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When foster care is mentioned, what comes to mind is an image of an innocent baby or toddler, or maybe even a sad-looking school-age child. Fewer folks, however, are aware that teenagers enter foster care. Yet, approximately 40% of children and youth in foster care on average in Delaware are ages 13-18. This percentage is consistent with national figures.

Older youth come into foster care for many of the same reasons that the younger children do: abuse, neglect and/or dependency in their home. Such concerns can be reported to the child protection officials at the Division of Family Services (DFS) by teachers, school nurses or staff, neighbors, relatives, caring friends or the youths themselves.

Some of the reasons include:

* Just like younger children, teens can be subjected to undue physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse by their caregiver.

* A caregiver may fail to protect their teenage child from sexual abuse or exploitation, either because they disbelieve the youth or because the caregiver is dependent on the alleged abuser.

* Teens’ families can become serially homeless and when the situation continues after numerous motel vouchers have expired, there may be no other safe place for a teen to reside other than foster care.

* As reported in the press, the ongoing drug epidemic has robbed many children of their caregivers. When parents’ addictions prevent them from being responsible parents and there are no grandparents or other family members to step in, foster homes may be the only option.

* Similarly, the incarceration of sole caregivers may lead to foster care for their offspring.

* When an elderly grandparent or relative who has been the sole caregiver for a teen passes away, there may be no one else to offer care.

* Sometimes, a child enters foster care before the teenage years but has suffered such significant trauma that their lingering mental health issues prevent them from being adopted and they are still in foster care after they turn 13.

* There are times when the parent/teen conflict becomes so severe that the parent refuses to let the youth remain in the home. While resources are employed to address the disrupting issues, occasionally the rift is irreparable.

* More recently, with youth being more open about their sexual identity, some teens who see themselves as gay, lesbian, or transsexual enter foster care after being rejected by their families.

Many teens who are or have been in foster care are very embarrassed by their circumstances, even though it is not their fault. This is one reason why we have to be very careful to consider confidentiality and to understand their hesitancy talking about their background when we interact with youth in our ILYA programs.