SALT LAKE CITY — Natalie Clark was trembling in the courtroom, though she’d been there many, many times before over the course of her childhood. If everything went well today — “Oh please, let it go well,” she whispered to herself — this would be the last time.
This dark-wood and white-walled courtroom had always seemed an almost-happy place where she felt safe though her life in and out of foster care sometimes teetered close to danger.
She was nervous but tried to stand still and straight in her pink and black dress as the judge spoke. She’d always dressed up for court, but today she’d taken special care. She wore lip gloss and her light brown hair was swept to the side in a long braid instead of under the black hairband she habitually wore. She’s 6 feet tall, so her dressy shoes were flat.
She fiddled nervously with the braid as Judge Kimberly Hornak said how proud she was of Natalie’s personal growth and how happy she felt to help launch her into the next phase of her life. Then the woman in black robes stepped down from the bench and hugged Natalie tight, wishing her well.
Just like that, Natalie was out of foster care, leaving the child welfare system that had been her sometimes parent of record, including her teenage years.
Despite boatloads of good intentions, life in foster care doesn’t always add up as one might wish. A dozen houses may not add up to even one real home. Fifteen caretakers don’t equal one caring parent. And the financial disadvantage of not having a functional family is huge.
But starting today, Natalie would be expected to make adult decisions and own her adult mistakes, to pay rent and bills and forge a future —with nobody to show her the way.
Outgrowing foster care
Close to 600,000 kids nationwide are in the care of their state. Natalie was among the roughly 23,000 foster children across America each year who don’t reunite with parents or get adopted, but stay in foster care until they become adults. The transition into full-fledged independence is often rough as they “age out,” though child welfare staff and policymakers have long tried to smooth the way, with varying degrees of success.
Circumstances that go with foster care decrease odds of an easy life. Nationally, fewer than half of foster youths graduate high school, compared to 82% of youths overall. More than half of all high school grads go to college and 30% earn a degree, but fewer than 3% of foster youths enroll in college and less than 1% graduate.
Nor is education the only mountain foster youths must climb. Many have unaddressed mental health issues from trauma that upended their lives. Trust and behavior problems are common. If challenges aren’t addressed, those aging out of foster care are far more likely to go to jail than to college, their risk of abusing drugs or alcohol or becoming homeless or pregnant while young are much greater than that of most peers. They are less likely to find and keep both jobs and healthy relationships.
That’s only partly Natalie’s story now, at 21. When a reporter asks staff at Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services for help finding someone who’s been transitioning to adulthood, they point proudly to her. She’s a foster care success story, a spokeswoman says. Natalie already has an associate degree in social work from Salt Lake Community College and is on course to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah by summer 2021.
Natalie is striking across many dimensions. Her gaze is direct, her eyes hazel, but they look bright green when she cries — something she does quite often when she’s alone. Once you get to know her, her purposeful stride seems like it might be at least as much bravado as direction.
People tell her she’s driven, intended as a compliment. “Well yeah,” she agrees wryly. “I’ve got to go running because I don’t have anything to fall back on. I have to have this fire and drive.” As for being “mature,” she says, “No kidding. I had to grow up too fast.”
Mama and Papa State
Natalie first entered foster care at age 3 after Utah found her mom was neglecting her because of drug addiction. Early on, she was almost adopted, but her father intervened. He only learned she existed when he was asked to give up his parental rights. He said he wanted to raise her.
She was later removed from his care, too. By then, she was too old to appeal to would-be adopters who wanted a young child. Her caseworker told her bluntly, “You probably won’t be adopted.” That proved true.
Most children enter foster care because they’ve been abused or neglected. The state assumes the role of parent, usually temporarily, with a promise to keep children safe while it tries to mend what’s broken at home. Often, states keep that promise. Of the 2,176 children and youths who left foster care in Utah in 2019, for example, 42% returned home, while 26% found homes with familiar relatives who adopted them or assumed custody or guardianship. A very small share age out or emancipate: 6% or 130 youths in Utah last year.
Life in foster care can be extraordinarily unstable. Children are often moved around. A survey of participants in the First Star Academy at the University of Utah, which helps foster kids develop a college-bound mindset, found some had been in 15 to 20 foster homes, the average nine different placements, says Alexa Hudson, program director.
