Many people, and especially those who have adopted or are considering adopting an older child, ask what happens to the children who"age out." By that they mean children in China who at 14 are no longer eligible to be adopted; they have lost forever their chance to become part of a family. Although there is no one answer and opportunities vary greatly from orphanage to orphanage and also based on level and type of disability, I have outlined some of the more common scenarios for young people without the benefit of NGO support.
What Does It Mean to Age Out?
In the past there was a perception that at 14 years old orphans were turned out on to the streets to fend for themselves. While that is one possibility, and has most certainly happened to some young people, in my experience that is one of the least likely possibilities. So that's the good news. Unfortunately many of the other options are not too much better.
Life in the Welfare Center
Orphans who are not attending school are moved to the welfare center for the disabled and aged when they are 14 to 16 years old. There is often a dormitory or hostel-style accommodation for them where they can sleep and take meals. Facilities are very basic in many ways, but there is free access to TV and the internet. Violent movies and pornography are easily available, and online gambling is a favorite entertainment. Sexual activity, consensual and forced, between young people and older predators in the welfare center is common. Severely disabled children and adults are subject to abuse and neglect. Basically it is a life without purpose or hope.
Youth with minor disabilities may be put to work either inside the orphanage/welfare center or with individuals or businesses in the community. In some ways this can be positive as they learn job skills and have productive ways to spend their time. However, young people are vulnerable to expoitation: they may not be paid for their work, either working for room and board at the orphanage with a little bit of pocket change or the employer will pay the orphanage. Those who live and work outside are vulnerable to abuse from their employers with no one to turn to for help.
This practice serves to keep these young people dependent on the welfare institute for the rest of their lives. Eventually those who are able may decide to leave, often right into the arms of external traffickers.
There has been a lot of discussion about trafficking of aged out orphans. Some believe it happens to all aging out kids while others think the danger is exaggerated. Exact figures are unknown, but it is certain that it does happen. But how?
Unlimited access to the internet provides an open door for predators and traffickers to contact, groom and entrap their willing prey.
A lack of understanding of danger, a craving for affection and belonging, and the enticement of money and gifts and it is easy to see how young people are lured into dangerous situations.
Teens and young adults have so little oversight in many welfare institutes that a young person can easily walk away and not be missed.
At the age of 18 those whose disabilities are minor can leave on their own, and are easy targets for traffickers.
Young people can be sold as slave labor, sex workers or into forced marriages.
An independent life
For the lucky few with no or minor disabilities and strong academic skills, the future can be brighter. Youth who are able to succeed in school may be given further opportunities in either vocational training or, in rare cases, university. From there they can forge relationships and get a job. The orphan stigma may still follow them and assistance from orphanage connections may be needed to secure work. In some cases the orphanage will require the young person to return and use his education to work at the orphanage. Independence from the orphanage is not automatic, and without a support network, fully breaking free can be difficult.