May is National Foster Care Awareness and The Teen Toolbox will dedicate our blog as a platform for teen males in the foster care system to share their stories of triumph and success.
Ronald Hennig is focused, motivated, and wise beyond his years. He is a soon to-be 18 year old male in the United States foster care system in the state of New Jersey. Ronald is a strong advocate for older youth in the system. He is especially passionate about raising awareness about the challenges that teen males in the foster care system face. In fact, Ronald agreed to be featured on The Teen Toolbox blog because he believes that teen males in foster care are an especially neglected population. I agree.
Ronald was adopted at age 5 and removed from his adoptive parent’s home and placed in the foster care system at age 12. In the last five years he has been in practically every type of placement possible – residential treatment center, diagnostic center, homeless shelter, foster home, and therapeutic home. Because he has learned to advocate for himself, Ronald even resided in one of the three group homes solely for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth in the country for a time. By challenging the unfair policies in the places where he has lived and treating everyone with the maximum amount of respect, Ronald has gained the upper hand and is currently in control of his life and living in an independent living arrangement. Ronald was moved over 10 times in a six year period but knows other youth who moved around much more frequently. He understands that there is no benefit to foster youth in moving constantly. He is a proponent of limiting or avoiding disruptions to allow youth to build solid connections. With support, he has managed to live in the same town and attend the same school for the last three years.
Ronald is very selective about who he shares his personal information with. Ronald has found that when some people learn that he is in the foster care system they pity him instead of empathizing with him. When he realized that he was being treated as if he were ignorant or incapable of making decisions on his own behalf, he made it his mission to prove otherwise. He became an honors student and began to volunteer for a charity dedicated to granting wishes for foster children. He has served as a volunteer with One Simple Wish for three years in the Wish Granting Program. He also speaks at events and shares his wisdom with clients of the organization who visit the office.
In New Jersey youth can exit the foster care system at 18. The state organization that manages foster care has an optional program that allows youth who remain in care until age 21 to receive a weekly independent living subsidy and retain state Medicaid. Youth also receive monetary assistance toward higher education costs. Ronald believes that many youth choose to age out of the system because of the requirements that are placed on them even though they are legally adults. To encourage better long-term outcomes, Ronald believes that independent living skills training should be mandatory for all youth between the ages of 16 and 20 years old before they face the world on their own.
Supporting Teen Males
Neither Ronald nor I have encountered many programs specifically tailored to addressing the needs of teen males in foster care. He knows that despite assumptions, teen males are not helpless, lazy, or “needy”. They want to make a beneficial contribution. Ronald says that teen males are often frustrated, don’t know what to do to change their situation and lack money and needed supplies, but need to feel like they are achieving something. According to Ronald, nothing is more empowering than feeling needed. Ronald found his sense of achievement through academic and social success but he is well aware that many teens (in general) struggle in this area. He recommends that teen males start a business or work or intern in a professional setting where they can gain the sense of personal accomplishment that a foster family or an unsuccessful mentoring relationship cannot provide. Teen males can earn money and feel needed while they contribute to a team effort. Working in a professional setting also allows youth to gain valuable experience and encourages stability as youth who are employed are less likely to be moved.
Ronald is mentored by a foster parent and the Director of One Simple Wish. He is well aware that matching youth in foster care with appropriate mentors can be challenging because of frequent moving or acceptance of unqualified mentors, but he strongly believes in mentorship. He believes that we should “immerse youth in their future” by connecting them with someone who has real world experience in the field that the youth is currently interested in. These arrangements help youth acquire marketable skills and can lead to valuable life-long relationships.
Ronald’s life is an example of the impact that having a professional mentor can have on a young person’s self-image and ultimately their success. He feels that strong support systems inspire youth to seek out resources and learn their rights. He wants people to understand that many of the perceptions about youth in care are inaccurate and he is working to eliminate stigma and negative stereotypes.