Each year, around 200 kids in Arkansas ‘age out’ of the foster care system to navigate adulthood on their own. Learn about two organizations that focus on equipping those kids with the skills they need.
By Dwain Hebda Photography by Brian Chilson
Lameikia Aycock entered Arkansas’s foster system at 16, a far cry from some kids, but by the time she aged out at 18, she’d met the national average for time spent in foster care. It was long enough for it to leave a mark.
“My personal goal is just work on myself and better myself for the future so me and my baby can be happy in life and not struggle. Because I struggled coming up,” she said.
According to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, there were roughly 5,135 children in foster care last year. Nationally, kids stay in the system for about two years, although that number can vary from a few days to much longer.
Adoption, meanwhile, has a narrow window. According to Partners for Our Children, children 5 and under represent more than half of U.S. adoptions, while those involving teenagers make up less than 10 percent.
Wade and Gina Radke are an anomaly, having decided to become adoptive parents specifically for a teenager. They adopted their son Jay in 2017, when he was 19, after years being his mentor. Gina said the motivation for adopting him was to solidify their commitment to him, something many children of the system haven’t experienced and who carry that mistrust into their adult lives.
“A lot of these kids have been hurt so bad they’ve kind of given notice that I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me. There is no honeymoon phase,” she said. “At that age, they’re just like, ‘Listen, I’m grown and I’m going to do what I want and I don’t trust you.’”
“Some of the teens can be very vocal about that. They’re like, ‘You’re probably not going to stick around, so I’m really not going to trust you.’ You just have to start by saying, ‘Hey, I understand. People haven’t stuck around in your life so you have no reason to trust me. But, do you want to go have coffee anyway?’”
According to Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS), Arkansas’s “transition age youth,” those ages 16 to 21, numbered more than 1,000 in 2015. Just over 200 of these emancipated (“aged out”) from the system that year, which means having reached the oddly specific mark of 4 p.m. on their 18th birthday. Elective extended foster care is an alternative until the age of 21, and a handful emancipate before age 18.
AFCARS tracks other trends for emancipated foster care kids, revealing a mixed bag of outcomes. For instance, 55 percent of former foster care kids earned a high school diploma or GED by age 19 and 74 percent had done so by age 21. That’s in line with the national average, but well behind the general population. Additionally, one in five former foster kids had experienced homelessness by age 21, a quarter had been incarcerated or had a child, and 30 percent were on public assistance.
None of this is news to Eric Gilmore, executive director of Immerse Arkansas, which provides foster teens with role models and direction as they reach the age of emancipation.
“For some of those young people, they’re able to make it and they walk into some good things as it relates to a job or education,” he said. “There’s a whole other group of young people that age out and—it’s hard to say this—they find out that they just don’t have anybody that’s there to help them make that transition and make that journey.”
“They can find themselves getting caught up in prostitution just trying to survive, or will find themselves homeless. Some become a victim of some other type of violence or trafficking. All those outcomes that we wouldn’t want to see for any of our own children is a reality for a lot of these young people.”
Immerse Arkansas and other organizations, like Second Chance Youth Ranch group home, seek to head off these outcomes by helping kids plan for living on their own. They connect youth with mentors and peers, help with goal setting and generally provide a willing ear.
“No matter how many adoptive families there are, being adopted as a teenager is difficult because that’s the time where teenagers are naturally starting to break free,” said Rachel Hubbard, Second Chance’s operations co-director. “They’re ready to get their independence and if you’re 15 or 16 years old and at the very beginning stages of trying to bond with a family, it’s kind of awkward. It’s different from the natural progression of life. Some kids don’t want to do that. They don’t want to start over with a family, they’re ready to just work towards their independence and make that their life goal.”
“One thing that we do is, two of our six homes are dedicated especially to young adults age 16 to 21 who are about to go through the process of aging out. We make sure our kids get a job at 16 and 75 percent of their income is saved towards a vehicle. If they decide at 18, I’m done, I don’t want to answer to anybody, I’m ready to be on my own, they leave our program with money in the bank, a vehicle, a driver’s license.”
Lameikia Aycock credits Immerse with helping her get on the right track, but it’s still not an easy path. She doesn’t know precisely where her life will lead, even though she’s in school and positioned herself the best way she knows how. All she knows for sure is she wants to spare her infant daughter from the same experiences she had growing up.
“It’s really sad because these kids want to be loved, you know, by their parents. They pass them out to different foster homes sometimes every other week and sometimes every week, you know?” she said. “Just having to deal with different people and attitudes, I don’t want my baby to have to deal with that. I’ll take it to the grave she will never have to deal with that.”