Caseworkers switch, too. Utah foster care stats show 32% annual caseworker turnover. So when children enter foster care, they may not only move homes, but the person who is supposed to manage their care might change, too. “That’s a lot,” says Hudson, who points out that caseworkers are underpaid for what they do — the Utah average wage was $17.88 an hour in 2019 — and placements change for many reasons. Sometimes, the judge overseeing the case even changes. That happened to Natalie when her original judge retired.
Natalie’s not sure how many foster homes she was placed in before she lived with her father starting in kindergarten, but after she returned to care in ninth grade, she was in a group home, multiple foster homes and a substance abuse treatment program because she was caught trying marijuana with friends.
Here are some of the reasons she was moved: A foster parent’s child was experiencing crisis, a foster parent retired, she was briefly home with her mom and when she came back into care another child had her spot, and in one case her foster parents split up. The system also churns because foster children outnumber foster families to care for them.
Sometimes, children and adults simply don’t mesh. That reminds her of a poem she read on Facebook. Her rendition goes something like this: “Hi. I’m Natalie. Oh, you don’t like it when I do that? I’ll stop. I can change. Please don’t send me away …
“Hi. I’m Natalie.”
Studies show removing kids from their family, even one that is sorely troubled, is more traumatic than letting kids stay and providing services. Hudson thinks the solution to improving foster care is really about improving the response to poverty and substance abuse and the pressures those place on families.
That’s one reason the federal Families First Act funds services like substance abuse treatment and in-home counseling to bolster families in crisis so children can safely remain home instead of entering foster care.
Every time a child is moved, he or she loses ground, says Crystal Vail, the practice improvement administrator for Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services. The division knows well its own challenges, so staffers try hard to make wise decisions as a child comes into care, sometimes avoiding a foster home by finding a suitable place with other relatives. Children who live with family tend to have better outcomes, Vail says, and families often suggest which relative can best provide care.
Even experts who work in child welfare say government wasn’t designed to parent and note the system’s challenges. Just as some families are exceptional, some average, a few horrible, the same can be said of social workers and foster parents. The system is fraught with potential conflicts and degrees of victory and failure.
Most foster kids don’t give up on their parents easily, either. No matter what brought them to this point, they would rather be home. Sometimes, that’s just not safe.
Natalie’s paternal grandmother was her greatest ally and Natalie adored the woman, who helped raise her when she lived with her father. Her grandmother was elderly even then and Natalie was a handful. She stayed with her briefly after she was removed from her father’s care, but when adolescent Natalie was caught trying marijuana, child welfare experts pulled her back into foster care. Though granddaughter and grandmother remained close until the latter’s 2018 death, attempts to place her back with family always failed.
Other relatives have only loved Natalie from a distance, she says. An aunt who lives out of state sometimes provides her with clothing and checks in to see how she’s doing. But the most consistent interaction she’s had with other extended family members has been a $50 check that arrives punctually every birthday from a grandfather she doesn’t really know.
She’s grateful for all of it, but those are not the close ties many take for granted.
They didn’t give her someone to hug her while she cried after a bad breakup. Or someone willing to co-sign a lease, a lack that creates problems for lots of former foster youths who may choose with whom they live based on financial desperation, cramming together to meet rents they cannot otherwise afford. Some, with few human or financial resources, become homeless.
Where rubber meets road
When she was 19, two years ago, one event made Natalie feel especially alone.
She’d been worried that her car was going to leave her stranded. On wet roads, water squished up through the floorboards and the old Honda smelled faintly moldy. So she stopped by a car dealership on her way to night class to see what kind of deal she’d get trading it in on a more reliable model.
She left the dealership with a $520 monthly car payment and was soon shocked to learn her insurance premiums would be nearly that much more for her spanking-new car. It would take a huge share of her income; she was working part-time jobs while going to school full-time and rustling up freelance photography jobs to fill in income gaps when rent was due.
That’s a seldom-noted aspect of spending one’s teen years in foster care. While most young adults solicit parental advice when making big purchases or decisions and lean on their parents’ credit score to save money, Natalie says her most reliable source of wisdom for life’s tough questions is Google.
That ill-conceived car purchase is an example of being vulnerable. No one told her the cost of insurance depends on the car’s year and make and model, and whether she could be added to someone else’s policy. Parents often add a child to their own policy to make it affordable. Natalie had no one to do that. She called around when she realized the car payment and insurance would cost most of what she was earning at a call center. She didn’t know she might have a brief window to change her mind and back out of the deal — and no one told her.
