Child welfare advocates in Minnesota are calling for the state to use some of its funds from the federal coronavirus relief bill to make direct payments to current and former foster youth who are transitioning to adulthood. The state will soon receive a portion of the $400 million in assistance to older foster youth that was included in the $900 billion federal stimulus bill signed into law last month.
The funds will go toward the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood, which traditionally helps states pay for independent living programs up to age 23 and college tuition assistance up to the age of 26. But the bill gives states a lot of flexibility in how the money can be spent, and raises the age threshold to 27.
States are expected to spend their share of the extra money down by the end of September. Hoang Murphy, the executive director of Foster Advocates in St. Paul, said Minnesota should let young adults decide how to spend the money.
“That’s what we ask them when they turn 18 or 21 and they age [out],” said Murphy. “They’re on their own.”
Last summer, Foster Advocates surveyed more than 150 current and former foster youth in the state about the impact of the pandemic in areas including food security, housing and employment. The survey found that more than 80% of youth in foster care were negatively impacted by the pandemic, and older youth were among those impacted the most. A third of the respondents said they lost their jobs during the pandemic, and nearly half said they were concerned about paying for food.
Armed with this data, a coalition of organizations including Foster Advocates urged several counties to use funding from the federal CARES Act, passed last March, to make direct payments to young adults transitioning to adulthood from foster care. Only Hennepin County agreed.
Last month, the county sent $1,500 payments to 128 former fosters. “For our fosters it was lifesaving,” said Murphy. “In Hennepin, they stepped up. We certainly didn’t ask every county, but two of the counties that passed on it were Anoka and Ramsey counties. We hope to change their minds [this time].”
New Jersey appears to be the only child welfare system that executed a statewide stimulus program for older foster youth with CARES Act funding. It is unclear how many local child welfare systems other than Hennepin County used the CARES Act, or from state coffers, to provide a cash stimulus.
In addition to direct payments, Jessica Rogers, the executive director of Connections to Independence, which was also part of the coalition, said she would also like to see more young people accessing the state’s higher education voucher program. The relief bill designates $50 million extra this year for college vouchers and temporarily raises the maximum amount each student can receive from $5,000 to $12,000.
The federal bill also requires states to allow foster youth who would otherwise age out of the system to stay during the pandemic. Murphy’s and Rogers’ coalition tried to get Minnesota to do this before the bill, but were unsuccessful.
Lisa Bayley, acting assistant commissioner of children and family services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said they will decide how to spend the funds when they find out how much the state will receive. The federal Administration for Children and Families confirmed for The Imprint last week that the formula to determine state-by-state allocations has not yet been finalized.
“We are committed to ensuring children in out-of-home placement are well cared for in Minnesota, and that older youth have the necessary supports to transition to adulthood,” Bayley said in a statement.
Instead of writing checks to current or former foster youth, DHS could funnel the relief funds into programs and vouchers. Mary Lennick, the executive director of Family Alternatives, and Kirsten Anderson, executive director of AspireMN, support a “both and” approach where transitioning youth can choose how to spend their money but are given guidance on where it should be spent, as a parent might do for their child.
“What I’ve seen be the most successful for young people is the money is designated to something, but the youth gets to say where it goes versus it being a lump sum,” Lennick said.
Deanna King, 20, is a former foster youth in Minnesota who supports direct payments. If given a check, she said she would use it to help pay off debt and save up for an upcoming move. She lives with her two young children and has struggled to find childcare during the pandemic. She was attending college when the pandemic started, but she had to take a break after the spring semester when her second child was born.
King emphasized that payments are helpful, but not enough. “The financial help is a good thing, but I also feel like some people need help with housing, mental health, stuff like that,” King said. “Help with debt, help finding jobs, help to go to college.”
Former foster youth Matthew Nastu, 24, considers himself fortunate. He graduated from college in the spring and received two job offers right away. He lives on his own and is able to pay his bills, but he supports direct stimulus payments, especially to those who are still in school and unable to work full time.
“I can only imagine, to somebody in a slightly less fortunate situation how grateful they might be for the extra couple of dollars,” Nastu said.