Foster Youth in New York City: Survey Shows Indifference to Structured Activities, Severe Unemployment Challenges

The cover of New York City's first annual survey of foster youth

The cover of New York City’s first annual survey of foster youth experience suggested the agency has its work cut out.

Nationwide, counties and states that manage foster care systems rarely conduct serious surveys of foster youth to better understand their needs and challenges. Thanks to a bill signed in late 2016 by Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City has changed that, and the results are in, and grim.

Despite some bright spots, teens in foster care made clear to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) that the agency isn’t providing them with enough support in education, employment and personal development.

Just over half of respondents had been in foster care longer than three years, two years longer than the duration recommended in federal law. Twenty-seven percent reported needing help with alcohol or drug abuse, and nearly a quarter reported lacking clean and appropriate clothes to wear, shoes that fit, and three meals per day. Many felt their foster parents didn’t provide the food and clothing they needed, even though most felt very supported by their foster parents overall.

Also startling, 75 percent of all youth who were able to work reported that they wanted a job but did not have one. Among 18- to 20-year-olds, that number was about 62 percent, six or seven times higher than the unemployment rate for all youth that age nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the biggest obstacles to finding a job, youth reported: transportation, interviewing skills, and finding and choosing the right jobs to apply for. Roughly two-thirds who reported needing help arranging dependable transportation said they had not received it.

The responses to questions about use of free time suggests the city’s foster youth are veering toward highly unstructured lives. Presented with a list of 12 out-of-school activities, there were only three items that more than half of respondents reported doing: using social media, spending time with friends and playing video games. The vast majority, between 70 to 82 percent, did not report being on a sports team or school club, or affiliated with a religious institution.

Regardless of the availability of activities, most indicated they would pass on them anyway. Not a single one of the 12 items on the list mustered a “Would Like to Participate” from half of respondents.

The online survey was distributed to all foster youth older than 13 in January. The 2,600-some respondents, mostly between the ages of 16 and 18, were offered a $10 gift card for their participation.

The vast majority (81 percent) reported living in either foster homes or relatives’ homes. A whopping 88 percent were minorities, underscoring a glaring racial disparity in a city that is only about 57 percent non-white, and a continuing source of controversy for the child welfare system in New York City and nationwide.

ACS considered the survey findings in putting together their five-year plan for the foster care system, released last week with the foster care survey. The legislation authorizing the survey was spearheaded by city councilman Donovan Richards of Queens.

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