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The Challenges Of Aging Out

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Sam Queen celebrates his 20th birthday. He will age out of the foster care system when he turns 21.
Jessica Gould
Sam Queen celebrates his 20th birthday. He will age out of the foster care system when he turns 21.

It's Sam Queen's 20th birthday, and he's celebrating with the people he's come to consider family: his foster mother Ma Betty, his social worker, his advocates and aides.

Everyone is smiling as Sam slices into some sugary cinnamon cake. But there's something bittersweet about this birthday. It's Sam's last before he ages out of the foster care system next year.

"My mother, she never talked much," he says. "My father, I never met him before. They have a mental illness. It's called schizophrenia. I got taken away from them when I was 5 years old."

Since then, he's lived in eight foster homes, and he's weathered some difficult experiences.

"When I was 9 years old, I got beaten by my foster mother when I used to live in Baltimore," he says. "They had to take me out of her home. I was four months from adoption when that happened."

But he says most of his homes have been happy ones. He's especially loved living with Ma Betty and her two small children on a quiet street in Cheltenham, Md.

"She's done a lot for me," he says.

For example, with help from government funding, she built a ramp onto her porch. Then she renovated his bedroom and bathroom to accommodate his wheelchair. You see, being in foster care isn't the only challenge Sam faces. He was born with cerebral palsy. He can't move his legs, and has only limited use of his arms and hands. Sam gets around with the help of a motorized wheelchair. And now that he's graduated from high school, he spends most of his days commuting between the bedroom, kitchen and porch.

Of course, when Sam does leave the house, he uses Metro Access, the transit service for people with disabilities. But he says waiting for the bus takes a while, and it costs money each way. So, when his foster family goes out to the mall, movies or a restaurant, he usually stays home.

"The kids see it a lot," he says. "They go with Ma Betty and they look at my room like, 'Why can't Sammy go out?'"

Meanwhile, Sam says he's worried about what will happen when he moves to an apartment and starts classes at Prince George's Community college next year.

"What I'm looking for is to get me a wheelchair van so I can start going places, going to the mall, going to Walmart, even the movies," he says. "With me going to PG in the fall, I'm going to have to rely on them a lot."

Sam's court-appointed advocate Liza Bush says his situation underscores the difficulties many kids with disabilities face as they age out of the foster care system.

"All over the country, kids turn 21 and everything goes away, all the assistance they have," says Bush. "Sam is a great example of someone who has even more things to get in place. It's not just an apartment, it's finding an apartment that meets his needs."

Bush and a team of advocates are working with Sam to help him make the transition. But there are limits to what they can provide. So, earlier this spring, the New Jersey-based charity One Simple Wish started a campaign to help Sam buy a wheelchair-accessible van for his nurse to drive. With only a few hundred dollars raised toward a $35,000 goal, he's got a long way to go. But he isn't about to give up.

"If I'm able to get this car, it would be a big break for me," he says.

And he's got other plans. After he graduates, Sam wants to be a sports broadcaster, or maybe a DJ. Then, he says, he hopes to share his success with someone he loves.

"Getting married one day," he says. "I know there's going to be guys out there that are going to look at me funny because my wife isn't handicapped and I am. I haven't let that stop me. I haven't let that stop me at all."


[Music: "Move On Up" by St. Germain on Saint-Germain des Pres Cafe: the Finest Electro-Jazz Compilation/Paris]

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