There is a gap in the foster care system, putting teens at risk for addiction, mental illness, crime, and a life of homelessness. Although the system itself is certainly not solid, by no means does it have just this one gap. However, when a gap is recognized, something can be done about it. And perhaps that’s what’s happened.
Eighteen year olds that age out of the foster care system are teens who never found a stable home. They’ve been in and out of foster homes, likely back and forth from jail or a juvenile detention center, and have little contact with their parents. Research shows that 40% of these teens end up homeless, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. They simply have nowhere to go. They are no longer legally a child so they can thrown into adulthood without support for housing, healthy and employment. Research also shows that nearly 60 percent of young men who grow out of the foster care system are convicted of a crime, and only 48 percent are employed.
Felix Louis Rivera Medina, who is about to turn 18 years old and be released from his foster care services, requested a mentor because he recognizes he doesn’t know what to do on his own. He admits that he does not know how to lease an apartment and keep track of bills. He will have to move out of his foster home after two years of being in the system and he will be graduating from high school in June. Medina recognizes that he is going to need someone to show him the way.
After moving to the United States from Puerto Rico, Medina lived with his father for several years. Then, he moved to Wisconsin with his mother. During his early adolescence, he got into a fight with his step-father and ended up going to jail. Yet, he didn’t return home once he was done with jail-time. Instead, he went into foster care, and he’s been out of touch with his parents since. Medina has been paired up with a 65 year old engineer who can relate to Medina’s troublesome youth.
Certainly, mentoring is a program that has been a positive force in the lives of many teens. For instance, the very successful Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) mentoring program has been able to curb the effect of many teen social problems, including bullying. Mentoring is a partnership between two people (the mentee, your child, and the mentor). Mentoring provides teens with the opportunity to think about how they are growing, learning, and developing. Mentors, no matter what area of life – career, health, school, spirituality – have proven to dramatically improve a teen’s ability to succeed and achieve. Certainly, the biggest contributor to the success of mentoring is the relationship between the mentee and the mentor.
In fact, the BBBS mentoring program has had a large impact on the education of teens in general. In a landmark study done by Public Private Ventures throughout 1992 and 1993, results revealed that those who had mentors skipped half as many days of school, felt more competent about doing schoolwork, and skipped fewer classes. Also, students who had mentors in their program said that working hard in school was important to them, going to school and getting a good education was also important to them, and graduating from college was important. Lastly, those who are alumni of their program report that they are doing better in school because of their mentor, have reached a higher level of education than they thought was possible, and that the mentoring program kept them from dropping out of high school.
For at risk teens, who are aging out of a protected system and therefore left vulnerable, mentoring is a significant way to change the course of their lives. A mentor can be a significant source of help. A mentor can be a guiding light, a hand to hold through fiery times, and a companion on the path of becoming an adult.