“If my daughter wanted to buy a car, I would go with her and help her with my experience and knowledge. A lot of times, these young adults do not have these support people,” Vail says.
Surely someone can add you to their policy, one insurance agent told Natalie. “When I said I grew up in foster care, he got real quiet,” she remembers.
On her 21st birthday, the insurance dropped $100 a month. The cost is still high, but to Natalie, that feels like Christmas.
Preparing to fly
Though children may dream of leaving foster care to be on their own, adulthood is often harder than they expect.
Turning 18 is not magical for foster kids, Vail says. A judge decides when foster care ends, the decision based on a young person’s needs. Most age out at 18 or 19, but foster care can continue to age 21 for those who need extra time and support.
There’s some after-care support, too, up to age 23, Vail says. If a former foster youth wants to retake a skills class or has a small financial emergency, foster staff can often help.
Those aging out often trip over the who-what-how questions. That is years too late to prepare to thrive as independent adults. So child welfare workers start planting seeds much earlier, around age 14. “In seventh and eighth grade, kids have one foot in the world’s reality, while believing they can be a rockstar. At that age, they can be convinced of their possibilities, of who they can become. They can gain skills and set goals,” says Vail.
Life skills classes start around middle school, when foster youths qualify for Transition to Adult Living program services, guided by transition caseworkers. In a series of classes, youths learn skills like money management, the curriculum increasingly complex as adulthood nears. At 14, one learns to budget allowance; at 18, how to save for an apartment.
Some classes are in-house, others community-based. That helps connect emerging adults to communities in which they will live and to people outside the child welfare system, Vail says.
Natalie helps run some transition classes and activities, paid by nonprofit Reach360 to work for the Division of Child and Family Services because of her foster care experience and success in college afterwards.
Classwork only goes so far. Also crucial is building a youth’s relationships. “Among our biggest challenges is ensuring they have enough support and people who can help them. One of the things we really try to do while they’re in foster care is encourage them to invite their family, friends — anyone they see as a support — to be part of their team,” Vail says.
Though the youths can’t live with just any relative, effort is made to preserve family bonds, which may stretch well past foster care.
Natalie says she sometimes had “amazing” caseworkers, including one in particular who fought for her and believed in her, convincing Natalie she mattered.
She had a special foster placement, too, with a woman named Michelle Ostmark and her late husband, Adam, who died in a car crash three years ago.
“She was the first foster mom I had as a teenager,” Natalie says, “and I feel like there’s still nothing she doesn’t believe in me for.” It was rough at first. Natalie was used to being the child her grandmother doted on; the Ostmarks had biological and adopted kids, along with foster children. Michelle Ostmark provided Natalie’s first taste of “responsible motherly love with boundaries.” She needed them.
That idyll was interrupted. Natalie and her mom love each other. Like the state, Natalie rooted for her mom to get clean, and it looked hopeful. So Natalie left the Ostmarks to live with her mom, until she relapsed. When Natalie returned to foster care, Michelle Ostmark already had her limit of foster children.
Still, she’s one of two foster moms with whom Natalie stays in touch. Ostmark, who works in foster family retention for the nonprofit Utah Foster Care, says proudly she maintains some connection to all 200 youths who’ve been placed in her care.
The value of education
With so many challenges facing foster youths, many experts believe they need college degrees to level the field and ensure greater prosperity. That’s one reason so much effort is made to help foster kids see themselves on campus.
First Star Academy’s Hudson thinks youths in foster care share issues first-generation college students have, in addition to their other challenges. They don’t know how to navigate the college entrance process, like filling out federal forms to get financial aid. They don’t know how a class schedule works and need help to register.
Some youths, like Natalie, have developed a strong sense of self-reliance from years in foster care, Hudson says. Others develop “almost the opposite,” a sense that nothing’s in their control and they can’t make decisions, so why try. Those tend to give up.
Hudson’s program engages foster youths across Utah in activities designed to make college accessible, starting around eighth grade. Youths in First Star meet one Saturday a month and spend four weeks on campus in summer. While half start out feeling incapable and unworthy, by high school’s end almost all of them can see themselves at college, says Hudson.
“That’s a large part of our role. ‘You can do it. You’re not stupid. Everyone finds the ACT challenging, not just you,’” Hudson says. First Star provides consistent adult mentorship — sometimes the most consistent thing in a foster child’s life as they transition homes, schools and caseworkers, she adds.
Other programs help. For instance, Impact Scholars provides support to foster kids in college, especially in the first weeks and months.
