, he found it on the streets.

“Being a part of a gang it made me feel like I belonged," he said. I know that's cliché and you've probably heard that before - everybody probably done heard that before - but it's the truth."

By 18, still in a gang, Reid was out of foster care and out of a home.

"I got in a fight and that fight led to an arrest so I was kind of thrust out into the street and so I was living from place to place," he said.

Reid finally found the Job Corps and got his GED. After nearly two decades of neglect and abuse, he found a new path.

"A lot of foster kids don't know what resources they have," he said. "And then, even when they do, don't even know how to go about even using them."

Today, at almost 27 years old, Reid is a college graduate working as a registered respiratory therapist. It's important to note that he's the exception and not the rule. The reality is that most foster children haven't been given even the most basic skills to survive day to day.

"These are all very tangible things that would help a young person," Reedy said. "Can you call your own doctor? Do you know what to say? Do you know the names of the medications that you're on? Do you know your diagnosis? You should know those things. So many of them age out and they don't know."

At 21, Walder's struggling to make ends meet. He just enrolled in college and is trying to secure a stable home and transportation. He's slowly but surely taking advantage of the resources he should have known about when he was 15. But so many others are still out there; and without help, their problem will become everyone’s problem.

This story is far from over. If you thought this report was troubling, we haven't even scratched the surface. WFAA has uncovered some very disturbing details in interviews that will come to light in the coming weeks. We hope you'll join us in this fight to protect the most vulnerable children in North Texas. Because if we don't, it's already been proven no one else will.

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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