How the foster care system fails so many kids—and how we can do better
The stats on teens transitioning out of foster care aren't good. Can we empower these young people to build futures to look forward to?
Sixto Cancel's lived experienced in foster care fuels his passion for shifting system policy and practice through the use of technology and data. As CEO of Think of Us, Sixto co-led the design and execution of the 1st ever White House Foster Care and Technology Hackathon which resulted in new federal regulations, new funding for tech in foster care, six additional hackathons, local technology initiatives, and helped shift the national conversation about foster care and tech. Sixto has participated in over 25 convenings as a panelist, keynote or presenter. Sixto has served as a Young Fellow at Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative since 2010, where he has worked on youth engagement, asset development and permanency.
Sixto Cancel: I first entered foster care at 11 months. I found myself adopted at the age of nine. I remember walking into the courtroom and the judge smiling at me, asking me a very important question at the age of nine, and the question was: did I want to be adopted?
And I wanted to say no, but I was so afraid of what that “no” would mean that I said yes. And unfortunately it was a pretty abusive adoption. I found myself not being able to participate in the holidays—not being able to be part of that “forever family” idea. And so by the age of 13 I was couch-surfing quite a bit until I was able to reenter foster care. And when I reentered foster care the entire conversation was about how was it that I was going to survive after foster care? What would happen when I aged out? 23,000 young people have a similar story where they turn 18 or 21—depending on the state that they’re in—and they have to figure out how is it that they’re going to be completely self-sufficient.
I think every day people make choices about other people’s lives. And when it comes down to being a young person in foster care, before you are 18 every single choice is being made for you. And we see the results. We see 23,000 young people age out of the foster care system—20 percent will end up experiencing homelessness within the first two years; we see three percent being able to get a bachelor’s degree; and we see almost 50 percent of young people underemployed.
Part of being able to define your own story, being able to define your own journey, is that you really start to be empowered to take the actions that you feel are appropriate for your life.
For me, I was fortunate that when I was 15 I was able to participate in financial literacy programs. I was fortunate enough to be in a work-to-learn program where I got to have a job, practice what money management looked like. I went to asset trainings, which were these once-a-month trainings on how to buy a car, how to lease an apartment. And these things really equipped me to be ready for life after foster care.
But not every single young person gets that, and that’s what our commitment of action is about: supporting young people with a coaching platform on how they can get from being in foster care to life after foster care.
Many systems around the country have a social worker leading the case plan, leading what will happen in a young person’s life. And we need young people to be involved in what will happen to them.
When we think so much about nonprofits and what it means to be in service to the people that we serve, too many times people come to the table thinking about how is it that they can help. But Think of Us as not about saying “how can we help”—it’s really looking at the individual and saying: you are whole and you are complete, and how is it that the folks around you can support you and coach you through some of the obstacles that they may have a little bit of knowledge on? But at the end of the day the young person at the center is the only person who has to live with these decisions for the rest of their life.
Think of Us is an online platform that allows young people to create a transition plan where they are thinking about what is it that they want to accomplish, whether that’s a two-year college, whether it’s four-year. What type of job, car, etc. It empowers young people to build their own personal advisory board of already trusted adults in their lives and people who are working within the foster care system.
Together they all work to create a transition plan where a young person identifies: what is it that they want after high school? What is it that they want after foster care? They get to set goals, action steps, be able to access resources on the platform and be able to watch content that helps them think through what might life look like after foster care.
At the end of the day, all the research and everything that we know to be true about humanity is that the connection between humans is what really supports folks in their healing, what really positions folks to develop new abilities, to position them to thrive.
And so when I think about mentorship I think about how might we continue to make sure that young people are connected with those adults who can see their needs, can see how they can get involved and be there for them.
When it comes to life after foster care, there is typically not a lot of hope on the horizon, says Sixto Cancel, who has been in and out of the foster care system since he was 11 months old. He was lucky enough to take part in programs that set him up for an independent life when he turned 18—how to manage finances, find a job, apply for an apartment, buy a car—but his story is the exception, not the rule. The stats are not good: 20 percent of young people in foster care will experience homelessness within the first two years of leaving the system. 50 percent are underemployed. Only 3 percent earn a bachelor's degree. These negative outcomes are the reason Cancel founded Think of Us, a non-profit platform that gives vulnerable youths tools and resources to plan their life, and empowers them to build a network of adult mentors they trust. For more information about Think of Us, visit www.thinkof-us.org
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