For young people in New York foster care, turning 21 is too often a sign that they are truly on their own in a world that hasn’t been kind to them.
And that was before coronavirus.
Sadaf Sheikh will turn 21 in two weeks — eight long years after first entering foster care. Since January, when she got her own apartment in public housing, Sheikh said she’s been pressured by caseworkers to age out of the system “as soon as possible.” Months have gone by without receiving her regular stipend.
A group of statewide legal advocates wants to prevent these desperate, often hidden situations. They are now imploring the governor to declare a moratorium on automatically cutting off young people like Sheikh who turn 21 during the pandemic. Without steady support, they fear hundreds of young New Yorkers will age out of foster care amidst the punishing coronavirus pandemic — which has infected at least 318,000 New Yorkers and killed nearly 20,000 — leaving them to seek shelter on their own. Those with no one to call on now risk joining the desperate homeless, who ride the subway at night, huddle under scaffolding, or jostle for a place in crowded city shelters where the virus has already spread.
The attorneys, who represent youth in foster care from Buffalo to Rochester to Long Island, sent a letter on April 24 asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to pause the exits of young adults ages 18 and up from foster care for 180 days. Young people set on getting out of the system would still be able to leave.
The alternative, advocates say, is sending the state’s most vulnerable young people out to fend for themselves at a time when the economy is all but shut down, and government and nonprofit agencies are inundated.
“Unlike other young people all over the country, these youth do not have the option to seek refuge with their parents,” stated the letter, signed by nine New York state attorneys who lead firms representing children. “They are all in foster care precisely because it would not be safe for them to return home.”
The lawyers also want to allow young people who were discharged from foster care after turning 18 — but who have not yet turned 21 — to return to care without the approval of a court, as is typically required.
According to the Office of Children and Family Services, there were 1,569 New York youth ages 18 and older in foster care at the beginning of this year. Another 1,075 young adults left foster care in 2019, but could be eligible to re-enter the system, under the proposal to the governor.
The Governor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on the letter, and on Monday, the signatories said they still had not received a response.
If he were to issue the order advocates seek, Cuomo would be the fifth governor to act to allow young adults to remain in foster care past age 21 during the pandemic, after California, Illinois, Rhode Island and Ohio. Washington, D.C., has also adopted legislation allowing young people to remain in foster care past age 21 during a public health emergency.
With the pandemic now upending every aspect of city life, it’s hard to imagine a more difficult time for a young person like Sheikh to try to make it on her own.
As the city shut down in March, Sheikh lost her job at K-Mart. A college junior studying social work, her applications for related jobs and internships have gone unanswered. She was especially disappointed to lose her long-awaited opportunity to take driver’s education classes, paid for by her agency. She asked if they could pre-pay for a few sessions, but they turned her down.
Alone in her apartment, fasting for the month of Ramadan, she worries for what the future holds. Despite her mixed experiences in foster care, given current events, she would “definitely consider” remaining in care past age 21 — if she had the choice.
“Aging out is a big move for any youth, and if we don’t receive the support we need,” Sheikh said, “it won’t be a smooth transition to a new path.”
Changes to federal law in 2008 expanded funding for young people in foster care from age 18 to age 21. Participants in extended foster care must agree to work and study requirements or prove they have a disabling condition.
In 2010, New York state began to allow more foster youth to remain in their foster homes, or receive housing support and, in some instances, monthly stipends. In New York City, some young adults can receive support after their 21st birthdays, but that option is not always available in the state’s 62 counties, and it can be difficult to achieve.
In New York City, the Administration for Children’s Services has been considering requests to extend care past age 21 on a case-by-case basis, according to Betsy Kramer, the policy director at Lawyers for Children, who drafted the letter. But such requests require an application to be submitted on behalf of a young person, documenting that they have a disability or mental health diagnosis, or that they are waiting to be approved for housing. That process can take months or years.
“It’s a fairly onerous process, and with everything going on, there are certainly caseworkers that are unavailable, that are dealing with their own health issues or family health issues or all of the crises affecting kids in foster care,” Kramer said. “It’s just one more thing to add to everyone’s plate, and added stress for young people in foster care that they should not have right now.”
Kramer said even her attorneys have had difficulty petitioning for extended benefits. One client who was allowed to remain in care after turning 21 is nearing the end of his extension but has been unable to get a second extension approved — or even confirm if the required paperwork has been filed. Adding to the urgency of the situation, the young person’s last extended foster care check, sent to his foster parent, was inexplicably less than usual.
With service providers hobbled and the family courts closed, transition plans that are required before young adults exit care cannot be ensured, said Stephen Weisbeck, director of the juvenile justice program at the Legal Aid Society in Rochester. With so many service providers shut down, it’s now impossible to line up stable housing, employment, healthcare and mental health services.
Currently, courts across the state are operating virtually and are only hearing “essential matters.” In Rochester, permanency planning hearings, which must be held every six months for older youth, were only recently designated as essential after being paused for several weeks. In New York City, permanency planning hearings have not yet resumed since the courts closed on March 17.
“I’ve been practicing since 1995,” Weisbeck said, “and I’ve never seen courts closed for this long — even after 9/11.”
Jim Czarniak, who was deputy commissioner of child welfare in Onondaga County for the last four years, said in-person help is key to helping young people apply for a job, public housing or Medicaid.
“It’s a struggle even when we’re operational,” Czarniak said. “It seems unfair to me to that we’d just say, ‘I’m sorry we’re unable to do that, so good luck.’”
Onondaga County has asked its case management contractors to provide extra support for two young people, ages 18 and 21, who left the system in early March, Czarniak said, but he said offering such services will probably become unsustainable without additional funding.
Georgia Boothe, vice president of Children’s Aid in New York City, said the clearest sign that young people in foster care are worried about making it on their own during the coronavirus shutdown is the recent dropoff in calls from young people asking to leave foster care. Usually, she says, young people who feel ready to age out are “knocking down the doors” of her agency, sometimes calling every staff member up to the executive director.
But lately, she hasn’t been hearing from any youth who are eager to leave.
“This COVID situation is like a cloud,” she said, “and they’re not sure when it’s going to go away — or if it will go away.”
Megan Conn can be reached at [email protected].