Housing vouchers for young adults who aged out of foster care quietly becomes law
After months of on-again, off-again negotiations that seemed doomed as recently as last week, Congress has approved a deal on annual funding and coronavirus relief that includes more than $400 million in federal support for child welfare systems. The deal also enshrines into law a stable housing initiative begun by the Trump administration to support young adults who age out of foster care, a group at dangerous risk of experiencing homelessness.
The deal includes several of the child welfare provisions that were approved by the House over the summer as part of the HEROES Act. Pat Lawler, CEO of multistate child welfare provider Youth Villages, called their inclusion in the bill “a lifeline” for older foster youth.
“We know that young people who reach adulthood in foster care often struggle to meet basic needs during normal times, said Lawler, in an email to The Imprint. “The pandemic has hit them hard. They’ve lost jobs and work hours and they’re struggling with food and housing insecurity — most without any family supports,”
Among the major supports:
Older Youth and Young Adults
The deal includes $400 million for the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, $50 million of which goes to the college voucher program that supports tuition and other costs for current and former foster youth. The rest of this boost funding can be used for independent living costs (including housing) to support current and former foster youth up to the age of 27.
The maximum amount of the college vouchers was also temporarily raised from $5,000 per student to $12,000.
It also requires that states must allow those young adults to remain in care for the time being. And if they have already aged out since the pandemic began, a state must allow them to return to care.
The federal funds for extended foster care flow from Title IV-E, the main child welfare entitlement. The bill permits states to use their Chafee independent living money to prevent them from aging out during the coronavirus pandemic.
Family First Act and Kinship Support
For states that have been approved under the act to receive foster care prevention funds through Title IV-E, the match has temporarily been removed – the feds will pay 100% of the costs. Eight states have been approved thus far, with another six that have plans pending; Most states have elected to delay implementation of Family First through 2021.
But the bill includes a 100% federal tap for another part of Family First: kinship navigators, one-stop-shop programs that connect relatives and other kinship caregivers to supports and resources. The deal makes them 100% fundable with federal dollars, and temporarily drops the requirement in Family First that a navigator must be deemed to be evidence-based by a federal clearinghouse. Thus far, not one kinship navigator program reviewed by the clearinghouse has been approved as a promising practice, which is the minimum threshold in normal times to qualify.
There is an additional $85 million added to the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program, which can be used for family preservation, reunification or for helping to support finalized adoptions from foster care.
The deal also relaxes rules on home visiting models, which traditionally send trained workers into the homes of new and expecting parents to help out during pregnancy. Since such in-person visits continue to be a risk in many parts of the country, virtual and remote activities are sanctioned during the pandemic.
Housing After Foster Care
For years, a group of advocates led by former foster youth have been pushing for a bill called the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act (FSHO, one of the greatest bill acronyms ever developed). The main tenet of the bill – on-demand vouchers to help support those leaving foster care – was actually put into effect last year as an executive branch initiative by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. His likely successor in that job, former U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), was an early supporter of FSHO.
This deal incorporates the addition of these vouchers into law. FSHO would enable a young adult to obtain a voucher for three years through any public housing authority in the country for three years, with an additional two years of eligibility if they are receiving family self-sufficiency supports.
"It means that older youth who are in foster care never have to fear being homeless," said Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare. "Youth may have other plans or they may decide that they are not interested in signing a year-long lease and settling down in their own place. But the stability of a housing choice voucher for three years is there if they choose it. If they are enjoying that stability and want to be rewarded for working, they can voluntarily enroll in self-sufficiency program and extend the platform for an additional two years for a total of five."
Correction: This column originally noted that only state with federally-approved extended foster care programs would be required to prevent aging out. While final guidance on the bill has not been issued by the Children's Bureau, most supporters of the bill believe this will be required of all states.