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Bianca Bennett entered the New York foster care system as a 2-year-old, then again as a 13-year-old. She aged out as a 21-year-old. Like many young adults when they age out of the system, she spent several months after this couch-surfing. She moved to Florida to attend college, eventually living in a student dorm. Then, this March, the coronavirus shut down her campus.
Unable to stay in the dorm, she returned to New York City. Her depression and anxiety made a brutal comeback, and she started sleeping 16 hours a day.
Now, she’s living with a couple in upstate New York while working part-time for the foster care nonprofit You Gotta Believe, unsure what will happen in the fall—her senior year. Even so, Bennett considers herself lucky. She was able to find a place to stay. Others who faced the same obstacles haven’t been as fortunate.
“If it wasn’t for [the people I’m staying with], I’d probably be alone on the streets, trying to be an advocate for youth, and still going through my own thing,” she told The Nation. “Because the city’s locked down, I probably wouldn’t be able to get a lot of resources the way I needed them.”
Even before Covid-19 swept the country, young adults who aged out of the foster care system without adequate support were less likely to have access to stable housing, employment, or health care. With the pandemic shuttering businesses, closing campuses, and intimidating foster parents into refusing to house new kids and teenagers, they are facing a heightened level of precarity.
As a result, California, Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia have announced plans to extend the aging-out guideline past the age of 21 for young adults in care during the pandemic. In California, this extension is valid through June 30, and young adults will still remain eligible for extended foster care even if they have lost their jobs or their education programs have been disrupted because of the pandemic. In Illinois, the 104 young adults in foster care who would be aging out of the system from April through June are also allowed to stay in their placement homes “until the pandemic crisis is declared over.” At the end of April, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that the state would cover the costs for over 200 young adults who would have aged out over the next few months to stay in care until the pandemic ends.
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As well, two federal programs administered by the Children’s Bureau support states that choose to extend foster care beyond age 18, a spokesperson from the Administration for Children and Families told The Nation in an e-mail. For states to use the first option, Title IV-E, young adults must be in school or working, preparing for employment, or have a medical condition that would prevent them from being in school or working. Since 2010, 31 states have exercised their Title IV-E foster care programs, according to the ACF. The second federal program, Chafee for Successful Transition to Adulthood Funds, could originally be used to financially support foster youth up to age 21. After the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act in February 2018, the funds could be used up to age 23, but the program funding was not raised alongside the age extension. According to one 2019 report, the current allocation of Chafee funds provides, on average, about $1,500 per young adult per year.
At the federal level, states are not reimbursed for the cost of extending the aging-out period beyond the age prescribed in state statutes if they use state funds, even during this public health emergency, according to the ACF spokesperson. These costs cover necessities from clothing to food to school supplies, and foster parents are reimbursed monthly for these expenses while someone is still under their care in the system. While the stimulus package passed in response to the pandemic, known as the CARES Act, provided $45 million for child welfare services and $25 million to the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program, how these funds are used still falls under the discretion of state leadership. The ACF plans to continue working with Congress if any updated legislation is introduced in response to the pandemic, according to the spokesperson.
“Unfortunately, some governors have not gotten this underway because they don’t want to have to pay the tab,” Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (NCHCW), told The Nation.
Advocates have implored other officials to advance these protective measures nationwide. Over 17,000 young adults are on track to be emancipated from state foster care this year, according to a joint letter from Foster Care Alumni of America and the NCHCW to the National Governors Association. “It is unconscionable and inhumane to release young adults under these conditions of international unrest and uncertainty,” the letter said.
A group of legal advocates in New York who work year-round to help foster youth land on their feet after aging out of the system encouraged Governor Cuomo to order an 180-day moratorium on discharging youth over the age of 18 from foster care without their consent, and to allow all young people under the age of 21 who have been discharged from foster care after age 18 to return to placements without asking for a court’s approval.
Last year, 1,075 young adults age 18 or older left the New York foster care system. Although youth in New York foster care can leave the system at age 18, they can also choose to stay in care until they turn 21. At least a dozen shelters in New York City for children and teens experiencing homelessness do not feel the city is doing enough to protect this group; they also fear outbreaks of the virus, considering the close quarters. According to the Coalition for Homeless Youth, New York City had 54 shelter beds available for homeless youth ages 16 to 20, and none for those ages 21 to 24 in late March.
“Foster youth weren’t really a priority before the pandemic,” Bennett said. “Twenty-one doesn’t decide whether you’re an adult or not, especially in [a city like] New York that costs an arm and a leg to live in. There’s not really adequate housing for our youth. There are not a lot of jobs for our youth.”
Just after stay-at-home orders became a norm for most of the country, one national poll found that over 25 percent of the responding young adults from foster care ages 18 to 24—in the critical aging-out phase—were experiencing heightened food insecurity; nearly 40 percent were forced to move, or were fearing having to move; and nearly 33 percent said they had enough money for a week or less of living costs.“I have enough for grilled cheese for 2 days,” one 18-year-old in Nebraska responded. “I feed myself and one other person.” A 22-year-old from Massachusetts wrote, “This crisis has forced me back to a very toxic and triggering environment.”
Ky Rodriguez entered the Ohio foster care system when she was 13 and aged out when she turned 18. In those five years, she lived in four different foster homes. She couldn’t start attending Ohio University until nine months after she left the system, and the “huge gap between emancipation and stabilization” made her fear she was going to experience homelessness until classes began in the fall. She ended up living with a former foster mother during this gap period, even though the woman no longer had custody rights. In the back of her mind, Ky said, she knew it was only a stopgap measure for housing security.
“Living with her during that gap period, I definitely did feel like a burden,” Rodriguez told The Nation. “I definitely did feel like a liability. I definitely did feel like this is not something that is permanent; like at any time, things can change.”