Students from foster care may be able to get scholarships and help with housing costs through programs combining public and private funding. But there’s not enough money to help them all.
The need is serious. Statistically, in Utah in 2018, for each 236 college-age youth in foster care, four would attend college and one would graduate, compared to 99 who would graduate in the general population, Hudson says. That’s a striking deficit.
What would make life easier as kids outgrow foster care?
They qualify for a Pell Grant and Education Training Voucher and can apply for scholarships, like Utah’s Olene Walker scholarship, if they’ve done well in high school. Those don’t meet all the costs.
Former fosters who aren’t college-bound may be able to get housing vouchers, but often they have trouble finding landlords who will accept them. Those attending college full-time don’t qualify for housing the vouchers cover, so they may scramble to pay rent.
Financial assistance isn’t the only need. All fostered youths need champions.
“When I talk to kids who got degrees, the first thing they tell me is the name of a person who was their cheerleader — the person who supported them,” Vail says. Anyone could take that role, but too few do. They’re needed well before youths start transitioning out.
Barriers born of low self-esteem are hardest to overcome, Hudson says.
Natalie forges on
Entering a restaurant with Natalie is like running a gauntlet. People notice her because she’s so tall, but she calls attention to herself by paying attention to them. “You look so happy it makes me happy,” she tells a man holding the hand of a young child. She hands out compliments so easily she hardly knows she does it.
Asked why, she says, “You don’t know what someone’s going through. Maybe something that simple can make a difference.”
People brighten when she speaks to them.
While Natalie’s path to adulthood has included significant victories, there’ve been stumbles galore, too.
As a young adult, Natalie has chosen roommates and relationships based on fear of being alone, on lack of resources and on battered self-esteem. She’s roomed with friends and with strangers. It feels like she’s always scrambling to find her way.
Asked where she lived in 2019, she mentally flips a calendar. It’s almost as complicated as reconstructing her foster homes, she says. She lived with a friend briefly, but it ended badly. She couch surfed for a couple of weeks. She lived for a couple months with her boyfriend’s parents, but moved when they broke up. She lived with another friend until the friend moved back home with her parents. Natalie couldn’t afford to stay, though someone else moved in. Then she and her boyfriend reconciled and she moved back in with his parents until they broke up again. She’s paid rent in each case.
In an unstable life course, she says, she hasn’t mastered stable relationships or living arrangements. Now she’s renting a room in a house.
She changes addresses, but one thing never changes: She often hides in her room and always carries her shampoo with her to the shower. She’s not comfortable staking out space on a community shelf, because she doesn’t want to bother anyone and blow her living arrangement — a vulnerability from foster care, when she knew she could be sent away if she upset someone.
An enduring advantage to foster care is the ability to adapt, she says. “There’s not a race, nationality or religion I can’t get along with. I’ve had to. I’ve done all the adapting and that’s the best part about me.”
At a restaurant with a reporter, she orders a large meal and at the end asks for a doggy bag. The leftovers are money in her malnourished bank. But she doesn’t want to take without giving, so she offers up her university student discount to shave the cost a little.
Natalie has plans. She will work for the Division of Child and Family Services, which is helping fund her education, inspired by both the case workers who helped her and also those who failed her.
She is brutally honest about both her successes and failures. Much like her good-natured rendition of how she got nicks and dents on her car, she analyzes her decisions, good and bad. Some are cosmetic: the large earlobe gauges she started years ago and might get surgically reduced if it didn’t cost $1,000 an ear that she doesn’t have. Or the huge amateurish tattoo she let a friend put on her calf when she was 13. “Refuse to sink,” it proclaims next to an undersized anchor. It’s excellent advice, despite the lack of artistry.
Other dents are deeper.
No class, caseworker, foster parent or pal has taught her to be comfortable alone. Too much time to herself leads to tears.
When did she cry last? she’s asked. “This morning.”
She cries because she’s afraid of failing and becoming another statistic or being alone. She’s afraid of making a mistake in school and having nothing to show for her effort. She cries when she’s frustrated or overwhelmed, which happens a lot as she tries to earn grades that maintain her scholarship. Her GPA’s great, but it feels like one bad class could annihilate her dreams. She’s always worried about making ends meet and about mistakes she’s made and the ones to come.
She wonders what kind of family she’ll have. Then she wonders if she’ll have a family at all.
She longs to belong and be loved.