On Thursday, March 19, Jerry Milner of the federal Children’s Bureau is teaming up with former foster youth and tech entrepreneur Sixto Cancel to co-host a virtual town hall inviting foster youth to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus.
“Those closest to the problem should be informing the solutions,” Cancel said as he frantically worked to put the event together from a Los Angeles hotel room. “We wanted to create a way that young people could have a voice in helping shape what potential solutions could be implemented right now.”
Top of mind for Cancel, who spent much of his young life in Connecticut’s foster care system, was ensuring that foster youth have a safe and stable place to stay as the crisis deepens.
“No young person during this pandemic should be aging out, and we need to be ensuring they are in a safe location especially if they have an underlying health condition,” Cancel said.
Nearly 18,000 foster youth “emancipated” from the system in 2018, the last year federal data is available. The number of youth aging out has hovered around this total for years now, meaning that there are at least 100,000 19- to 24-year-olds who were “discharged” from foster care without permanent connections to family. Research has repeatedly shown that, of youth who experience foster care, those who emancipate or age out fare worse on almost all measures including higher rates of homelessness, unemployment and incarceration – all especially precarious situations in these unsettling times.
Cancel and Milner are producing the virtual town hall to solicit ideas from foster youth across the country.
The event is being produced by Cancel’s nonprofit tech firm Think of Us and the Children’s Bureau, the federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that regulates state child welfare agencies. Register for the event HERE.
Milner responded to a series of email questions about the upcoming town hall and his perspective on the unfolding situation.
Why are you doing this virtual town hall tomorrow?
We want our young people in foster care or who are alumni of foster care to know that we have not forgotten them in this time of crisis, that we are actively looking for ways to support them, particularly in having stable housing and in being able to complete their education. We also want to re-emphasize to the broader child welfare community our commitment to serving young people in foster care and attending to their needs for well-being in addition to physical safety.
What are your greatest concerns and priorities as this pandemic unfolds?
I fear for the unintended results of taking all needed precautions, including the closure of college dormitories and the impact on young people who have no place to go. I fear for the lack of flexibility in our federal funding and programs that may present barriers to children, youth and parents getting what they need when they need it. I fear that panic responses may overtake reasoned logic and sensible precautions.
What can you do from your position to make it easier for state child welfare agencies to serve their vulnerable clients – whether foster youth, parents or caregivers (obviously grandparents come to mind)?
We can, and will, exercise all flexibilities we currently have to make our program funds and services as continuous and accessible as possible to those who depend upon them. We can listen, even more intently than we already do, to the voices of young people and parents who can tell us best what they need, and we can act on that information. We can pursue flexibility and waiver authority when indicated to address temporary, but critical issues/problems facing agencies, courts, and families. We can communicate frequently with the field to solicit information on emerging concerns and to raise up solutions and approaches that may help alleviate the concerns.
Daniel Heimpel can be reached directly at email@example.com.