Aging out: DHS teens often face adulthood alone
BY JARREL WADE World Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
2/20/13 at 8:09 AM
Trevor Laird neared his 18th birthday with plans to leave his foster parents' home and move in with his brothers - opting to "age out" of DHS custody without a strong family base under him.
Jeff and Stephanie Warneke of Bartlesville, his foster parents since August, had asked him whether he wanted to be adopted into their family, but he graciously refused, preferring to enter adulthood with his older brothers, whom he considers his best friends.
But on Nov. 27 - just shy of Laird's 18th birthday on Jan. 3 - tragedy struck him in the form of a Chevrolet pickup that came over a hill as he crossed the street with no crosswalk.
"I turned around (in the street) when my brother yelled my name," he said.
The pickup struck Laird and sent him flying. He went 10 feet in the air before landing on his head.
Laird had multiple injuries, including a shattered leg bone that severed his femoral artery, and was flown to a Tulsa hospital. He spent eight days in the hospital, and doctors performed surgery to repair his artery and to insert several pins and a metal rod in his leg.
Once he was home and facing months of physical therapy, Stephanie and Jeff Warneke sat down with Laird to discuss his plans.
They wouldn't abandon him after he turned 18. But did he still want to take care of himself, working through DHS programs on his own to finish school and prepare for adulthood? Or did he want to become their son?
According to DHS, 312 children exited DHS custody last year because they reached the age of 18. Only 36 who were 16 or older left DHS custody because they had been adopted, and 39 in that age group left for a guardianship.
When children age out of DHS custody, they take what they've learned from their foster families or shelter programs into adulthood.
DHS programs help them until they reach 18 or later if they are working with DHS programs that continue assistance into their 20s.
Cathy Connelly, Oklahoma DHS coordinator for the Independent Living Program, said her department starts reaching out to kids in state custody at age 16 to make sure they are on the right path to living on their own.
After they're 18, programs she administers help them continue their education or get on their feet with things such as housing and financial education.
"We are supposed to focus on supporting the youths' effort to achieve self-sufficiency," Connelly said. "They need help with education. They need help with employment. They need help with how to avoid substance abuse."
The Independent Living Program gets federal funding as a result of a national effort in the 1990s to provide continuing care for adults after they leave DHS custody, she said.
According to a 2012 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a national database is being developed to track homelessness among adults who age out of state custody.
"What we do know about the prevalence of homelessness during the transition to adulthood comes from research published over the past two decades," the report indicates. "These studies have consistently found a relatively high rate of homelessness among young people who aged out of foster care."
The estimates vary from state to state and study to study, ranging from a low of 11 percent to a high of 36 percent, according to the "Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care" report.
Thomas Patten, 20, aged out of DHS custody but said he wasn't prepared to leave the program.
"I'm stuck," he said. "I was in foster care, and I kind of just fell through the cracks."
Now living in Virginia, Patten said he went through some DHS independent living programs after he turned 18, including enrolling in Job Corps in Indiahoma after leaving the Tulsa Boys Home.
But he dropped out before finishing the program and later felt abandoned by DHS, he said. So he looked for jobs with little education and nothing to fall back on.
"I know what my problem is," he said. "I'm not just a kid in DHS anymore. I'm a grown man, barely. ... I know what the issue is, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it."
Patten acknowledged that he should have stuck with the Job Corps, but it just became something he didn't want to continue, he said.
Without a steady job or education program, he said he qualified for fewer of the available programs and couldn't meet with a caseworker to get more help because he didn't own a car.
Connelly said programs are available to help people like Patten but that work on their part is required to receive the help.
Before they ever get to the "aging out" step, the agency's goal is to have more children adopted into families so they don't need to rely as much on continued DHS support, she said.
"That's why we keep emphasizing permanent connection," Connelly said. "It's not about the money. It's about somebody giving you good advice and care and always being there for you."
Any child who is adopted or enters a legal guardianship at age 16 or later is still eligible for Independent Living Program support, she said.
Laird wasn't one of the 36 Oklahoma children who were 16 or older to be adopted last year, but he did become part of this year's statistic.
On Jan. 2, one day before his 18th birthday, the court finalized an emergency petition to have him adopted into the Warneke family.
He got to keep his last name, which was one of his hesitations about being adopted.
"About Dec. 18, he decided he wanted to be adopted, and we filed the petition the next day," Stephanie Warneke said.
Laird said he still wants to live with his brothers some day, but for now, he plans to finish high school in the Warneke household and go to college.
"I really like this family, and I can live a lot more comfortably," he said.
Stephanie Warneke said she pushed for the adoption because Laird added something important to a family of 10 - which includes more adopted children.
Also, she can care for Laird as he makes up weeks of missed school and does daily physical therapy for his leg.
"Every child that we add to our family has special things they bring," Warneke said. "We haven't found it challenging like a lot of people stereotypically find it."
Aging out of DHS
Source: Oklahoma DHS and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- 312 aged out of Oklahoma DHS in 2012
- In the same year, 36 children 16 or older were adopted
- 39 more left DHS custody to guardianships
- In 2010, about 28,000 children nationally aged out of state custody
For more information
To find out more about adoption or foster care services, go to OKDHS.org or call the Foster Care Hot Line at 1-800-376-9729.
Original Print Headline: A leg to stand on
Jarrel Wade 918-581-8367
Trevor Laird (left) helps his sister, Davi, collect her shoe before he settles into a recliner at their home in Bartlesville on Monday. Laird, recovering from injuries suffered when he was hit by a truck, was adopted by his foster parents shortly before he turned 18. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
Jeff Warneke talks about adopting his son Trevor Laird (right) at their home in Bartlesville. The Warnekes needed an emergency petition to adopt Laird on Jan. 2, a day before he turned 18. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World
Trevor Laird (top left), eats dinner with his adoptive siblings Jadon Warneke, Lupe Warneke, Grace Warneke (right) and Davi Warneke (bottom) at their home in Bartlesville. Laird became the 10th member of the Warneke family when he was adopted last month. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World