Brain Research Fuels Rethinking Of Foster Care Services

Child advocate Gary Stangler is the executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. He's hoping to use research about the incomplete brain development of e18-year olds to extend services for foster children up to age 21. He and guest host Tony Cox discuss how the emerging science about brain development may affect foster care. Also joining the conversation is Sixto Cancel, a college student who's been in and out of foster care since he was 11 months old.

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TONY COX, host: And now a discussion about efforts to use research about brain development to expand the services for one vulnerable group of young people. While most laws recognize 18 as the age of adulthood, as we've said, many of us would be lost without the support of our parents in the months and years after that milestone, you know, the occasional loan or rent-free room in a parents' house. But for kids in foster care that is not an option. Government support for foster care services ends when most foster kids reach the age of 18, and many are left without any support after that.

No many child advocates are using the data about adolescent brain development to argue for extending the benefits in support of foster care past the age of legal majority.

Joining us now to talk about that is Gary Stangler. He is the executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. The private foundation aims to help young people transition out of foster care and build connections for work, housing, health care, and other necessities of life.

We are also joined by Sixto Cancel, a youth fellow with the initiative. He is a 19-year-old who spent much of his childhood in foster care and he is still in the foster care system in the state of Connecticut.

Welcome to the both of you.

GARY STANGLER: Thank you.

SIXTO CANCEL: Thank you.

COX: Before learn of Sixto's personal experience in foster care, let's talk about this research for a moment regarding brain development and maturity. The study from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative called "The Adolescent Brain: New Research and Its Implications for Young People Transitioning From Care," Gary, how exactly was this study done and why did it bring to light?

STANGLER: Well, what we looked at was what the neuroscience is telling us about the development of the teenage brain. We're all familiar with the studies from years ago about the importance of early childhood and the brain development that so rapidly takes place. What was little understood at the time was that there is a huge developmental surge in adolescence as well. And for young people in foster care this is particularly important.

We have a system designed for very young children not really capable of handling the developmental needs of adolescents. And yet, we have young people who need the same kind of experiences and have the same kind of connections that all kids and families do but they're in a very different situation - being on their own, isolated very often and without the supports we take for granted for our own kids.

COX: What age specifically, Gary, are we talking about?

STANGLER: In most places in the United States you age out from foster care at age 18. For most kids in the United States, not just foster care, you haven't finished high school by age 18. So when you are age 18 and on your birthday you're very often handed all of your belongings in a plastic trash bag and you're assumed to now be fully independent and on your own, even though other people have been making all of your life decisions for you up till now.

And the consequences are fairly predictable. Homelessness is very common, at least temporarily among young people leaving foster care. Many don't go on to complete their education. And for many who are couch surfing, trying to find places to live, the rate of child bearing is higher than the regular population.

COX: Let me bring Sixto into the conversation. Sixto, as I understand it, you were in foster care from basically an infant.

CANCEL: So I have a great opportunity and I'm very fortunate to still be in foster care. But at 18 in Connecticut, our services change a bit, and that there is no court oversight over the 18-and-up crowd. So you're allowed to stay in foster care as long as you are in school full time.

The Department of Children and Family, which is a child welfare agency in Connecticut, did a very great job preparing me for my 18th birthday. And what they did is that every six month they have an ACR - administrative case review. And they said to me at six months before my birth day was, OK, you're going to be 18. Do you plan to transition out or would you like to still continue under our services? So we can opt into foster care at the age of 18, and that's what I decided to do. So I was very much prepared to stay in the system.

COX: So Gary then, looking at Sixto's example is he a unique case?

STANGLER: Sixto is unique in many ways. And he is unique in being from Connecticut, which like a handful of states, do offer services past age 18. But for the vast majority of young people in foster care in the United States they leave on their 18th birthday or thereabouts.

What we need to see is that all states provide the same kind of supports - or as best we can, the same kind of supports that young people in families would have: the opportunities to finish their education, the opportunities to make connections to part-time jobs, etcetera, which for most young people in the United States, they're not like Sixto.

