EVERY ADOLESCENT DESERVES A PARENT
My twenty-year old client, Leo,1 needed a parent—not a mentor, a big
brother, a best friend, or a tutor, although he would have welcomed those
as well. Leo was approaching the age when he would be released from
foster care and on his own, so we brainstormed about resources to help
with the transition. He mentioned that he was extremely close to a friend’s
father. “I know he cares about me a lot,” Leo told me. “Actually, he has
said he loves me. But he is still just someone else’s dad. If I mess up, he
feels bad, but it doesn’t really matter to him. His life is not tied to mine.”
In one stream of consciousness, Leo summarized why so many
“permanency plans” for adolescents are not permanent at all and why
adoptions of older children can be unstable. There is a difference between
a resource and a parent.2 Although a parent does not have to be biological
or adoptive,3 a parent must have a stake in the child.4
This article argues that all adolescents, indeed all human beings,
deserve at least one parent—one person who takes the good with the bad
because that person’s life is intertwined with the child’s. The child matters
to the parent in a way that a friend, nephew, or foster child may not. Child
welfare professionals must never lose sight of this principle when they
recruit, train, and maintain parents for adolescents. The parent can be
Copyright © 2012, Dale Margolin.
* Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Director, Family Law Clini c, University of
Richmond School of Law. The author would like to thank Elizabeth Harding for her
invaluable research assistance.
1 References to particular clients are derived from personal contact with the author.
2 See GARY R. ANDERSON, MICH. STATE UNIV., AGING OUT OF THE FOSTER CARE
SYSTEM: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE STATE OF MICHIG AN 32 (2003),
available at http://www.ippsr.msu.edu/publications/ARFosterCare.pdf (noting that various
outside supports and services cannot repl ace the benefit one receives from being part o f a
“nurturing family and community”).
3 See id. at 7 (“[T]he presence of caring adult s, be they formal or informal mentors,
former foster parents or biological relatives, provides . . . youth[s] with information,
encouragement, and the impetus to become self-sufficien t.”).
4 Adopting a Foster Child, PARENTS, http://www.parents.com/parenting/adoption/facts/
adopting-a-foster-child/ (last visited Oct. 15, 2011).
418 CAPITAL UNIVERSITY LAW REVIEW [40:417
someone who is already in the young person’s life or someone who has
been unable to parent in the past, but is now ready to secure that bond.
True parents are attainable for te enagers in foster ca re as long as child
welfare professionals remember what they are looking for and are steadfast
and creative in their efforts to find and nurture these relationships.
Section Two of this article details the issues that adolescents face when
they age out5 of the foster care system. Next, Section Three discusses the
obstacles adolescents face in attaining familial permanency. Section Four
examines the aspects of successful adoptions, including the recruitment
and decision making processes, in an effort to apply those principals to
developing and maintaining adolescent permanency. Finally, Section Five
concludes with the keys to successful adolescent permanency.
II. THE PLIGHT OF ADOLESCENTS WHO AGE OUT OF FOSTER CARE
In the last decade, federal and state governments have paid increasing
attention to older youth in foster care, in particular those who are
discharged to themselves.6 Under both federal and state legislation,
agencies are expected to favor reunifying teenagers with their biological
families or securing adoptions for them prior to release from foster care.7
In reality, the permanency goal for most young adults is “another
permanent planned living arrangement” (APPLA), previously known as
“independent living,” which essentially means that youth are released from
the system to live on their own.8
5 A young person “ages out” of foster care when the state ceases to retain legal custody
because of the youth’s age. The youth is disch arged from the system, and the state ends
financial support. The youth is released to his or herself, not to another custodian. In most
states, aging out occurs at age ei ghteen. See Aging Out, ST. N.M. CHILD. YOUTH & FAM .
DEP’T, http://www.cyfd.org/content/aging-out (last visited Mar. 23, 2012).
6 See, e.g., ANDERSON, supra note 2, at 23 (discu ssing the John H. Chafee Foster Care
Independence Program, a federal law providing states with funding to establish programs
that assist former foster care recipients between ag es nineteen and twenty-one in making the
transition from adolescence to adulthood and in achieving self-sufficiency).
7 See 42 U.S.C. § 671(a)(15)(B) (2006); 42 U.S.C. § 675(1)(E) (2006); LaShanda
Taylor, Resurrecting Parents of Legal Orphans: Un-Terminating Parental Rights, 17 VA. J.
SOC. POL’Y & L. 318, 322–24 (2010).
8 See Sarah Gerstenzang, Mama S & Papa M: Making APPLAs Work for Youth,
FOSTERING FAMILIES TODAY, May/June 2010, at 56, available at http://nysccc.org/wp-
content/uploads/APPLA.pdf; PAT O’BRIEN, YOUTH HOMELESSNESS AND THE LACK O F
ADOPTIVE AND OTHER PERMANENT PARENTAL PLANNING FOR TEENS IN FOSTER CARE:
PREVENTING HOMELESSNESS THROUG H PARENTING 2, available at http://www.judiciary.