Over the fall months, leadership at the Children’s Bureau held 12 roundtable discussions with current and former foster youth around the country, aiming to hear directly from the source about how the coronavirus pandemic was impacting their lives.
Last week, the bureau’s associate commissioner, Jerry Milner, sent a letter to state child welfare directors that quickly summarized the broader themes of what he and his team heard at the roundtables, both good and bad.
The challenges echo what various surveys done with older and former foster youth have shown about the pandemic’s effect on critical, daily life issues. Housing wears heavily on their minds, Milner reported, with fears of aging out into adulthood during the ongoing crisis without stable housing, or uncertainty about their options if college dorms are shuttered. For those in college lacking the requisite technology, there was the added concern of what do if classes went virtual.
The Children’s Bureau did what it could to ease the rules for states to allow young people to remain in foster care past age 21, which is the cutoff for federally reimbursed foster care support under the Title IV-E entitlement. Early on in the pandemic, the bureau created a streamlined process for states to establish a federal extension to age 21, and temporarily relaxed the rules for participation so that a youth wouldn’t lose eligibility for not being at school or employed.
It also permitted states to use their Chafee Independent Living Program funds, another federal pot, to keep youth housed through age 23. And the Children’s Bureau has been an active participant in helping to cross-promote the Foster Youth to Independence initiative, which is overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and offers supportive housing vouchers to those leaving foster care.
But ultimately, Congress must act for the actual IV-E age cutoff to be temporarily extended past 21. Such a provision is included in the House version of another coronavirus relief program, but negotiations on that have stalled. In the meantime, several states have acted either to ban aging out during the pandemic on their own dime, or developed alternative ways to find housing or cash supports for transition age youth.
Among the other challenging themes from the roundtables:
- Getting access to healthcare, and to reliable transportation
- Mental health and feelings of social isolation
- Concerns about the progress of reunification efforts or adoption finalizations
On the brighter side, Milner’s letter notes that many of the young leaders at the roundtables said they had caseworkers or independent living coordinators proactively reach out to check on them, and to help arrange for internet connectivity or cell phones if they needed. Many noted that they had benefited from their child welfare agency intervening to make sure dorm rooms stayed open to those who needed them.