Rising number of NC teens age out of foster care

Joni Morris, left, and her husband adopted Scott, right, when he was 18 years old.
Joni Morris, left, and her husband adopted Scott, right, when he was 18 years old.

More teenagers in North Carolina aged out of foster care in 2016 than in any of the previous 15 years, according to the Children’s Home Society.

Between 2001 and 2016, the number of people who aged out of the system increased by more than 70 percent, rising to the highest rate since the Jordan Institute for Families began collecting data in mid-2000. The institute is part of the School of Social Work at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Last year, 572 teens aged out of the system, an increase of 10.4 percent from 2015.

The increase in the number of people aging out is “dismal,” said Brian Maness, president and CEO of the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, the state’s largest private provider of foster care and adoption services. Until this year, foster kids were expected to leave the system at age 18 without the support of a family, Maness said.

“That’s just not realistic,” he said. “A whole host of life outcomes are horribly impacted by aging out.”

To help the young adults, the Children’s Home Society is expanding its partnership with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, one of the foundation’s programs, works to help older children find adoptive families.

Children’s Home Society helps between 250 and 300 children through the program, and hopes to increase that number to more than 750 over the next four years.

The number of children in foster care in North Carolina has increased more than 25 percent in the past five years. There are about 10,500 children in foster care in the state, up from just more than 8,000 in 2012.

Opioid abuse and childhood poverty have contributed to the soaring rates, which Maness has called a “state of crisis.”

Staying longer

The Foster Care 18 to 21 initiative, which was passed by the General Assembly in 2015 and went into effect Jan. 1, allows foster children to stay in the system until they are 21, instead of 18.

Children who want to stay in foster care until they are 21 must meet one of several requirements: be enrolled in a high school or equivalent accreditation program; be enrolled in college or vocational classes; participate in a program that helps to overcome barriers to employment or work at least 80 hours per month.

Teens can also participate if they are unable to fulfill education or employment requirements because of a medical condition or disability.

Many families don’t consider fostering older children, Maness said.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Maness said of the initiative. “But we can’t give up on the need for these children to find forever families.”

In 2011, Tim and Joni Morris adopted Scott, who was 18, and his sister Casey, who was 16. The couple, who live in Lexington, have four biological children but said they wanted to give Scott and Casey a loving, permanent home. The teens had been in the foster care system for years.

“The older children are just as important as the younger ones,” Joni Morris said. “They’re the ones that get overlooked. They just need someone to love them and to take a chance on them. If we don’t, who will?”

Teenagers leaving the foster care system face significant barriers, including homelessness, unemployment, mental health issues, incarceration, substance abuse and an incomplete education, according to the Children’s Home Society.

Scott Morris, now 24, told the Children’s Home Society he would likely be living on the street if it weren’t for the Morris family.

“I felt like the world was going to turn its back on me,” he said in a statement. “I felt like the people that I knew were just going to throw me out.”

After the Morris family adopted him, Scott finished high school and is an apprentice with Salem Electric. Casey, now 22, also finished high school and works as a certified nursing assistant.

“It’s parenting backwards,” Joni Morris said of fostering or adopting older children. “You just need to accept them for who they are and help them unpack the baggage.”

The Children’s Home Society will host banquets for people interested in learning more about foster care and adoption on April 27 in Raleigh, May 11 in Charlotte and May 18 in Greensboro.

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; miszler@newsobserver.com