Emerging Adults as Foster Parents

In New Jersey, you can be a foster parent before you’re able to buy a cigarette. The minimum age to be buy cigarettes–19; the minimum age to be a foster parent–18.

In Alabama, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, and New Jersey, you can be a foster parent before being able to purchase alcohol.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway, in its document, The Home Study Requirements for Prospective Foster Parents (2010) reports that, “Adults of any profession and background may apply to be foster parents. In approximately 35 States and the District of Columbia, the foster parent applicants must be at least age 21. 1 In four States, the applicant must be at least age 18. 2 In Alabama and Nebraska, the parent must be at least age 19 (p.2).”

Foster parents are the primary care providers for the vast majority of children in state custody. While acknowledging that available foster placements have not kept pace with demand, is there any hesitation in tapping young adults to be foster parents?

The status of “emerging adulthood,” identified as late teenage to mid-twenties, is described as follows: “Having left the dependency of childhood and adolescence, and having not yet entered the enduring responsibilities that are normative in adulthood, emerging adults often explore a variety of possible life directions in love, work, and worldviews. Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course (p. 469).” 3 This characterization of emerging adults as self-focused and feeling ‘in-between’ is supported by data: “Often emerging adults are struggling with big identity questions about who they are and how they fit into the world. Their lives are in flux as they try to make their way toward building a foundation for adulthood. (p. 6)” 4

As much training, support, and monitoring as an agency is willing and able to provide, are emerging adults generally able to supply the safety, educational, mental health, and attachment needs of a foster child? Because foster children remain in the legal custody of the state this question is particularly compelling for departments of human services.

Mick Polowy, one of the original architects of the Parent Resource for Information, Development and Education (PRIDE) model family assessment component, notes that the focus is on a prospective parent’s ability and willingness to fulfill the following five competency categories:

• protecting and nurturing children;
• meeting children’s developmental needs and addressing developmental delays;
• supporting relationships between children and their families;
• connecting children to safe, nurturing relationships intended to last a lifetime; and,
• working as a member of a professional team.

These competencies drive the entire mutual assessment, selection, preparation, support, and development process of resource families. Age is not the critical requirement.

Meredith Takahashi, an attorney in Texas, recalls “numerous occasions where I fought for certification of young adults who wanted to take on the job of parenting their younger siblings or extended family members in an effort to keep their families together—and they did a wonderful job. Though nervous, in time, I felt not only confident in those foster parents, but grateful for their strength and perseverance.”

This sentiment is echoed by Karyn Purvis, Director of the Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University: “With purposeful intention and preparation, young, teachable adults can become an invaluable resource as foster parents. They become the foundation for a lifetime of service for vulnerable children in the foster care system. My personal experiences as a foster mother began when I was 20.”

New Jersey attorney Bari Z. Weinberger sums up the challenge: “Age is only one of many factors. Also taken into consideration are qualifications such as the individual’s ability to provide a safe home environment, their willingness and ability to complete foster parent training, and their successful completion of a thorough home study.”

Are emerging adults too young to become foster parents? Like many yes/no questions this is one which cannot be answered by just one of two answers. In the final analysis, it depends on the particular applicant.

1 The word approximately is used to stress the fact that States frequently change their laws. This information is current through October 2010. The States that require foster care applicants to be at least age 21 are Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
2 Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, and New Jersey.
3 Arnett, J.J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of adulthood from the late teen through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-480.
4 Arnett, J.J. (2012). The Clark University poll of emerging adults. Available here.

Daniel Pollack, MSSA (MSW), JD is Professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, New York City, and is a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases. E-mail: dpollack@yu.edu; 212-960-0836. This article originally appeared in Policy & Practice, 72(1), 26‑27.

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