OKLAHOMA – There are nearly 300 Oklahoma teenagers who will live independently every year because they were never adopted from DHS custody.
So, what happens to them?
We show tiny faces every week of children looking for a place to call home. You’ve met many who are about to “age out” of the system.
“I think the one thing that I remember most is the sound of him gaveling out,” said Brondalyn Coleman, a former foster child who aged out of DHS custody. “He says ‘it seems like you’re doing your own thing. You’re good and you don’t need us’ and they closed my case.”
12 years under DHS custody and 40 different foster homes since the age of six, growing up in the state system was Brondalyn’s reality.
“Everything you know. Everything that you’re doing day-in and day-out is controlled and ran by child welfare, DHS and focused mostly on your social worker,” Brondalyn said.
That moment in the courtroom sent Brondalyn in a spiral of confusion.
“It was the craziest thing of my life. I was homeless for a week. I had a former contact that let me stay with her,” Brondalyn said.
Rebecca Hayes was 16 when she was taken away from her parents.
“My friend was over at my house when investigators came and when they made their decisions,” Hayes said. “Initially, it was a big shock. There are a lot of stigmas and stereotypes that you think of when you find out you’re going to go into foster care.”
Cheyeanne Fournier is a teen who was featured on A Place to Call Home one year ago, then 17, and about to age out of foster care.
“It’s one of those ‘you’ve got to figure it out now,’ and you don’t want to rush your future, but my future is my biggest fear. What am I going to come home to?” Cheyeanne said in 2016.
Every year, more than 20,000 children “age out” of DHS.
Nearly 300 of those children and teens are in Oklahoma.
25% percent of people in foster care youth will go to jail within three years of turning 18.
A 2016 national study shows more than 25% of those who aged out of the system had experienced homelessness by 21. But surprisingly, many don’t go to safe havens like the Homeless Alliance.
“Kids 17, 18, 19 typically avoid the traditional continuum of care for homeless people. Part of that is fear of being victimized,” Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance said.
And that means these children find more dangerous means of living on their own.
“Tend to be unsheltered, home loss, and that leads to all kinds of issues specifically with substance abuse and sex work,” Straughan said.
But there are several programs available to help children who never get adopted.
“I think a lot of people think that at 18 our kids are out on the streets. There’s nothing else for them,” Jennifer Boyer, employee with the Oklahoma Successful Adulthood Program within DHS said.
The Oklahoma Successful Adoption Program helps youth in DHS custody who are needing help as an adult.
Vouchers are available for up to $5,000 a year to help with college or technical school until they’re 21.
“With that, if we have a youth that is needing help with a rent payment that month, we can assist them with that. If they’re needing assistance with getting clothing for employment, we can assist them with that,” Boyer said.
Rebecca used the education and training voucher and several other DHS scholarships to pay for college. She went for free and now works full-time serving youth in the DHS voucher program department.
Brondalyn’s foster family stayed by her side and a network helped guide her to get a college degree.
At 27, she’s now a CASA employee, a nonprofit helping children under DHS custody go through the legal system.
“As traumatic as these experiences are, my goal is to make sure no one else has to encounter the same experience again,” Brondalyn said.
Just days before Cheyeanne turned 18, she met Harley. He is a single dad who had wanted to adopt for years.
“It’s really great to have family and have a connection to people where you actually feel like you belong,” Cheyeanne said.
But time ran out. Cheyeanne turned 18 early this year.
“Got her December 23rd and 13 days later she turned 18,” Harley Graves said.
So now Harley is doing something that’s not common in adoption and adopting Cheyeanne as an adult.
“Officially make her part of the family,” Harley said.
And this artist is going to college in the fall to study graphic design. She’ll still be able to use DHS scholarships, but now she’ll have a family to lean on.
“I knew that it would be really hard to be on my own and to be able to succeed in life, it helps a lot to have help and assistance along the way,” Cheyeanne said.
And she says finding Harley has changed her life.
“It’s very stressful and very scary when you don’t have a lot of people behind your back for it. Now it’s just like every day is great. I mean I just can’t explain it,” Cheyeanne said.
Cheyeanne, like many other children adopted, find a feeling of belonging after a parent’s failure sends them into an unstable world. There are sad realities and positive outcomes for the thousands of children who “age out” of DHS every year.
Each child is a different story of survival in what can be an unfair world.
“I don’t know. I think that wasn’t my story. My story wasn’t meant for me to just stay in one place like, the Lord really set me up to meet multiple people and gain different knowledge and tips and life skills from a variety of people,” Brondalyn said.
“You have to find your constant in life. Maybe your home or your family may not be constant, but for me that was school and art and you just have to find that thing that no matter what situation you’re in that’s the one thing that can give you true happiness and joy,” Cheyeanne said.
Click here for more information on the Oklahoma Successful Adulthood Program.