Emancipation Means Homelessness and Pat O'Brien is Doing Something

In this country tens of thousands of young people between the ages of 18 and 21 are discharged from the foster care system, discharged to no one but themselves. Many of them will become homeless. Half the homeless population is made up of foster care dischargees. In a nutshell, emancipation does not work.

Because he worked with this population and realized the problem, Pat O’Brien founded “You Gotta Believe!,” an agency devoted exclusively to getting older children into permanent homes. “ Unconditional commitment is the only love that matters to teens,” says Pat.

“Teens need at least one adult who will unconditionally commit to and claim the teen as their own. Anything less is an artificial relationship. Teenagers need unconditional commitment before anything else constructive can follow.”

While potential adoptive parents seek young children, many will recoil at the thought of adopting an older child or a teen. For this reason some agencies view children over age 10 as virtually unadoptable.

Age 10 is O’Brien’s starting point. Who adopts teenagers? Replies Pat: “Any and all kinds of people who, after a good preparation experience, are willing to unconditionally commit themselves to a child no matter what behavior that child might ultimately exhibit.”

In foster care, problem behavior often gets the foster teen returned to the department or agency. “I knew a teen who got kicked out of two houses: one house because he flushed the toilet at night and the other house because he did not flush the toilet at night.”

Every such deal that does not work out, every return to the agency, repeats the teens’ previous experience of rejection. “We are ‘re-everythinging’ them,” says O’Brien. “We are re-abusing, re-abandoning, re-hurting, re-traumatizing, re-victimizing, re-rejecting, and re-neglecting the child.”

“We have to stop accepting that teenagers in particular are not worthy of permanency. We have to continue to recruit only unconditionally committed permanent families for every teen in our care who will be discharged to no one.”

O’Brien does not claim that adopting teens is without problems. He is not naive. However, he is quick to note that when a biological child misbehaves – commits a crime or does drugs - the child does not lose his parent because he made a mistake. The parents stand by him. The same must be true for all children. As one adoptive mother noted candidly during a particularly stressful time with her teenage daughter, “It’s a good thing we adopted her. Otherwise we’d be tempted to give her back.” Pat O’Brien is working to see that no teens are returned.