Working as a resident assistant in Ohio University dorms, Rodriguez was faced with the fear of losing the roof over her head again at the end of this spring semester. With classes moving online, she quickly learned she wouldn’t have the option to stay in the dorms over summer like she planned. And she’s not alone: The NCHCW estimates that approximately 10,000 former foster youth live in college dorms nationwide. While some colleges are keeping dorms open for their most vulnerable students, others gave foster youth 48 hours to vacate.
“When I am going to school, I’ve noticed how vulnerable I am to losing things and ending up back in that space where I’m homeless and I need to figure out what I can do, or like I’m struggling, or I don’t have resources because there isn’t a safety net,” Rodriguez said.
“When the schools shut down, I know people were not thinking about foster youth,” California Representative Karen Bass told The Nation. “They just told everybody to go back to their families. But what about kids that didn’t have families, or even international students? They can’t travel. They’re stuck.”
Bass is one of five cochairs of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, a bipartisan forum for policy recommendations on child welfare. In April, the chairs sent a letter to governors urging them to “take advantage of all available resources to support these young people as you manage the COVID-19 situation in your states,” and to contact colleges and universities about offering aid to current or former foster youth. While targeted funding for older foster youth at the federal level is still needed, the letter said, the chairs encouraged governors to utilize the funds that have already been allocated for states to use as they see fit for “housing, nutrition, healthcare, and counseling needs of older foster youth.”
“Child welfare should have always been thinking about what happens to kids in May,” White said. “The holiday housing problem has existed for years. Some schools have plans for this, some don’t.”
Chafee Independent Living funds are designed to be flexible for many different kinds of housing for young adults up to age 23, including hotels, host homes, shared housing, and rental assistance, according to the NCHCW. In light of Covid-19, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development also issued a “mega-waiver” memorandum, effective for six months starting on March 31, that allows organizations for people experiencing homelessness to use Emergency Solutions Funding with more flexibility. This could help former foster youth who are over the age of 23 and therefore can’t utilize Chafee funds. Over 1,900 public housing authorities are eligible to use the Foster Youth Independence Initiative, too. This initiative was designed to offer “tenant protection vouchers,” allowing former foster youth to “rent their own apartments and access services on a three-year path to self-sufficiency,” according to the NCHCW.
In fiscal year 2020, California, New York, and Texas received the largest allotments of Chafee funds, at over $16 million, $11 million, and $9 million, respectively. Wyoming, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Delaware each received the smallest amount, at $500,000 each. States are permitted to use up to 30 percent of their yearly Chafee funds to cover the costs of room and board, but, according to the NCHCW, this isn’t happening nearly as frequently as it should. As few as 30 percent of former foster youth in many states end up receiving Chafee funding and services. “There is no excuse for this persistent failure and flouting of Congress’s intent,” the NCHCW wrote in a list of recommendations for states it released in February.
“It’s something we were complaining about pre-Covid,” White said. “States have been given millions of dollars of flexible money, but they cease to use it flexibly.”
The threat of homelessness not only puts former foster youth at a greater risk of getting sick; it also makes them more vulnerable to abuse. When former foster youth are forced to couch-surf for housing, they are not able to socially distance, Rodriguez said. They are forced to rely on the kindness of others to open their doors. The constant stress of uncertainty, she said, “retraumatizes a lot of foster kids who have emancipated.”
Roughly 550,000 people in the United States are experiencing homelessness, which is leaving people with a “double vulnerability” to contracting Covid-19. While crowded shelters may not be able to keep people six feet apart, those living outside of shelters lack access to hand-washing stations and sometimes even soap and water. Last month, the US economy lost 20.5 million jobs, and the unemployment rate rose to 14.7 percent, leaving millions of people in economic desperation.
To circumvent this housing insecurity, Rodriguez said some recently emancipated young adults have been forced to shelter with abusive and exploitative people. “There are grown, way older adults who are agreeing to house 18-year-old kids who are fresh out of the foster system in exchange for sexual favors,” she said. “They have nowhere to go, and they’ve been in unsafe situations with an abusive partner, but they can’t leave because that’s the only form of housing that they have.”
The pandemic also requires foster parents to inevitably put their health at a higher risk by providing shelter to those who may be on the verge of aging out of the foster care system, historically an age group of foster youth that already is less likely to be adopted or find stable home placements. This only heightens young adults’ fear and anxiety about being kicked out of the foster care system right now with no place to land, Rodriguez said. “Instead of this being…some kind of inconvenience for some people,” she said, “with foster kids, this is going to be drastically life-changing.”
In addition to more effectively allocating Chafee funds for housing, the joint letter to the National Governors Association from Foster Care Alumni of America and the NCHCW encourages states to “make sure that child welfare offers access to cell phones, telehealth professionals, mental health care professionals, or mentors to ensure ongoing social connections.” Even though states have several options to support former foster youth during this pandemic, Rodriguez and White stressed that states’ concern with “the bottom line” continues to be a challenge.
The National Council for Adoption estimates that annual state and federal expenditures for foster care total over $9 billion under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act alone. “I’ve noticed, even in Ohio, as soon as people turn 18, they’re in a rush to hurry up and get them out of the system because it’s expensive to house kids in foster homes, to house kids in group homes or residential facilities,” Rodriguez said.
For students who were formerly in the foster care system, who like Rodriguez and Bennett were scrambling to find the next place to live, the pandemic has exposed how the country’s educational institutions have become much more than a place of textbooks and lecture halls. For many, they have become their sole de facto provider of housing, food, and other basic necessities—because they often are not available to them anywhere else. “If I had stayed in New York City any longer,” said Bennett, “I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Reach the National Alliance on Mental Illness by calling the HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or texting NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. To find the contact information for your state governor, visit www.nga.org/governors/addresses.