Young adults in need of assistance in Los Angeles County who are used to living life through their mobile devices now have ready access to benefits that could help them avoid homelessness, hunger and other hazards of life after foster care.
Eighteen and pregnant looking for services to prepare you for parenthood? Twenty-two and looking for housing on your own for the first time?
Is there training for work as a mechanic at age 23?
A new digital tool aims to answer those questions for local youth ages 14 to 26 who are currently or or have been in foster care or on probation. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services’ “Benefits Eligibility Finder” was launched earlier this month on the agency’s website, allowing users to filter results based on factors like age and education level. The portal makes clear that information provided is anonymous, and questionnaire results are not linked to any personal information. “Your data is not kept nor tracked,” the site assures users.
In a press release announcing the new tool, department Director Brandon Nichols said, “It’s important to us that young people and their support systems have easy access to the information that can help their transition to adulthood be as successful as possible.”
There are roughly 7,400 young people ages 14 through 21 under the department’s supervision and about 1,600 more who age out of the state’s largest child welfare system each year. Yet even in a relatively resource-rich place like this massive Southern California county, finding housing, health care, job training or financial aid can be challenging for many young people trying to survive without the guidance of an adult family member. Services are scattered across different agencies, and eligibility varies widely depending on the program. Some housing services for foster youth end at age 21, while access to employment-related programs can last until age 24.
Can I get food stamps? Medi-Cal? What about subsidized day care?
Officials from Los Angeles County’s Office of Child Protection want these questions answered quickly, simply and in an accessible way. They described the Benefits Eligibility Finder as a way to expand awareness of all the supportive programs that are available to current and former foster youth — before they end up in a crisis.
“We realized that there wasn’t one specific place to go to get all this information at once.”— Elizabeth Koenig, analyst with L.A. County’s Office of Child Protection
Young people who age out of foster care without an arrangement to live with relatives or a connection with another caring adult are far more likely than their peers to experience poverty, arrests and poor health outcomes.
Eyeing these well-known statistics, Los Angeles County launched a project in 2018 to create clear pathways to more permanent living arrangements. Interviews with caregivers and youth revealed the critical role of public benefits and how often entitlements were left untapped due to a lack of knowledge or connections.
Elizabeth Koenig, an analyst with the Office of Child Protection, said youth and social workers have had a hard time finding information about benefits. The services can be crucial at many junctures, but particularly for young people deciding whether to stay in foster care after age 18 or go it alone.
“There are a million different websites that we have to look at, and sometimes they’re out of date,” Koenig said. “We realized that there wasn’t one specific place to go to get all this information at once.”
Under the leadership of former Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash, the Office of Child Protection he now heads created a guide to benefits that are available to current and former foster youth and young people leaving the juvenile justice system.
The 67-page document was created with help from the nonprofit Alliance for Children’s Rights, and included information from all county agencies offering services available to this population and related requirements.
But interviews with young people revealed that a lengthy document can be cumbersome and hard to understand, Koenig said. So with financial support from the Rotary Club of Los Angeles, the Office of Child Protection created an interactive, electronic version that would be more user-friendly for youth.
“Creating ‘anytime access’ to information and resources promotes individual agency for transition age youth to help them develop and achieve their employment and education goals,” Alliance for Children’s Rights President and CEO Jennifer Braun stated in a press release. “That is critical for helping young people make the decisions themselves about how best to use public benefits, which can empower lives and transform futures.”