Ten months into a deadly pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on society and the economy, a federal relief package bundled extra child welfare money to states with a new rule: You can’t let foster youth age out into adulthood during the ongoing coronavirus emergency.
The news was welcomed by New York child welfare advocates, who had spent much of the past year appealing to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for a statewide moratorium on aging out of foster care during these devastating times, with only modest results. Previously, the most tangible action came in July, when New York child welfare commissioner Sheila Poole directed county social services departments to reallocate existing funds to offer continued placement or other supports to foster youth turning 21 who had “imminent need.”
“I am thrilled that the federal government has made clear that young people should not be leaving foster care just because they turn 21 in the middle of this pandemic, and that they should stay in foster care until they have safe and stable housing,” said Betsy Kramer, director of public policy and special litigation at Lawyers for Children. Kramer also called on the Office of Children and Family Services to provide guidance to counties on how to implement the policy.
The Supporting Foster Youth & Families through the Pandemic Act — part of the more than 5,000-page federal stimulus bill signed into law on Dec. 27 — provided $400 million in new funding for states to use for housing, education, transportation and financial assistance for older youth, including those in extended foster care as well as young adults up to age 27 who have aged out of the system. The law requires that states allow youth to remain in foster care past the standard age cut-off for extended foster care, which is 21 in most states, and also suspends any requirements that youth attend school or work in order to receive the benefits.
To reach those who were already discharged from foster care during the pandemic, states are now required to send individual notices to eligible youth and run a public awareness campaign letting them know they can return to care if they wish.
Dozens of state and national advocacy groups backed this section of the stimulus bill, including Foster Care Alumni of America, the Children’s Defense Fund and the American Academy of Pediatrics. It was introduced by two top members of the House Ways and Means Worker & Family Support Subcommittee, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R) of Indiana and Chairman Danny Davis (D) of Illinois.
The aging-out pause won’t cause a major shift in New York City, where even before the pandemic, the Administration for Children’s Services allowed some youth to remain in care past 21. That’s due in part to a 2012 legal settlement that prohibits the agency from discharging youth who lack stable housing.
In fact, last summer children’s services Commissioner David Hansell wrote an op-ed for The Imprint urging all child welfare agencies to eliminate strict age limits: “No city or state across the U.S. should allow a young person to leave foster care, at any age, unless they have a stable and supportive living arrangement,” he wrote.
The new law will provide a new lifeline for a few hundred foster youth across the rest of New York who can now return to foster care or remain beyond age 21. At the beginning of 2020, state data shows there were 573 young people aged 18 and older in foster care across the state, excluding New York City.
Judy Gerber, who heads the Attorneys for Children Unit at Legal Aid of Buffalo, recently spoke with a group of older foster youth. Among them, two had recently re-entered foster care and several were worried because they were approaching their 21st birthday.
“For me now to turn to those youth and their agency and say, ‘Hey, you get to stay,’ is going to make a profound difference to them,” Gerber said. “This is the first time in Erie County that there is a clear legal requirement that young people be extended in foster care past 21.”
This may be the first time that many foster youth and social service agencies around the state hear that message, experts say, and the policy’s immediate impact may be limited since, historically, fewer upstate foster youth have taken advantage of extended foster care in the first place.
“In some upstate counties it remains the norm for kids to plan to leave care at 18,” wrote Crystal Charles, a policy analyst who focuses on child welfare at the nonprofit Schuyler Center. Charles added that she is already hearing from foster care providers that upstate counties are beginning to re-evaluate their discharge policies for older youth in light of recent OCFS guidance on aging out.
Of about 150 youth in Hillside Family of Agencies’ therapeutic foster care program, only six are over age 18, said CEO Maria Cristalli. Northern Rivers and House of the Good Shepherd, each of which serves over 300 youth in foster and group homes, both said they were not aware of any foster youth over age 18 in their care.
Some providers said they typically discharge older foster youth once they secure a spot in supervised independent living programs or other transitional housing. Lower rents make securing housing less of an existential threat for upstate foster youth than for their counterparts in New York City, who frequently have no choice but to wait years for an apartment in public housing or supportive housing for people with mental illness or at risk of homelessness.
“It may just be a function of the cost of housing — rents downstate are so insane that a minimum-wage job is not going to cut it, but upstate it just might be easier to find something affordable,” said Mary Jane Dessables, director of information, research and accountability at the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, a statewide trade group.
Still, many young people who have spent time in foster care will end up needing help with housing, health care or employment at some point through their early 20s, said Georgia Boothe, executive vice president at Children’s Aid in New York City. To meet those needs, her agency opened the New Generation Center, a Bronx-based hub that serves current and former foster youth up to age 25.
“Some of our young people have suffered a lot of trauma and have been in a system where they’ve not really learned to be on their own,” Boothe said. “Other young people have the benefit of a family support system they can rely on until they’re better settled, and kids in foster care deserve to have the same kind of safety net.”
Some national advocates hope that the pandemic-driven pause on aging out of foster care will open the door to permanently broadened eligibility.
“I really hope many provisions stay in place, and/or lead to broader reform so that we have better services for older youth and can provide support for a longer period of time,” said Jenny Pokempner, a senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center who has tracked state-level efforts to pause aging out. “Young people are making the transition to adulthood throughout their early to mid-20s, so it makes sense to have support available in different ways and intensities at least through age 26.”
But for now, Pokempner said the priority should be to prevent any more eligible youth from finding themselves out on their own during a once-in-a-century pandemic and to ensure those who have already aged out know that broader support is now available. It’s important to reach them before they disconnect from supportive resources, she said, because “any youth who falls through the cracks could be difficult to reengage.”