The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to crush the college dreams of thousands of people who will soon be aging out of foster care, and Congress must take urgent steps to avoid these devastating outcomes, according to a report being released this week.
Using information compiled from numerous surveys, academic studies and news accounts examining the toll that the 7-month-old pandemic has taken on older foster youth, Dr. Mauriell Amechi, a visiting professor at Old Dominion University, crafted several recommendations for lawmakers to consider. He outlined them in a policy paper published by Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C.
The report titled “The Forgotten Students: COVID-19 Response for Youth and Young Adults Aging Out of Foster Care,” focuses on how the crisis is bearing down on as many as 20,000 foster youth this year. To stave off a derailment of their lives, Amechi calls on Congress to issue a moratorium on aging out and to extend foster care until at least age 21 in all 50 states. To date, 22 states have not extended federally funded foster care, and 41 have yet to enact a moratorium on aging out during the national health and economic crisis, according to the report.
The position paper also proposes expansion of the federal John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which provides federal funds for independent living programs and vouchers to be used by current and former foster youth for higher education. It recommends lifting the Chafee program’s 30% cap on housing assistance, and raising the maximum annual amount of vouchers from its current $5,000 to $12,000.
To accommodate the growing needs, Congress should expand Chafee funding by $500 million, the report states, which several current bills aim to achieve.
The paper also calls on the government to do a better job tracking the experiences and outcomes of foster care-involved students, to get a better idea of program effectiveness and to highlight where improvements are needed.
“COVID-19 has recently changed my life because, to be honest, it has triggered a lot of past childhood traumas,” said Ivory Bennett, one of the college students quoted in the report. “For example, food insecurity, I don’t feel like I have access to enough food all the time. I feel nervous having to either go out and get it or spend extra money on delivery services.”
Amechi’s report cited a recent poll by The Field Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which found that about half of young adults aging out of foster care faced job insecurities, raising their risk for a cascade of difficulty maintaining stable housing, adequate nutrition and good health.
As the pandemic has run through the population, the report noted, people younger than 40 have grown disproportionally likely to come down with the virus. With a lack of access to health care and the tendency to hold lower-wage jobs that expose them to the virus more than most, young adults are at an even higher risk, Amechi wrote in his report.
Meanwhile, Chafee grants cover a far smaller share of expenses than they once did, thanks to rising tuition, scarce affordable housing and stagnant federal funding. The consequences are already playing out: Many current and former foster youth have already started to re-evaluate their educational plans amid the mounting obstacles.