As a 20-year-old foster youth in a small town an hour outside Seattle, Lillie Thompson is doing all they can to make it on their own. Thompson attends monthly meetings with an educational coach and spent the last year taking community college courses in psychology, film and Spanish to prepare for starting a four-year degree this fall.
Meanwhile, Thompson, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, is paying rent, utilities and groceries on a minimum-wage job at Home Depot, cobbling together a life with help from a younger brother and a $700 monthly check from the foster care system. As a young person who reached adulthood without being adopted or taken in by a guardian, Thompson remains eligible for the support until age 21. In their case, that means just four more months.
“That check means a lot to me,” Thompson said, “because it helps close the gap.”
But the help will not last long. With the coronavirus pandemic creating desperate circumstances for millions of people across America, the precariousness of life after aging out of foster care has been thrown into stark relief. Thompson and other Washington foster youth will get a brief boost from the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which will use $1 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to provide housing stipends to young people who age out of extended foster care from March through December 2020. After that, they’re on their own.
An estimated 200 to 250 state residents will age out in the next year, according to Dawn Rains, chief policy and strategy officer at Treehouse. The nonprofit employs Thompson’s educational coach and serves current and former foster youth up to age 26.
Key details like when the Washington grant money will be disbursed, how much each young person will receive and what types of housing will qualify are still being worked out, according to Sherrie Flores, the state agency’s program manager for extended foster care and adolescent support. The monthly payments will be retroactive to each young person’s 21st birthday, Flores said.
Advocates who work with Washington foster youth say the new housing grant will help, but the temporary funds still fall short of allowing young adults to remain in foster care past age 21 and continue receiving a wider range of supports during the pandemic.
That step has been taken by at least nine other states. There, youth will continue receiving financial and caseworker support until the public health emergency is over, and can remain in their current housing placement.
Several bills now before Congress would make additional federal funds available to support young adults in foster care after age 21. One new bipartisan bill, the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act, would require all states that receive a federal match for their extended foster care program to allow 21-year-olds to remain in care until the pandemic is brought under control.
But in Washington state, for the time being, the end date for leaving foster care remains firm – a reflection of how varied states’ responses have been to the aging-out population. The new housing grant would provide only short-term assistance, given that all funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act stimulus package must be spent by Dec. 31. Those foster youth with birthdays late in the year, like Thompson, will be eligible for just one or two months of additional help.
“In January or February, we could be in exactly the same world of hurt,” Rains said. “We may be missing young people who are in very vulnerable situations.”
Like other states, Washington has many competing interests for its dwindling funds, and it faces a budget shortage of nearly $9 billion.
Liz Trautman, a director at the Seattle-based Mockingbird Society, a youth advocacy organization focusing on foster care, said federal leadership is needed to encourage states to make greater investments in young people aging out of foster care. She said the interim state program is nonetheless a welcome, if limited, reprieve.
Without support, too often foster youth end up homeless, incarcerated and in otherwise desperate circumstances, their hopeful visions for life dashed by the harsh reality of surviving without government or family support.
“At 21, they suddenly go from having a caseworker and guaranteed stipend to not having that,” Trautman said. “Continuing in extended foster care allows them to maintain that connection and avoid another transition.”
Currently, about 80% of eligible Washington foster youth participate in extended foster care. Compared to those who did not participate, those youth are more likely to be employed, less likely to be homeless and less likely to be convicted of a crime, according to a recent report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. They are also less likely to become a parent between age 18 and 23, and among those who have become parents in that time frame, they are less likely to have their own child removed into foster care.
As their 21st birthday approaches, Thompson is excited about the future but also “terrified” about losing both financial support and their caseworker’s guidance at a critical juncture. In the fall, they’d planned to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to attend their first-choice school – a small liberal arts college they hope will be the first step toward becoming a lawyer for other foster youth. But last week, after the school announced all classes would be online, Thompson postponed the big move and instead scrambled to extend their apartment lease.
And by Thanksgiving, they will no longer be able to count on the $700 monthly foster care stipend that has helped them get this far.
“I’ll have to figure out how to come up with the additional money in the middle of the semester,” Thompson said.
Even with grants and scholarships, things will be tight. They are hoping to land a new gig at a fast-casual pizza restaurant, which would pay an additional dollar per hour compared to what they’re making now, plus tips. But Thompson said there will still be “no way” to survive without working almost full time, a challenge for any new college student.
“I’m not ready to turn 21,” they said. “At that point, I’m supposed to be a full adult? If I could stay 20 for five or six years, that would be great.”