While a small but growing number of states have added new lifelines for youth aging out of foster care amid the coronavirus pandemic, New York – the hardest-hit state in the country – is offering no additional help.
Late last month, with nonessential businesses shut down and unemployment soaring, prominent attorneys representing foster youth from Buffalo to Rochester and Long Island appealed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state’s Office of Children and Family Services to declare a moratorium on automatically cutting young people off from foster care supports when they turn 21.
In a second letter sent the same day, a coalition of 20 foster agencies and youth advocacy groups who belong to the New York branch of the national advocacy group Children Need Amazing Parents, or CHAMPS, called for similar relief.
Despite the pleas, New York officials said this month there are no plans to expand housing and financial benefits for foster youth aging out of the system. In a written response to the advocates’ request, state child welfare officials said decisions about extending foster care would be left to the 62 counties, and that each would have to foot the bill for any expanded services.
New York State is facing a historic budget shortfall projected at $13.3 billion, and the economic outlook for the state is “bleak,” according to a recent state budget plan for 2021. Cuomo has appealed to the federal government for help, and without it, he has said that the state could see across-the-board budget cuts of as much as 20 percent.
Meanwhile, in the first six weeks of the coronavirus emergency in New York, 58 young people ages 18 to 21 either aged out or signed themselves out of extended foster care, which is voluntary for those who reach adulthood with no adoptive parents or legal guardians. Of those who exited care, 18 were aged 18; for the most part, they planned to live informally with parents, relatives or former foster parents, the state said.
“We are disappointed by the State’s response, which provides no relief to youth who are aging out of foster care,” wrote Betsy Kramer, policy director at Lawyers for Children, who drafted the April 24 request to the governor and Commissioner Sheila Poole of the Office of Children and Family Services. “It is critical that New York join the other jurisdictions that have taken executive action to protect those young people from being discharged to homelessness during the pandemic.”
Nationally, two-thirds of current and former foster youth have been laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic or have had their hours cut significantly, and nearly half have had to skip a meal, according to a recent survey conducted by FosterClub, a national peer support network. One 20-year-old from New York had still not heard back more than a month after applying for unemployment benefits. The 600 young people ages 18 to 24 who responded reported having spent an average of seven years in foster care.
So far, nine other states and the nation’s capital have issued temporary halts on foster youth aging out of the system during the pandemic. Meanwhile, federal legislation proposed last week would temporarily remove the age limit for foster youth who can be served by the Title IV-E entitlement program – the main source of federal funding for foster care.
Still, even if the federal bill passes, each state would have to change its policy to allow youth to remain in care past 21, which could further delay help for thousands of vulnerable young adults. In New York alone, for example, there were 1,569 young people in foster care ages 18 and older at the beginning of this year, according to the Office of Children and Family Services.
Jenny Pokempner, a senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center who is tracking efforts to extend foster care nationwide, warned against a piecemeal approach.
“A lot of counties and agencies are stepping up, but we need this to be the norm, and for it to be the norm, we need it to be supported by state and federal policy,” Pokempner said. “Until that happens, it’s harder for us to rely on that experience for youth in every state and every county.”
While she said she understood states’ fiscal limitations, Pokempner said the cost of continuing services for foster youth who turn 21 would be “pretty minor, relatively speaking.” In California, which has about four times more youth in foster care than New York, Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $1.8 million to extend services past age 21 during the pandemic.
While New York allows young people to remain in foster care up to age 21, historically many have signed themselves out sometime after they turn 18. This happens for a variety of reasons, advocates say. Some young people don’t want to be a burden on foster parents, while others hope to reunite with their biological family or feel pressure from caseworkers to move on.
Lawyers representing foster youth also asked the state to allow those who previously chose to leave the system an opportunity to return during the pandemic, without having to wait for a judge’s permission. State data shows that hundreds of former foster youth who have not yet turned 21 could be eligible to return.
In its letter this month to advocates, state officials say allowing youth to return to care without judicial permission would be “beyond the control of the executive branch of government.” The court-appointed attorneys for youth disagree, arguing that in many places it is not possible for youth to file a court petition to be re-enrolled in foster care, given that courthouses are mostly shut down. And although counties are holding virtual hearings, they differ in their definition of what counts as an “essential matter” that can be heard during the shutdown.
In the meantime, young adults who have recently left or are leaving foster care find themselves with even fewer housing and job prospects. And although caseworkers are supposed to send them off into the world with detailed transition plans, advocates say the pandemic has made those scenarios impossible.
“They need continuing services as a buffer so when they leave, they can have a good start and a chance of success,” Pokempner said. “It’s hard to see how that could happen right now.”
Megan Conn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.