New York Taps Family First Act Fund to Prevent Aging Out During Pandemic

New York

After watching older friends lose access to services once they turn 21, Cheyanne Deopersaud, 18, began to advocate for extended services for foster youth, like the Fair Futures mentoring program in New York City. (Photo: Cheyenne Deopersaud)

For months since the eruption of the deadly coronavirus, youth and advocates have been imploring New York to allow young people in the foster care system to continue receiving financial and housing support beyond their 21st birthday.

Now, the state is endorsing a creative way for county social service departments to do just that – by using some of the money meant to help counties comply with the requirements of the Family First Prevention Services Act.

That law, which passed in 2018, overhauled national child welfare policy to increase federal spending on family preservation and restrict funding on group homes and institutions. 

In a letter sent July 3, Sheila Poole, commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, advised county social services leaders that they are now required to identify young adults in foster care who have no identified permanency resources and who are either at risk of homelessness, applying for welfare benefits, or have significant unmet service needs. 

“Youth who meet the above criteria must be affirmatively offered the option to remain in their current placement setting or other financial support for a setting of the young adult’s choice that is of equal or better safety and stability,” she wrote.

In the letter, Poole said her agency has made a state transition fund for the Family First Act, created to help counties prepare for the major change in federal law, available for counties to pay for this. “This allows local counties to continue the work while avoiding an undue financial burden,” she said.

The funding may be used to help young people who are aging out of foster care pay for basic needs like food, clothing, rent, utilities and phones, as well as for classes, career preparation, and mentoring programs.

The state described the new initiative as a “pilot program” that will test how it can best deploy funding to help young adults transition from foster care into independence more successfully. 

Two years ago, the Family First Act extended the age limit for Chafee grants – money that helps former foster youth up to age 23 pay for housing, college or career training. With schools shut down and unemployment soaring due to the coronavirus pandemic, New York is now considering whether to use that pot of funds to offer a wider range of services for adults emerging from the foster care system.

In a memo, advocates at Lawyers for Children and CHAMPS-NY hailed the policy as an “important first step” – but said broader legislation is still needed to extend supportive services to all young people who need them.

“These protocols do not cover many other youth who may need safe haven during this difficult time,” they wrote, urging the passage of two recently proposed bills they say would offer “more comprehensive relief.” 

The state’s new guidance makes extended services available to fewer youth than the pending legislation; only those who are in “imminent need” and without a “safe and stable transition plan” are eligible. In her letter, Poole said the state would soon send each county social services agency a list of young adults who qualify for extended services.

But Cheyanne Deopersaud, who is 18 and grew up in foster care in Queens, says all youth should have access to continued services after they turn 21 – not just those in the most dire situations. Over the last year, she has met with City Council members and state legislators to advocate for New York City’s Fair Futures mentoring program, which serves young adults through age 26.

“We are all foster kids, and it’s sad to see that the government isn’t helping us equally when we rely on them,” she said. “My cousin is 25, and he still relies on his mom to help him out financially and emotionally. We really don’t have that luxury – and it’s sad to call it a luxury, because everybody’s supposed to have that.”

Another key difference is that the state’s new policy extends only to young people who turn 21 between March 1 and Dec. 31 of this year, while the bills would offer services to those who turned 21 any time during the COVID-19 state of emergency and for six months after it ends. Additionally, the recent state guidance does not alter the standard process by which youth 18 to 20 who chose to leave foster care can re-enter the system, which requires seeking a judge’s permission, while the proposed bills include a provision that would allow former foster youth to re-enter care without a court process during the state of emergency. 

While they applaud the step forward, some advocates warn that it will likely take some trial and error for local agencies to develop a process for identifying eligible youth and connecting them to services.

“I foresee challenges in some localities because the structure may not be there yet and the devil is in the details,” said Judy Gerber, who heads the Attorneys for Children Unit at Legal Aid of Buffalo. “That said, I am thrilled that OCFS has come forth with this protocol.”

Although Deopersaud won’t reach her 21st birthday for several years, watching older friends lose their services has already left her worried about how she’ll find her footing on her own.

“I’m really scared – we’re real people, we’re kids, and we need help,” she said. “Hopefully before I turn 21, I’ll fight enough that we’ll get the funding and the support that we deserve.”

The state established a Family First Transition Fund in March of 2019 as part of the annual budget, with $3.6 million in initial money going out to counties. The fund was continued in this year’s final budget at the same amount.

New York is also slated to receive about $20 million from the federal government as part of a national transition fund to help states prepare for and implement the Family First Act.

Megan Conn can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

CORRECTION: This article previously stated that the state would use its share of the federal Family First Transition Fund to support youth at risk of aging out. We have updated to reflect that it has allowed the state Family First Transition Fund for this purpose. Updated on July 15, 2020.

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