When she turned 21 last year, seven years after entering foster care in New York City, Jeanette Rivera suddenly found herself fending for herself — and her three young children.
“They didn’t wait to make sure that I was ready to be on my own, they didn’t make sure I had food, that my bills were paid or that I even understood how to pay my portion of my rent,” Rivera said. “I don’t speak to any of the case planners, judges, lawyers, anyone from my agency. Once you sign the paper, it’s over.”
Her first few months on her own brought one crisis after another. She experienced domestic violence but didn’t have the money to move. She could only work to support herself if she found affordable child care. Through it all, her biggest fear was that the city’s child welfare agency might take away her children. “Being a product of the system, they look at us first,” she said.
And that was before the pandemic.
In a virtual news conference this week held by a coalition of youth advocates, which included two state lawmakers, Rivera added her voice to the chorus imploring Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to issue an executive order allowing young people to remain in foster care beyond their 21st birthday during the coronavirus disaster. They also want the state to allow former foster youth between the ages of 18 and 21 to return to foster care without waiting for the approval of a judge, which is currently “difficult if not impossible” to attain given the limited operations of family courts, according to Betsy Kramer, policy director at the New York City-based Lawyers for Children.
The renewed demands came three weeks after New York’s Office of Children and Family Services wrote that the state would not step in to provide extra support for foster youth who turn 21 — or provide funding to counties that decide to extend care on their own. The state’s position comes even as a growing number of other states take the opposite approach, rushing to enact emergency orders to help vulnerable young adults.
“During a global pandemic and economic downturn, New York state must do everything in its power to prevent forcing young people to age out or preventing them from returning,” said Paige Pierce, CEO of Families Together in New York State and co-chair of CHAMPS-NY, which organized Tuesday’s virtual news conference. “We need strong direction from the state and funding to back it up.”
The organizations that Pierce convened estimate that extending foster care services would cost the state up to $1.8 million, at a time when it projects a budget shortfall of $13.3 billion. However, advocates argue that providing more support upfront will help foster youth avoid the need for more expensive public services later on.
Rivera told the group assembled on a virtual call that while sheltering at home with her children, she’s heard from many friends who have also recently aged out of foster care – into desperation. Since the pandemic slammed the economy in mid-March, they’ve all lost their jobs, and repeated calls to the unemployment hotline have gone unanswered. Most don’t have stable housing and have found homeless shelters packed. The subways — where even in the hardest times, Rivera once knew she could “at least sleep for one full night, back and forth, and I would be OK” — are now shut down at night.
“If we had the option to stay in care, a lot of us would have chosen to stay in for a little bit longer so we can get that support, so we can have people to call,” she said. “It’s nothing like being in the middle of a pandemic and you don’t have a person to call for help, for guidance, just to talk.”
More than a dozen lawmakers are also calling on Cuomo and Commissioner Sheila Poole of the Office of Children and Family Services to act. In a letter posted to Twitter on Thursday, they wrote: “In the middle of a global health pandemic, when a safe and stable home and a family are key to both individual and public health, no young person should be pushed from their home or be forced to leave foster care without a family simply because they turn 21.”
The letter calls for the state to allow young people to remain in care until at least 180 days after the current public health crisis ends.
“Putting this moratorium in place and allowing kids who are 18 to 21 to come back into the system will save you money and offset costs, because otherwise, those kids are going to wind up on public assistance, in the shelter system, which is more expensive, and even worse, potentially in a hospital and sick,” said Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi of Central Queens, who chairs the Committee on Social Services.
Eleven other state legislators signed on to the new letter urging Cuomo to act, written by Hevesi and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee of Rockland County, chair of the Committee on Children and Families. While Hevesi said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Cuomo would issue an executive order, he also suggested that state legislators could push for a bill themselves.
But with the Legislature displaced by the pandemic for weeks and the 2020 session ending next Tuesday, advocates said they were unsure how such a bill could be introduced or passed.
“We strongly believe that the governor should address the moratorium swiftly through executive action, so that the young people we heard from don’t have to age out,” said Kari Siddiqui, who works on the CHAMPS initiative at the Schuyler Center, a statewide nonprofit that advocates on issues affecting children and families. “We think the speed that is achieved through executive action is the best course for this.”
Siddiqui said the governor’s office had been “responsive” and was studying how the proposal might work, but had not indicated whether his administration would take action. Nine other states and the nation’s capital have already taken executive action to temporarily stop foster youth from aging out of the system during the pandemic, and Congress is currently considering legislation that would allow federal funding to be directed toward foster youth regardless of their age.
Allowing youth to continue to age out of foster care during the pandemic is tantamount to eviction, said Kramer of Lawyers for Children, pointing out that one of the governor’s first actions was to issue an executive order placing a moratorium on evictions while the state is in crisis.
“Just as so many parents have allowed their older children to return home during this time, New York state should allow young people who have no place else to turn to return to foster care,” Kramer said.
That hit close to home for college student Destiny Moura, 20, who was one of the dozens of foster youth given just 48 hours to move out of their dorm rooms in March. Moura was told she could either return to residential care or go back to her birth family, from whom she had been removed. Each week brought new problems — distance learning, court closures, lost jobs — and also brought her closer to her birthday in June, when she’ll be expected to make it on her own.
“How is it that we’re expected to have everything we need covered at the age of 21? I don’t know who it’s possible for, but not for me. … I’m scared,” said Moura in her plea to the governor. “We deserve this — even the youth that haven’t done as much as me. I’ve worked too hard, and I advocate too hard for myself to be unsure or be not cared for.”
Rivera said she and other foster youth never asked to grow up with the state as their parent; both of her own parents died. She’s grateful for the support she got from the system during her childhood. But finding herself alone right now in the epicenter of the global pandemic – as a young adult with small children and limited resources – is terrifying.
“There’s no safe place — every place is infected, every place is under watch, we can’t even go to the public parks,” Rivera said. “This is the most scariest time of my life, and I can’t even stress how scary this is for our younger youth who are out on the street.”
Megan Conn can be reached at [email protected].