POSTED ON FEBRUARY 8, 2012:
Coming of Age
Aging out is a problem from hell
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS), agencies like Youth Services of Tulsa, Families and Children's Services, the "think and do" tankers at Tulsa's Community Service Council and a small array of other agents have various roles in supporting Oklahoma young people who have been removed from abusive or problematic family situations. Some of these agencies also serve as temp- or long-term havens for kids who have elected to leave what they perceive to be dangerous homes or homes with abusive or exploitive parents or relatives. But there are dual, terrible and very costly social challenges that are tethered to Oklahoma's "state raised" kids.
Last year, writer Emma Donohue produced a strange, but masterful and deeply claustrophobic piece of fiction in her prize-winning book Room -- she gives us a horrible world all contained in a single room:
"To five-year-old-Jack, Room is the world...
It's where he was born, it's where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack's imagination-the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells, the imaginary world projected through the TV, the coziness of Wardrobe beneath Ma's clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night, in case Old Nick comes. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it's the prison where she's been held since she was nineteen-for seven long years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven-foot space. But Jack's curiosity is building alongside her own desperation -- and she knows that Room cannot contain either indefinitely..."
Donohue's Room got enormous attention and is a powerful mediation on a deeply constrained physical and social world. For child, Jack, Room is where he and his mother live and is the only universe he has ever known, apart from TV world. In the book, we see the world almost entirely from Jack's point of view. In the end, Jack and his mom are freed from their oppressor and Jack is introduced to the real world.
Kids in Oklahoma's "Protective" World
The several thousand children in Oklahoma, who have been in institutional care for various stretches of time, are a huge and complex social policy challenge for Oklahoma.
These kids, through no fault of their own, have been radically and sometimes permanently separated from their birth families. The relevant state statistics suggest that almost all of these kids are in state care because of extreme poverty, abandonment issues or parental abuse.
Urban Tulsa Weekly writer Matt Nelson did a grand job last November by illuminating the 8,000-plus kids who were in the "system" in early 2011. And Nelson says they're forced to leave the only place they have now ever known.
They enter a world of institutional care where their alienation and confusion often produces physical and psychological trauma: producing problems for the state agency people responsible for them and for themselves. There is a "cascade" effect in play here where kids who've done nothing wrong, at the outset of their unfortunate sojourn, began to display all sorts of institutional driven maladies that come with being radically alienated and out of a familiar space, time and context. Fortunately, Nelson writes, there are a bevy of partial and more encompassing solutions afoot to get Oklahoma kids out of OKDHS care and into sustainable foster care situations:
"On Oct. 27, leaders, influencers, and care givers from Oklahoma came together in Tulsa for the 8046 Conference. Sponsored by OKDHS, FaithLinks Oklahoma, Arrow Child & Family Ministries, and several local Tulsa churches, the goal was simple: Something must be done to help change the current foster process and promote the human rights of the family-less in Oklahoma."
A Monster Problem
Mental Health of Tulsa Executive Director Michael Brose and his colleagues are focusing on the tail end of this long-standing dilemma. Brose and allies are looking to dramatically assist "aged out kids" -- that is long term, institutionally "managed" kids from Oklahoma's various systems: kids who are 18 and no longer eligible for OKDHS and related help. These kids are forcibly "liberated" from years of institutional care and find themselves in the real world for the first time since they were young children. These kids have a lot in common with the "Jack" child featured in Donohue's gripping novel.
Imagine, if you can, living in various institutional settings for most of your childhood and preteen time and at 18 being handed little more than a multi-month stipend and implicit permission to sink or swim.
Brose provides tangible examples of these kids and their typical problems. He told me they almost never have driver's licenses so they are often without reliable transportation or the means to use same should they have access to a car. Working without reliable transportation even in a place like Tulsa, that has a basic bus system, is difficult. Moreover, these kids have zero experience with finances, securing and maintaining housing, cooking for themselves and dealing with utilities and the rest -- much like, as Brose notes, most "mainstream" 18 year olds. The grand problem: aged out kids have no support system of any consequence -- no parents, no older friends -- and they can't call their advocates or supporters in the OKDHS system or at least they're not suppose to do so.
And Oklahoma's aged out kid "cadre" doesn't even have the striated but passionate support Donohue's "mom" provides for kid Jack. Aged out kids in Oklahoma are victims of the system that can't help, but rather switched them around from one place to another, alienated them in the process, gave them a chaotic social and educational experience, and subjected them to discipline that came from acting out in this far from optimal "home world."
Michael Brose and other experienced observers believe that aged out kids have a high propensity to enter the criminal world, to have children at an early age, to engage all kinds of social behaviors, and sub-optimal educational and work performance. These are manifest challenges that cost taxpayers money and produces a bunch of misery all over the map.
In a couple of weeks, I'll look at what Brose and others see as solutions to the "aged out" challenge.
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