COX: How many states that what Connecticut has?

STANGLER: I'd say five, maybe six.

COX: And why don't more have it, in your opinion?

STANGLER: Part of it is cost, but part of it is history. You know, I was a child welfare director for many years and the prevailing feeling in the field was that if we got young people to their 18th birthday safe then we had done our jobs. They were now free to go and we had done what we were supposed to do.

COX: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you are just joining us, I'm Tony Cox. We're talking about whether foster care should offer support for young people even after they turn 18 years of age. Our guests are Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a group that has studied the issue. The other guest is Sixto Cancel, who spent much of his childhood in foster care.

So Sixto, you turned 18. You had the option to leave foster care because you were in the state of Connecticut. You chose not to leave. Why not?

CANCEL: At the age of 18, I was a high school senior. I cannot even imagine how I was supposed to survive as a senior in high school on my own. I had no family. I had no permanent connections at that time. And, in fact, I think that the biggest motivator for me to make sure that I stood in is that I worked with the youth board in my home state, and I saw those kids was signed out and I saw how difficult it was for them to find housing, how difficult it was to feed themselves, how they went from shelter to shelter, so those kids who I knew who were my friends at one point and then decided to sign out, I saw how their lives were turned upside down and everything that they ever dreamed of was wasted.

COX: I know that you are aware, Sixto, of the stories and perhaps you have your own personal story to share as well that - of abuses in foster care. And that children who have been abused in foster care can't wait to get out, to get to a place where they will be safer. How do you explain that phenomenon with what you are describing about wanting to stay there?

CANCEL: I can say that that was my attitude at the age of 16 when I – at 15 I reentered foster care. But I want to go back to the study and the study talks about how trauma could be offset by great experiences later on in life. If these recommendations are implemented then I can tell you no matter how traumatic our childhood was - mine was very traumatic - I know that these opportunities everyone would take.

COX: Why did you leave? I think I heard you say you left foster care and you came back.

CANCEL: When I refer to the reentry of foster care as when I was adopted at the age of nine and it was my adopted home that was very abusive, so I was in a very controlled situation. I was not allowed to participate in after-school programs. I was not allowed to associate with a lot of people. So we were very isolated and we did not have that opportunity to have positive development. So at the age of 15, I was finally able to come back into foster care once the child welfare agency was aware of what was going on.

COX: What do you think is most pressing in terms of making adjustments to the foster care system in this country right now? Is it what these recommendations are in this study or is it something else that needs to be attended to immediately?

CANCEL: These recommendations right here are the most pressing. I want to highlight one of the biggest recommendations that I think that's in this research and that is the ability to make our own choices even when all the adults around us don't agree. When I was a senior in high school, I really wanted to buy a car but none of the adults around he supported me buying this car, because they felt it was too risky, it was too much responsibility. But, in fact, it was the risk that I needed to take to learn responsibility that would teach me the responsibility of a car, that would teach me the responsibility of my apartment and so on.

And, according to my life experience, I can see exactly how it's not healthy for us to develop and to become independent when we're not allowed to make choices.

COX: Let me give you this one last question. We are in severe economic times at the moment - a downturn - and as a result of that many state governments are cutting back on services. So how realistic is it to expect that an already troubled foster care system nationally could be expanded to meet the needs of youngsters who are not ready to go into the streets at age 18?

STANGLER: The fact is you're already spending public funds on these young people. You're spending them in homeless shelters, other programs meant to remediate instead of addressing the issue that these kids lack families. If we could connect them to families as best we could that would be the ideal. Failing that, we need a fall-back foster care system at 21 to substitute for the supports that young people are going to need to have the obvious opportunities that we take for granted for our own kids.

COX: Gary Stangler is the executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. He joined us from NPR member station KWMU in St. Louis, Missouri. Sixto Cancel is a youth fellow with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. He says he entered foster care when he was 11 months old. Now at age 19 he is studying political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. He remains in foster care by choice. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both very much.

CANCEL: Thank you.

STANGLER: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: And that's our program for today. I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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