Armando Hernandez was just a child when he and his siblings searched their home for alcohol their mother stashed. And when they found it, they poured it down the drain and threw the bottles out.
It was the beginning of a childhood marred by his mother’s alcoholism, a father in and out of the picture, years of bouncing from one foster family to another and the weighty responsibility of caring for his younger siblings — who experienced the same disappointments he did each day.
“Mom gave us empty promises, and it was one let down after another,” he said.
Hernandez, now 20, is one of hundreds of young adults in South Dakota, and thousands across America, who have spent their teenage years in foster care, not been adopted, and have aged out of the system. Despite private local efforts as well as state and federal resources aimed at helping them transition into adulthood, without the traditional support of a family, statistics show that the odds are stacked against them.
According to the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Program, foster children who are not adopted have poorer educational outcomes, only 61 percent are employed, 33 percent will end up homeless, and they are reported to have more mental health issues.
Children who have been in the foster care system and were adopted are more likely to complete high school and attend college, more likely to be employed and earn an adequate income, and less likely to become teen parents.
According to the state Department of Social Services, each month there are about 1,000 children and teenagers in foster care in South Dakota, which includes public, private and tribal agencies. As of May, 763 were in family foster care. During the past year, 46 aged out of the system.
Nationwide, an estimated 30,000 teenagers age out of the foster care system each year. According to the Child Welfare League of America, 25 percent become homeless, 56 percent are unemployed, and 27 percent of male children end up in jail.
Hernandez is betting he can beat the odds.
“Sometimes I wish I had gotten adopted,” he said. “… Sometimes I think that it would have made it easier. I wouldn’t have had to grow up so fast.”
Now that he’s out on his own, his thoughts have changed.
“Now, I’m glad I’m here.”
Hernandez has been in so many foster care homes, they have started to blur together.
“I’ve moved to so many places, it doesn’t even matter where I go,” he said.
His father was arrested for selling drugs and deported to Mexico when Hernandez was little and his mother suffered from a debilitating disease, alcoholism and depression.
He is the third oldest of four children, and one bright spot of his childhood was the birth of his sister Angel. Her childhood though, wasn’t fair either, he said.
“She had to grow up so fast,” he said. “She wasn’t able to have a proper childhood.”
Their mother didn’t have a job and collected money from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
“Sometimes, she would wake up and leave all day,” he said.
She was arrested often, and Hernandez remembers hiding in the house so social services representatives wouldn’t take them from the home while she was gone.
“They would send us to a shelter when she got arrested,” he said.
Their house was a mess – cockroaches, no clean clothes and little food.
But his experiences in foster care were sometimes just as confusing, he said. One of the families treated them well, took them boating and cooked them healthy meals. But it wasn’t permanent, and that was always in the back of his mind.
“We didn’t know what to think,” he said. “We would sit down for meals, and I didn’t understand. … We tried not to get comfortable. We wouldn’t let ourselves get attached.”
The next 10 years of his life were spent mostly in foster care with multiple families. His mother’s health deteriorated and she eventually died when he was 16.
“Her dying was pretty bad for us,” he said. “ … We felt alone.”
One of the foster families kept Hernandez and his sister for six years.
“We let our guard down and opened up to them,” he said. “It was a shock when we had to leave.”
Some of the families, he said, probably didn’t adopt them because they continued to foster other children, had their own children, or had marital problems.
“Who’s going to take a 17-year-old boy?” he said.
It’s no secret that teenagers come with a lot of challenges, said Daniele Dosche, who fostered three children with her husband, Curt, before adopting them.
“These are kids with attention issues, a lot of abuse, of course they will have behavior issues,” she said. “You would worry if they didn’t.”
Curt agreed and said he can understand the hesitation of foster families to foster, or adopt teens.
“They’re more verbal; they’re independent thinkers,” he said. “They can run. It’s complicated. It’s work.”
It is common for foster families to want to foster children younger than their own because of a concern about safety issues. During a training course required for foster parents, the couple remembers the vivid warnings about teens.
“They could steal cars, start fires, commit violence against your pets,” Daniele said. “They want you to go in with your eyes wide open.”
Seventeen-year-old Marissa Salmon and her twin sister, Alyssa, were taken out of their home last year and put in foster care before living with a relative for almost a year. Their two young siblings were also taken out of the home.
The experience was painful, enough that they will avoid the foster system at all costs. The family they stayed with initially had alarms on the doors, Marissa said. The first night, their younger brother had a nightmare and woke up screaming.
“We asked and begged if he could sleep with us,” Marissa said. “She said no.”
The family also took their phones, she said.
“It was the worst thing I could ever imagine,” Alyssa said. “My little brother was so scared.
“I didn’t sleep at all.”
In some cases, foster kids have reportedly been taken from alcoholic homes, only to be placed in alcoholic or abusive foster homes.
Helen Red Feather, 17, has been in foster care three times. She was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by her mother, alongside five siblings. She was taken into foster care and lived with relatives for the first time at the age of 8. When she was 10, she was removed again after her mother, deeply depressed and drinking, tried to commit suicide. (Her mother is now in rehabilitation in Texas.)
Red Feather and her little sister went to live with a foster family in Belle Fourche.
“Every time we got taken away, we went there,” she said. The mother was nice at first, she said, but many of her memories of the home aren’t good.
“The house was always cold; she didn’t want to run up the bill,” Red Feather said.
The mother was also on a diet and had the children in her home follow the same strict eating schedule she was on — servings were doled out by the size of the palm of your hand. Red Feather remembers that no snacks were allowed. She remembers being hungry.
She also remembers alcohol.
“She always had a box of wine,” Red Feather said.
Red Feather said the mother would go out to have drinks with her friends, and she stayed home to babysit her sister and three other foster children.
Red Feather said she saw firsthand that it is more difficult to get adopted as a teen. While in foster care, she was always placed in a home with her younger sister and was told by one of her foster mothers that she was the only teenager that she would foster.
“They took me in because they didn’t want to split us up,” she said.
It was OK, Red Feather said. She wasn’t looking for permanency.
“I never wanted to get adopted. I always wanted to go back to my mom,” she said.
Hernandez said he stayed out of trouble, but was never adopted. He found an escape in school, sports and activities.
“We were so numb,” he said, and the one area where he could control his life was in his success at academics and extracurricular activities.
He eventually got connected with Stepping Stones in Rapid City, a program, sponsored by Lutheran Social Services that helps the students get on their feet when they find themselves without a home or a foster home.
Students can be in the program from ages 16 to 20, said Sheila Johnson, Stepping Stones coordinator.
“We help them find employment and help them prepare for post-secondary education or the military,” she said.
They also help the teens apply for grants for school and sign up for the state’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The students are responsible for $187 a month in rent. The program provides youth who are in need of independent living skills a safe environment to learn those skills, Johnson said.
It’s also about helping them achieve goals, she added.
“They make a plan, and they come up with their dream,” she said.