California plans to distribute pandemic relief funds to current and former foster youth. But with a Sep. 3 application deadline approaching, advocates say the process has confused and even denied eligible youth, stalling much-needed lifeline benefits.
Struggling through the coronavirus pandemic in one of the nation’s most costly states without family to rely on, first-year college student Clarissa Peña needs to find a way to pay for meals and school expenses without hefty cash reserves on hand.
So when she learned that California would be distributing millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds to current and former foster youth this year, she jumped at the chance to apply.
“I had no idea this was a thing,” Peña, 18, said in an interview with The Imprint.
Her mind quickly leapt to all that the funds could help her cover: tuition, books, food. “That’s one issue I’m struggling with,” she said. “I have a 10 meal-per-week plan and I ration that out.”
Peña is one of roughly 31,000 current and former foster youth that the Golden State projected would be eligible to apply for the federal pandemic assistance funds when the program was announced in June.
But months later — with a deadline this Friday to apply for the funds — far fewer have been approved.
As of last week, just 6,000 young people ages 18 through 20 had been verified as eligible to receive one-time relief funds between $600 and $1,500 per person, according to data provided by the California Department of Social Services. The nonprofit group helping process applications reports that roughly 3,000 California foster youth have received their payments through virtual currency, totalling $2.3 million.
Peña is among those left waiting for the lifeline assistance to arrive.
Officials with the state agency did not respond to requests for comment on the delays in distributing pandemic relief to more young people. But in a public forum on Aug. 27, a week before the application deadline, a representative of the unit serving “transition-age” youth acknowledged some of the technical issues that have become obstacles to distributing the funds.
Leaders of youth-serving agencies and child advocates in California said in interviews this week that while some virtual payments have been distributed, the haphazard rollout of the relief payments has been confusing and opaque, with applicants left hanging and timelines poorly communicated. Still others have had no idea they may be eligible.
These frustrations have left some to conclude that — in fairness to this vulnerable population of young adults raised by the state — the timeline to apply should be extended.
“It would be great to see an extension,” said Susan Abrams, an policy and training director with the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents 33,000 California children of all ages in dependency court. “It would also be very helpful for individual counties to clarify the application process and to ensure that all youth who have open cases know where to go.”
The money waiting to be distributed comes from a federal pandemic relief package that included $400 million for direct cash assistance. California received roughly $55 million from the relief package in February, and announced its direct cash-assistance program in June, payments made through digital and physical prepaid cards. Those 20 and younger in the state’s extended foster care program could receive $600. Young adults ages 21 through 26 who had been in foster care would be eligible for $1,500.
But time is now running out to reach the thousands of people who might qualify for the help — a population with high rates of unemployment, homelessness and food insecurity. On Sept. 30, all states will be barred from using the money to help former foster youth who are older than 21 who have not already submitted applications. Those who are younger remain eligible through September 2022.
Like other youth between the ages of 18 to 20, Peña’s eligibility must be verified by the county where her foster care case is active. The county then refers her to the Department of Social Services, the state agency coordinating payments.
But the California State University at Long Beach freshman described the application process as “bumpy” and confusing. Peña said her social worker was unaware that the pandemic relief program even existed, and that it took weeks before she received an update on her eligibility.
“I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure these funds exist because people are signing up for them left and right,’” Peña said she told her case worker. “Will someone do it?” she asked, “because I want my money.”
Peña eventually received help from California Youth Connection, a foster youth advocacy nonprofit she’s been an active member of for two years. The group helped submit her information directly to the state.
According to data from Think of Us, the national nonprofit that developed California’s portal for applications, at least 10,000 current and former foster youth have submitted applications for the pandemic relief, but many have yet to be verified.
State child welfare officials have said physical payment cards will be shipped the first week of September and that youth who change their card type after receiving eligibility confirmation can expect additional delays.
For youth between age 18 to 20, eligibility verification falls on the state’s 58 counties, who must then submit confirmation to the state.
