Manuel Padilla is a foster parent to four teenagers.
“It’s not always hunky-dory, that’s for sure," Padilla said. "It comes with its good and its bad just like anybody else’s family.”
Normally, the four teens would be in the kitchen helping. He says they’re very self-sufficient. However, he says they can’t be on camera.
“It’s a safety thing," Padilla said. "It’s to keep them safe. It’s to make sure that people from their past [don't] get to know where they’re at.”
Padilla says he felt inspired to take on foster kids because he was one himself, in and out of homes since he was 3 years old.
He says he chooses to care for teenagers so he can give them a safe space to be their authentic selves. Two of the teens are in the LGBTQ community, and so is he. He wants to give them the home he never had.
“When I was 16 through 22, I struggled," Padilla recalled. "I struggled the most that I could have ever imagined. I mean, not knowing what credit was, the stability of a job and what it really meant, or you know, to survive in life, and so that’s where I wanted to make the biggest impact.”
When teenagers age out of foster care without a great support system, Minna Castillo Cohen says becoming independent is a struggle. Castillo Cohen is the director of the office of children, youth, and families at the Colorado Department of Human Services.
“If you’ve looked at the statistics nationally, young people who leave our systems without proper transition plans tend to have poor outcomes both in education as well as workforce," Castillo Cohen said. "They also find themselves homeless more than young people who had more intact families that had not been in our systems.”
Castillo Cohen says teens who aged out of the system last year were pushed into a pandemic world where stability was extra difficult to achieve. However, a federal pandemic stimulus bill passed last December made it possible for those young adults to return to the system for help.
“If a young person left during the pandemic, and they were let’s say 18 years of age, and they’ve tried to make it on their own and because of the pandemic were unable to, they would be able to contact the county that they live in and ask for additional services so that they could come back into foster care and reap the benefits of those services," explained Castillo Cohen.
Those services include independent living plans, food benefits, and workforce development. Although this federal help won’t last forever, Castillo Cohen says more and more states are making reentry for foster kids possible.
According to Juvenile Law Center, a non-profit, public interest law firm for children in the U.S., 38 states including D.C. currently allow for reentry.
If enough foster parents are able to establish a strong connection with teens before they age out of the system, Padilla says parents will see the progress their foster kids are able to make toward independence.
“They went from being in trouble--court cases and stuff like that--to being on softball teams, basketball teams, doing great in school,” Padilla said.
He says the experience is very rewarding and so worth it.
“I want to make sure that I can help them and prepare them to go out into the world before the world takes over them,” Padilla said.