A Home for Teens: Working with Older Youth in Foster Care

A Home for Teens: Working with Older Youth in Foster Care

Mandy Kern and her husband with their son, Ian, and two teen daughters, Emily and Cristen.

Mandy Kern, a caseworker in Ashtabula and licensed foster/adoption worker in Lake County, saw something special in a teen that was on her caseload.

Kern says 16-year-old Emily, who had entered into the foster care system, had a huge heart and she saw so much potential in the teen.

“I saw the good in her,” Kern says. “She is so smart. I could see her going so far.”

Kern and her husband decided to place the teen within their home and eventually adopted her.

Emily wasn’t the only teen the Kerns adopted; Cristen, now 18, at first felt like she didn’t deserve to be with the Kerns, but later, with the help of the family, learned to trust.

“We reminded her, no matter what happens, we still love you,” Kern says.

While teen foster or adoption isn’t unusual, it’s more likely that foster or adoptive parents are looking for younger children.

“Families do not think older youth want to be adopted,” says Ann Ream, department director of community relations and foster care for Summit County Children Services. “Potential adoptive parents may feel that they do not have the skills to parent a teen, can’t afford them and/or may not be able to connect or bond with the teen.”

Foster parents also might feel teens have a different set of challenges and needs.

“Families may be hesitant to adopt a teen because they may not understand many of the ways teens cope with their own trauma due to experiences of abuse and neglect,” say Beverly Torres and Jacqueline Fletcher, senior managers at Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services.

Helping Teens Find Homes

Giving them an opportunity is the first step; however, it’s not easy, especially as more kids enter the foster care system.

According to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO)’s “2019 14th edition Factbook,” released in April, 31 percent of children in custody were ages 12-17 as of July 1, 2018, and 913 children aged out of the system.

Most agencies say parental substance abuse is one of the continuing factors for children who enter into foster care.

“We work very hard to find permanency for teens, no matter their age or how long they’ve been in custody,” Torres and Fletcher say. “We never give up on finding a permanent family for them. We have seen some progress in that regard, but we continue to work at it.”

The process for adoption is the same for all kids. In Ohio, a child who is 12 years or older must consent to their adoption.

“Many families pursue building their family through adoption, imagining parenting younger children,” says Betsie Norris, founder and executive director of the Adoption Network Cleveland. “They might not even realize that there are teens, and sibling groups, in need of families.”

Kern says there is a preconceived notion about teenagers, adding people have to keep an open mind.

“It’s really been a struggle for them to feel anyone roots for them,” she says.

“Teens need families and permanency, too,” Ream says. “Teens need parenting just as much as younger children.”

Teens have opportunities, as do all ages, to learn and grow when they have a place to call a fovever home.

“Through adoption from foster care, teens can gain stability, belonging and lasting connections that they are otherwise unlikely to enjoy,” Norris says. “Teens who are adopted rather than left to age out of foster care are more likely to finish high school, go to college and be more emotionally secure.”

As kids get older, they need to learn how to become an adult.

“Teens need guidance and support so they can best be prepared (for when) they are out on their own,” Torres and Fletcher say. “Adoption can provide that for a child.”

Kern suggests, when fostering or adopting a teen, to grow with them, respect who they are, and help them learn how to make the right decisions and be independent.

“They can teach you so much,” she says about the benefits of adopting teens. “You can watch them learn and grow, relearn how to trust and (get to know) what dreams they have.”

About the author

Angela Gartner is the editor at Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine. She previously served as editor for family and general interest magazines in the region. As a journalist, her features and columns have appeared in newspapers and other publications including The News-Herald, Sun Newspapers as well as the Chicago Tribune. She grew up in Northeast Ohio and is a mom of two boys. The whole family is busy each weekend with sports and finding new happenings around the region. She loves reading books, being a board member at the Cleveland Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and taking the family dog, a Scottish Terrier named Jagger, on his walks.

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