Last month, New York’s Office of Children and Family Services offered a compromise to the advocates pressuring the state to allow youth in foster care to continue receiving housing support and other services past age 21, when the financial help typically expires. In a state where the coronavirus pandemic has already claimed more than 30,000 lives and left millions out of work, there is broad agreement that this is an extraordinarily difficult time for vulnerable young adults to try to find a foothold on their own, but there are differing views on what the state should do to ease their way.
At least nine other states and New York City have temporarily lifted the 21-year-old age limit during the coronavirus pandemic. But New York state officials took another route, directing county social services departments to get creative with state funds intended to prevent family separation, increase placements with kin, and reduce reliance on group homes. That money, the state directed counties, can now also be used to offer housing support to foster youth who have no stable place to call home after turning 21.
Now, a month later, several New York counties are reporting that most of that money – provided to comply with new requirements of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act – has already been spent on or committed to those original goals. That has left few resources available to support young people who find themselves aging out alone in the middle of a global public health and economic crisis.
Erie, Onondaga and Dutchess counties each confirmed that they had committed all of the funding allocated to them in last year’s budget, which may be used until the end of next March, while Rockland County said it had less than $10,000 remaining. In the spring, before the decision to tap into the Family First transition fund to support foster youth who age out was made, Governor Cuomo signed a new budget allocating the same amount to it as the previous year. So far, the counties have not received any of the current fiscal year’s transition fund, and said they did not yet know exactly how or when it would be disbursed.
In the meantime, the four counties plus Albany have identified 20 young people who will age out of care before the end of the year, at least eight of whom have been identified as needing additional support after their 21st birthday. In Erie and Dutchess counties alone, another 21 young people have already aged out of care or left voluntarily this year.
Under state law, social services departments cannot discharge a young person from foster care unless they have a safe and stable transition plan. In lieu of drawing on the Family First transition funds, counties said that for now they are using other federal funding to help young adults attain self-sufficiency, including the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program from the Administration for Children and Families and the Foster Youth to Independence Initiative from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Still, as long as foster care ends at 21, some young adults who have been living in foster or group home placements may have to locate a new place to live after aging out.
To minimize the number of transitions in a chaotic time, many advocates – as well as some county social service departments themselves – would prefer the state simply allow young people to remain in foster care beyond age 21.
“We feel that a voluntary extension in foster care with access to the new grant would be the most comprehensive way to support our young adults as they transition to the community,” Erie County wrote in a statement.
That sentiment was echoed by Jim Czarniak, a child welfare consultant for several counties including Erie, who until recently was the deputy commissioner of Children and Family Services for Onondaga County.
“Many advocates, myself included, feel that the response by OCFS is too narrowly focused and that these youth require all of the services that would be afforded to them beyond the emergency needs that OCFS are willing to cover with these funds,” he wrote in an email.
He worries that youth on the brink of adulthood need not only financial stability, but also more time to work on their goals for independent living with the support of a caseworker.
“We lost five of the most critical transition months with them,” Czarniak said. “I don’t know how we can compensate what they lost, except giving them back those five more months to do it right.”