Navigating the teen years is hard enough with a loving family, a familiar school and close friends.
Imagine not only losing your family, but then having to switch schools and leave friends when you have to move to a foster home outside your school district.
That is the situation facing more than 100 Bucks County children, many of them teens, who are taken into the county's social service system. And that is why Roxanne Watkins-Hall is working so hard to recruit new foster families.
Of the 370 young people in the custody of the Bucks County Children & Youth Social Services Agency, one-third of them must go to homes outside of Bucks, county social workers said.
Watkins-Hall, the county's foster parent-volunteer recruiter, is trying to reverse that trend.
Teens who are unable to remain with their parents do best when placed in a family home, rather than a group or institutional setting, according to county social workers. By staying in their own community, teens can keep in contact with family and friends, and maybe even continue attending their same school.
Leah Smith has raised almost 10 children, and is now is fostering two sisters, ages 18 and 17. Smith, who lives in Lower Southampton, said being a foster parent is not much different than raising biological children.
"When it comes down to it, they’re all the same. Girls are girls. They all go through the same things," said Smith, who has been fostering for Bucks County for about a year and a half and about seven years before that in Philadelphia.
One thing that is different, though, is the sense of urgency that comes with teenagers.
Many in the foster care system have come from dysfunctional families and were never taught even basic living skills, Smith said. But children must leave the foster care system at age 18, at which point, they're pretty much on their own.
That doesn't leave much time to help them prepare for adulthood, Smith said.
"I think teenagers need more help than the younger ones," she said. "When you get them at 16 or 17, you only have two years to prepare them for everything."
There is so much that they haven’t learned from their families, Smith said, from managing money to applying for college, to cooking for themselves and cleaning up.
"I work more on getting them ready and teaching them to be self sufficient - what a checking account is, how to drive, that you must have car insurance," Smith said. "When they run a red light and go 'Oops,' you go 'Noooo. There’s no oops in driving.'"
Foster parents don't have to do it all on their own, though, Smith said. Bucks County Children & Youth offers financial support, medical assistance and professional support from caseworkers, as well as training and foster parent "buddies" and mentors.
Smith said the rewards come from seeing the children blossom, such as her oldest daughter, who is 22 and applying to Yale for law school.
"I’m just so proud of her. She’s an example of no matter what or where you come from, if it’s in you, you can do anything with your life," Smith said. "They just need a little help in between."
Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent, particularly for teens, is urged to attend an information session hosted by Children & Youth. Registration is welcome but not necessary for the following sessions:
- Doylestown Library, 150 S. Pine Street, Doylestown, 18901 6:30pm-7:30pm: 11/21, 12/19
- Quakertown Library, 401 W. Mill Street, Quakertown, 18951 6:30pm-7:30pm: 11/14, 12/12
- Bensalem Library, 3700 Hulmeville Road, Bensalem, 19020 6:30pm-7:30pm: 10/23, 11/27
- Langhorne Library (Pennwood Branch), 301 S. Pine Street, Langhorne, 19047 6:30pm-7:30pm: 11/26
- Grundy Memorial Library, 680 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 19007 6:30pm-7:30pm: 11/20, 12/11
- Yardley – Makefield Library 1080 Edgewood Road, Yardley, 19067 6:30-7:30pm: 11/13, 12/18
For more information, contact Bucks County Children and Youth at 215-348-6997.