At 18 years old, foster child Don Winston didn’t need the added stress of not knowing where he would sleep at night, but it’s the reality he and many other Alabama teens have had to face.
“I had it better than some. I always found a place to stay,” said Winston, now 29.
During the earlier years, Winston faced a dilemma that still confronts many foster kids in Alabama — and other Alabama residents who live in the year-long space between official childhood and legal adulthood.
Under state law, no one can enter the foster care system after his or her 18th birthday, state officials say. But while 18 may be the threshold for adulthood in most Americans’ minds, Alabama law says a person is a minor until age 19. That means 18-year-olds can’t apply for public housing. Many shelters will not allow unaccompanied minors to stay without signed consent from a legal guardian.
Calhoun County Department of Human Resources Director Maria Dresser said she has dealt with several such cases and thinks it is a problem that, for the moment, DHR just has to figure out ways to work around.
“The age difference is definitely something that could be helped by legislation, though,” Dresser said. “Minors in such a position can apply for other services besides foster care, but that takes time.”
Barry Spear, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, said the state DHR would intervene in any situation in which a minor was a victim of abuse or neglect, regardless of the age difference.
“Under child welfare law, they can be considered an adult at age 18, so we would get them help through emancipation or some other process,” Spear said.
While those teens are waiting for help, Dresser said, they’re forced to rely on family and friends for a place to stay, and often there aren’t any present.
“The fact of the matter is this often leads to teens being homeless for days at a time,” Dresser said.
Those days of waiting were the main concern of advocates at 2nd Chance, a domestic violence advocacy organization in Calhoun County. A victim of domestic or sexual violence needs a safe place to stay immediately, but DHR’s hands are tied in this situation, said Trace Fleming-Smith, the sexual violence advocacy coordinator for 2nd Chance.
“Yes, they are almost adults, but they are very young adults, and they aren’t legal in the eyes of the state,” Fleming-Smith said. “And that lack of resources is scary for a victim in need of safe shelter.”
Susan Shipman, director of 2nd Chance, agreed with Fleming-Smith, saying the issue was something that could be easily lessened by state legislation.
“We would happily change our policies if state law were different,” Shipman said. “The state needs to look at making a provision for providing emergency services to 18-year-olds.”
Such provisions are possible, too, according to state Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, who is also the chairperson of the state’s Children, Youth, and Human Resources Committee.
“Over the next year or two, we will have to look at the foster care system as a whole,” Bussman said. “There are several problems with the system, and anytime there is a loophole like this, it needs to be addressed.”
Bussman said altering current policies to fix this issue would certainly be possible. It would also be advantageous to make the process of becoming foster parents easier to encourage more families to take on foster children, according to Bussman.
Local Salvation Army Capt. Bert Lind said in his memory, he has never had to deal with a minor who does not have parental consent and needs a place to stay, but he is unsure of what he would do if the issue presented itself.
“We want everyone to be safe, but we also have to be mindful of the law — I guess we would refer them to DHS, and see what we could do,” Lind said.
Issues with the system
Winston’s story is a bit different. He had been in the foster care system for 13 years, but he was forced to spend age 18 in a boys’ group home in Gadsden called Burt’s Place. The home closed in 2009.
“That group home held a maximum of 10-12 boys, and usually had at least 12 boys on the waiting list,” Winston said. “That’s a lot of kids who don’t have a place to stay.”
While Winston has been out of the system for 11 years now, he said he often looks back on his time in foster care.
“It can be a very negative part of a child’s life — I have bad memories,” Winston said. “But there are good people who keep you going, too, and that is the most important thing for a child to have.”
According to Winston, one key factor behind children not being able to enter the system at 18 could be general attitudes.
“That is a pivotal age,” Winston said. “A teenager is almost an emancipated adult, but he or she still isn’t for one more year. They expect to make their own decisions, but they can’t, living in a foster home.”
The biggest problem with the foster care system is the absence of a support system after a child gets out, Winston said. Foster care children are encouraged by social workers to have an independent living plan, but often don’t have the resources to do it, or the real-life knowledge to make it, Winston said.
Dresser’s main concern is that many of these children will end up on the street.
“Without foster care services available to them and many of the shelters turning them away, living on the street creates an entirely new set of problems for these teens…it can be a downward spiral,” Dresser said.
Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office mental health officer Jon Garlick said the agency does not bother homeless teens unless they are breaking the law. Unless they are doing something wrong, all the Sheriff’s Office can do is let them go, Garlick said.
While Dresser said she has had several such cases of minors needing a place to stay, Garlick said he has never had an issue with finding a place. However, Garlick said that in his experience, DHR is often reluctant to take minors into the foster care system at 17, too.
“At 18, they can run away and we can’t bring them back by law,” Garlick said. “The interesting issue is when they are married.”
Marriage of two minors, whether through parental consent or some other method, legally emancipates the minors in question. The minor is considered a legal adult if married after 14 years old.
For local workers like Garlick, Dresser, and Lind, reevaluation of laws holding back DHR and some shelters would be helpful for all parties involved, Lind said.
“While I haven’t dealt with any 18-year-olds without a guardian personally, it’s definitely a situation that needs to be dealt with to prevent kids from getting out on the street and putting themselves in harm’s way,” Lind said.
Winston stressed that teens at this age need stability more than anything else.
“Some things you just don’t have control over, but the least that should be available to minors is a safe place to stay,” Winston said.
Whether leaving home voluntarily or by force, Winston said the way to fix the problem is to start at the root of it.
“We need better mothers and fathers; we need parents who are actually present and care,” Winston said. “And from the state’s side, there needs to be more funding — there simply isn’t enough space, even in the shelters that will take minors.”
Staff Writer Elizabeth Manning: 256-235-3550. On Twitter @emanning_Star.