More than 80% of Minnesota current or former foster youth have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, and the fallout has been disproportionately borne by African Americans and American Indians, according to a report released today by the Foster Advocates, a St. Paul nonprofit.
In addition, a third of the state’s current and former foster youth have lost employment during the pandemic.
“It’s very, very obvious that COVID is having a tremendously negative effect on fosters,” said Hoang Murphy, founder and executive director of Foster Advocates.
The organization presented the results of the anonymous survey in a webinar. A total of 156 responded to the survey, which was sent to current and former foster youth ages 14 to 26 across Minnesota from June 15 through July 12. Forty-six of Minnesota’s 87 counties were represented.
In Minnesota, about 15,300 children and young adults experienced foster care in 2019, according to a report from the state Department of Human Services.
Nikki Farago, Minnesota’s assistant commissioner for children and family services, declined an interview for this story. But in a written statement to The Imprint, she said, “The Minnesota Department of Human Services is deeply concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on foster youth. Social isolation, housing stability, technology, food insecurity, academic changes and uncertainty, unemployment and other economic issues have created stressful conditions for many foster youth.
The most urgent needs revealed by the survey were in the areas of finances, employment, housing security, mental health and isolation.
Many of those surveyed older than 18 were very concerned about paying for basic needs in August. Forty-eight percent were worried about paying for food; 43%, housing; 43%, phone service.
Keyana, 21, a former foster youth in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, said her 40-hour work week barely allows her to afford the apartment where she lives with her two young sons. Since her employer doesn’t pay sick leave, she’s had trouble getting an appointment with an oral surgeon for a painful infected wisdom tooth. Those appointments have been limited by COVID-19, she said.
“All the appointments that are around my work schedule are taken,” she said. “The earliest they had available as of two weeks ago was Sept. 30. I have to work around my work schedule because I can’t miss hours at work or else I’ll be short on rent, and then I’ll be evicted. It’s just really stressful.”
The isolation brought on by the pandemic is another major concern.
Qualitative data in the survey “showed strong themes of depression, anxiety, PTSD and/or feeling suicidal.” the report said. “Agencies must do as much as possible right now to facilitate cultural and family contact and find ways for youth to socialize. Isolation is life-threatening – for some foster youth, mental illness may have a higher fatality rate than coronavirus.”
More support from their caseworkers would also be helpful, several youth reported. Ziigwan, a 20-year-old former foster youth living in rural Minnesota with her 17-month-old son, noted that she would have appreciated more attention during such a difficult time.
“I would think it would be of more importance to check in with the youth that you’re working with during a pandemic,” she told a reporter. “We have our sometimes-monthly phone calls, but when everything hit – I mean, it’s scary as a single mom being quarantined and locked in, but she never really reached out to be like, ‘Hey, are you guys OK? Do you need anything?’“
The report included a number of recommendations, among them:
- Minnesota should declare a moratorium on youths aging out of foster care. (Several states – including California, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Rhode Island – imposed such moratoria earlier this year.) Aging out of foster care, even in the best of times, often results in a greater risk of homelessness or incarceration for former foster youth.
- The state and counties need to do more to connect fosters to available resources. For example: 14% of those surveyed did not know if they have health insurance, even though all current and former foster youth are guaranteed medical insurance until age 26. And despite the fact that the Minnesota Education and Training Voucher (ETV) program provides up to $5,000 per youth per year to support those attending post-secondary school, a majority (68%) of those not receiving such funds were unaware of the program. (Minnesota awarded funds to 140 students for the 2020-21 school year, according to the Department of Human Services.)
- While there is a need for more data about COVID-19’s impact on housing instability of foster youth, the lack of data should not delay a response. Studies have shown homelessness is highly predictable – and preventable for former foster youth.
- All fosters, current and former, must have access to telehealth. Such access can help address the mental health crisis spawned by the pandemic.
- Former foster youth must be included in planning around distance learning resources, needs assessment for in-person vs. distance learning supports, and other supports, such as housing.
Murphy said there have been only two national studies on the impact of COVID-19 on foster youth, the most comprehensive from the Field Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Those results closely mirror those of the Foster Advocates survey.
Foster Advocates created the survey because the state is abdicating its responsibilities toward foster youth in this difficult time, Murphy said.
The state Department of Human Services (DHS) told him this spring that they didn’t believe COVID-19 was having an impact on current and former foster youth , he said. “They said, ‘We don’t see an issue. If there is one, you have to prove it.’”
That runs counter to the approach taken nationally with the general population, Murphy said. “We didn’t say, ‘Hey, are you being impacted?’ No, we knew it, so we did something about it. If you see the train coming, you don’t wait for the train to hit people and say, ‘OK, now I’ll do something.’”
In her statement to The Imprint, Assistant Commissioner Farago said her agency is working with local partners to hear coronavirus-related policy concerns and make temporary changes such as increased flexibility or reduced barriers on state funding.
“We have regular contact with foster youth through our youth council, made up of former foster care youth, and also set up conference calls with case managers focusing on youth needs during COVID-19,” the statement said.
Murphy said Minnesota’s efforts have fallen woefully short. “My nonprofit exists because of the failures of DHS,” he said. “If DHS did its job, we would close.”
The full results of the Foster Advocates survey will be released in October.