Sixto Cancel, founder and CEO of Think of Us, said verification can be delayed if a young person’s application doesn’t match data entered years before by county workers, when they first came into foster care. Information also won’t match if databases didn’t collect details such as cell phone numbers or email addresses, or if their personal information was entered incorrectly at an earlier point in time.
“This is a bigger symptom of the system,” Cancel said. “There may be bad data entered by thousands of people ten years ago, five years ago.”
In the public forum last Friday with foster youth advocates, Anthony Bennett, manager of the social service department’s transition age youth policy unit, echoed that observation. Bennett said state employees have been working to verify applicants’ eligibility, but there have often been delays when working across multiple state and county databases to verify each case.
“The behind-the-scenes process is quite daunting,” he said. “Unfortunately, when you have a data system that relies on the location where data is pulled from, if the input is wrong by the county, even if you’re right, there can be a mismatch.”
The data verification issues held up 23-year-old Emmerald Evans’ efforts to seek cash assistance.
Evans, a fifth year Sacramento State University student, told The Imprint she initially applied through the Think of Us portal, and was later told to fill out a second application for the state. She later received an email saying she was ineligible for the cash assistance — but the social services department did not say why she didn’t qualify.
Still others were rejected by letters with dry language about who was eligible and who wasn’t, such as this explanation of the age cutoff that stated: “This means that spending time in foster care, in and of itself, does not necessarily qualify you for payment.” Others were rejected because they did not have “an active order for placement upon turning 18,” had emancipated as minors, or “reunited with your family.”
In Evans’ case, she learned that she had been disqualified because the state thought she had been adopted before the age of 18, which meant she would not be eligible for the program known as extended foster care in California, which serves youth 18 through 21.
But Evans said she was lucky, because her social worker was accessible by phone and could clear up the matter based on the date of her adoption as a young adult.
Undeterred, and with support from nonprofit John Burton Advocates for Youth, Evans sent an email appealing the decision.
“Luckily, that got heads turned and they said they later learned of a complication with their database,” Evans said. “They said, ‘There was some confusion in the data but after we looked further, we saw you were eligible.’”
Yet while her eligibility issue has been cleared up, Evans said she still hasn’t been told when she can expect payment, or what email confirmation to look for.
Abrams of the Children’s Law Center said advocates have been fielding numerous requests like this from youth in need of help with their applications, and they are trying to spread the words about the availability of the funds to encourage more young people to apply. But she added that there are still many counties who haven’t contacted all eligible youth.
Given the dire need, Abrams said the state should examine whether it could distribute funds automatically to eligible youth in extended foster care, since it already has the personal information needed to verify eligibility. Even if state and county databases had some mismatched personal information that could impede the process of getting automatic payments to youth, “an opt-out would’ve been easier,” she said.
Serita Cox, CEO of the foster youth advocacy nonprofit iFoster, said some challenges she’s noticed while helping former foster youth with applications is that they may not know their social worker’s contact information or how their placement in the system changed over time. They may have also had a name change.
“From a broader sense, this just underlines an overarching issue with young people which is why aren’t they automatically enrolled in benefits?” Cox said. “Theoretically, we should know who they are. In our view, this is another example of what can be done, maybe at the federal level, so that it’s opt-out not opt-in for benefits.”
Peña, the freshman college student, said she wishes the process was easier. She knows some youth may have neglected the application for pandemic relief funds because they want to avoid the “foster” label, or having to engage further with former social workers.
“Others don’t want anything to do with the system or caregivers,” Peña said. “If I had a magic wand I would just give it to everyone eligible.”
The application for foster youth ages 21 through 26 requires a social security number and some other information, including the name of a social worker. The form can be accessed here. Youth between ages 18 and 20 must be referred by their social worker but can still apply here to receive help on the application. California foster youth filling out an application for pandemic relief funds are advised to take a screenshot and to save the application confirmation page once they have completed it. Applicants should receive an email from the state Department of Social Services verifying their eligibility. To check on status, email [email protected].