COVID-19 Strips Safety Net for Foster Youth ‘Aging Out’ During Pandemic
— Lack of coordination leaves many transition-age youth homeless, hungry, and alone
Last October when Larry Malcolm Smith Jr. approached his 21st birthday — the year most foster youth in New York City leave the system — he thought he would be linked to healthcare, housing, and job opportunities before gaining his independence.
Instead, he walked out of his agency’s doors with a MetroCard allowing a single round trip on the city’s buses and subways.
“I was in college, living in my school dorm, when I got a phone call that said I had to come to SEO family services on Jamaica Avenue,” Smith told MedPage Today. “They were like, ‘You’re leaving.'”
By December, Smith was homeless. A few months later, the first wave of COVID-19 surged through the city, killing more than 18,000 people in New York City by June and leaving the largest recession in decades in its wake.
As the pandemic forced most employees to work remotely and put public assistance services on hold, it robbed many foster youth of the preparatory services typically provided in the 6 months before aging out. But pediatricians, social workers, and foster care advocates told MedPage Today that the transition process was already failing many teens in the foster system before the pandemic.
Jim Czarniak, former deputy commissioner for the Onondaga County Department of Children and Family Services in New York, said the last 5 to 6 months adolescents spend in foster care are “crucial in terms of setting up employment safety nets and housing.”
“Losing case management is going to have a lot of irreparable harm done to these kids who didn’t have any opportunity for service,” Czarniak told MedPage Today.
Some young people who aged out have gone hungry for days because social services were unavailable during the pandemic, said Felicia Wilson, founder of What About Us Inc. A former employee of the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice and the Administration for Children Services (ACS), she went through 63 homes in the city’s foster care system herself before aging out at 21.
Youth have also come to her because they couldn’t apply for food stamps without access to laptops, she said. Some who did apply have waited 90 days with no reply.
“When COVID happened, everything was panic mode,” Wilson told MedPage Today. “For youth in foster care in NYC, there was nothing set in place for emergencies like this.”
‘Aging Out’ During COVID
Children typically age out of foster care at age 18, but the majority of states, including New York, permit extension services for transition-age youth up to age 21. Before the pandemic, this group of “transition age” adolescents between 18 to 23 faced increased risk for homelessness, food insecurity, pregnancy, and incarceration — all of which have been exacerbated.
The number of young people living at home right now eclipses the number during the Great Depression, said Celeste Bodner, head coach at Foster Club, a national network for youth in foster care.
“We know that our young people, as a population, do not have the safety net of going home,” Bodner told MedPage Today.
In one national study of 281 transitioning foster youth conducted in April, 55% reported being food insecure because of COVID-19, 48% said they were laid off or had their work hours severely cut, and 72% reported having no more than one month’s worth of expenses available.
Just over half of respondents reported symptoms of depression or anxiety and nearly half reported housing instability.
Johanna Greeson, PhD, managing faculty director for The Field Center for Children’s Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the report, said what struck her most was the hopelessness she heard in participants’ responses to open-ended questions.
Young people who were in foster care or who had recently aged out wrote about struggling to pay rent, losing access to housing and mental health supports, and battling to succeed at online schooling.
Greeson also asked whether these young people had at least one adult, other than a caseworker, who they could turn to for support during the pandemic. About 20% had a formal mentor through their foster agency and another 28% had “natural mentors” such as a relative, teacher, or pastor.
But 14% said they had no such mentor at all, and that they were “almost entirely alone,” Greeson noted.
Overall, the pandemic burst a “protected bubble” for many current and former foster youth, leaving them floundering, Greeson said.
In other words, youth were left asking, “Who is going to look out for me?” Greeson said.
Budget Cuts & Resource Challenges
ACS, which provides services to New York City children in foster care, has endured repeated budget cuts in recent years. For fiscal year 2021, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reduced the reimbursements that the state’s child welfare funding stream can provide the city by an estimated $14 million. That follows a $30-million reduction in state funding for juvenile justice programs enacted in 2019. That in turn followed a $44-million annual budget cut in ACS’ funding in 2018 as a result of reduced funding from the statewide Foster Care Block Grant, which reimburses localities for foster care expenditures.
An ACS spokesperson told MedPage Today in an email that New York’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) allocated one-time Families First Transition Act Aging Out Funds to ACS for youth turning 21 between March 1 and December 31, 2020. However, those funds will expire at the end of the year.
OCFS also allowed counties outside of New York City to reallocate funds from the Families First Prevention Services Act, originally intended to prioritize family preservation and reduce placements in group homes, to older youth with “imminent need” aging out during the pandemic.
But in some counties, that money was already spent, or is running out, said Czarniak.
“It’s something to help bridge gaps, but what I think they’re missing is the additional case management and the side by side case worker support to help them through those things,” Czarniak said.
Independent Living Programs (ILP) for foster youth, which provide transitioning youth with the tools they need to become independent — like housing, employment, and financial literacy training — are available to most foster youth through age 21.