Desiree’s desire runs deep: A teenager’s yearning for a permanent family rises to the surface
With enough scuba gear attached to her back to nearly outweigh her slender frame, 17-year-old Desiree Lewis explored the natural wonders of the underwater theater off Key Largo, Fla., mindful of the number one rule of diving.
Never venture out alone.
“Trust your buddy and your equipment,” said Desiree, recalling the lessons she learned. “If you are in the dark under water, you don’t want your buddy to leave you. If you get tangled up or something, you’re going to need your buddy to help you out because if you try to untangle yourself, you get all messed up.”
Desiree’s dive was the culmination of a scuba certification program designed to help older youth in foster care develop the self-confidence they need – and often lack. It teaches them not only about life below water, but also above it. When dropped into choppy seas, support from others is necessary to stay safe and be successful.
Six older youth in foster care completed the program last year through Family Support Services of North Florida, a nonprofit agency that provides child welfare services in the Jacksonville area through a contract with the state of Florida. The program is made possible through a Title IV-E waiver, which has given Florida more flexibility to spend federal child welfare dollars on services other than foster care – such as those aimed at preventing child maltreatment and moving older youth in foster care into permanent homes.
Older youth in foster care need the same things as infants, toddlers and adolescents in the system – safe and loving families that will support them now and into adulthood. They need the stability and security of a permanent family. But they also need programs and approaches recognizing that older youth in foster care face different challenges.
Despite an increase in the number of adoptions over the past decade, youth between the ages of 11 and 17 account for only 17 percent of all adoptions while constituting more than 35 percent of those waiting to be adopted, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Even as progress has been made to reduce the overall number of children in foster care, the number of youth aging out of the system without having secured a permanent family has increased from 17,000 in 1998 to close to 30,000 in 2010. If that trend holds, more than 400,000 young people could age out of foster care over the next 10 years.