Champions for young adults in foster care say that as many as 18,000 could be pushed out of the system next week when a federal moratorium on “aging out” during the pandemic expires.
Legislation has been introduced to extend the moratorium, along with other financial assistance aimed at supporting older and former foster youth during the ongoing national emergency. But with hopes of quick passage before the deadline dwindling, advocates are pushing states and communities to take action and the Biden administration is considering what it can do without Congress.
For some foster youth who age out on October 1, “it will be the start of a positive chapter in their lives. It will be a transition,” said Sixto Cancel, CEO and founder of the nonprofit Think of Us, at a virtual town hall on the issue held on Monday. “I truly wish that would be everyone’s story, but the truth is, it will not be.”
Asked by Youth Services Insider where the 18,000 estimate came from, Cancel said it is based on a recent annual average of 23,000 youth aging out of foster care, which amounts to about 2,000 per month. The moratorium has last nine months, hence 18,000.
It is an admittedly rough estimate, he said, as there is no hard data being reported nationwide on how many young adults chose to remain in foster care beyond their state’s usual ceiling (in most states, that is 21). California is likely home to more than one thousand people currently protected from aging out, and state legislation there has shielded those young adults until December 31 of this year.
On the other hand, the federal moratorium also allowed young adults who had already aged out in 2020 to re-enter foster care if they wanted to. And there is no telling how many did so; “it might be four or five thousand, or it might have been 10,000,” Cancel said.
Aysha Schomburg, the associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, said that her agency was working on the possibility of helping more states quickly raise the age ceiling of their independent living programs. The ceiling on federal independent living funds has been age 23 since 2018, but just about half of states have so far chosen to raise it that high.
Schomburg said the bureau would also be determining what sort of bridge support it could help state child welfare agencies access using the Stafford Act, which eases some administrative restrictions for the executive branch during a declared national emergency. The Trump administration invoked the Stafford Act to ease some restrictions on federal funds for extended foster care early on in the pandemic, before Congress had approved the Chafee pandemic assistance plan.
“Let’s leave no stone unturned, people,” Schomburg said. “We have to be creative.” She urged local officials and leaders interested in finding bridge strategies for those that might age out next week to get in contact with the regional support offices of the Administration for Children and Families, the federal agency that houses the Children’s Bureau.
That plan, which was included in the December 2020 coronavirus relief signed by former President Donald Trump, included two big-ticket items. The first was a moratorium on aging out of the system that was set to last through September 30, 2021. This allowed young people in foster care to remain there even after turning 21, and it allowed anyone who had left foster care since March of 2020 to re-enter the system if they wanted.
The other big provision was a $400 million augmentation of the annual allocation to states under the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood. Through Chafee, states can provide a variety of supports to youth up to age 23 to promote independent living — including simply cutting them checks — and support those in postsecondary education with vouchers to help pay for tuition, housing and other costs.
The coronavirus aid temporarily increased the universe of people that could be helped through Chafee to age 27, and required that states make genuine efforts to do outreach and let potential recipients know of their eligibility. And while it was not conveyed in the actual legislative language, child welfare leaders in both the Trump and Biden administrations have urged states to provide direct cash support with some or all of their allotment.
The idea was that adding extra money to the long-running program would make it easy enough for states to receive their portion and get it out the door quickly. But the process has hit various snags from state to state: slow starts in launching assistance programs, trouble effectively reaching eligible people, or waiting on state legislatures to approve spending plans. And next week, the ability to reach the older group of former foster youth (between 21 and 27) will expire, and states will have another year to spend the remaining pandemic money to support the younger adults.
A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would maintain the moratorium and the higher age ceiling through next September, and advocates are meeting with other legislators in the hopes of convincing them to add it to one of the bigger pieces of legislation up for discussion at the moment. But the likelihood of it passing before the moratorium ends are slim to none.
“The pandemic is not over and there will be an extended recovery period for young people and the agencies we call on to serve them,” said Todd Lloyd, a senior policy associate for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which operates an initiative aimed at improving the well-being of transition-age youth in foster care.
The foundation also supports making the pandemic relief changes to Chafee permanent, maintaining a new age ceiling of 27 and positioning the program as part of a more dedicated effort to differentiate children’s services in child welfare from a system that focuses on adolescents and young adults.
“Extending this relief to states can serve as a down payment on the new service infrastructure that is so desperately needed in attempting to serve such a significant population of youth and young adults,” Lloyd said.
Cancel, on the virtual town hall, urged state policymakers and community leaders to consider local plans for supporting former foster youth in the meantime. Among the suggestions: dedicated support to jobs, which in some parts of the country are in high supply; surplus food and kitchenware programs; small funds to cover rent deposits, which are often not supported by housing vouchers; and assisting them with applications for food stamps, tax filing and other things that could lead to more benefits.