As a young adult who spent nearly 8 years in foster care before aging out, you’d think I’d be used to feeling like my life is out of my control. Living in foster care means never knowing what the day will bring and what will happen next.
And, living through this COVID-19 epidemic is like reliving my time in foster care.
I’m one of the foster care success stories. I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2016, and have a good job with a research and evaluation firm, who have reassured us that our jobs are secure. I was planning to start graduate school this summer, but those plans are on hold for now.
Despite being in a pretty good position, things are difficult for me without family I can turn to for emotional support, especially right now. I feel alone and worried. My roommates have all gone to be with their significant others. I barely have any human contact except when they come home to grab something. I don’t get outside much. Even if I work out from home, I still feel anxious and depressed.
I can’t imagine if this had happened to me when I aged out of foster care. I keep thinking about young people exiting care right now, without family, who haven’t graduated from college or landed a stable job. If I think I’m scared and alone, what must they be feeling?
There are some limited resources available to youth who transition from foster care without family, but not enough. These independent living services and supports are usually tied to being employed or in school. Unemployment is increasing rapidly in Minnesota and schools are on hold for the moment.
Since leaving care, I have advocated for ways to improve the child welfare system, and was selected as an “All-Star” intern for a great organization, FosterClub, the national network for foster youth. They recently conducted a survey to find out how the coronavirus epidemic is affecting youth from foster care.
Over 550 young adults responded to the survey, and reported they are facing:
Lost employment - Nearly half of transition age youth have lost employment opportunities. 28% have been laid off because of the crisis. Another 20% have seen their hours or gig work decreased.
Inability to receive unemployment benefits - Of those who filed for unemployment benefits, only half received it. Young people commented they didn’t understand how to apply or couldn’t find the information to apply.
Not receiving stimulus check - over half did not receive the stimulus check. 26% weren’t even sure if they are eligible.
Food insecurity - 26% of the respondents reported they worry they will not have enough to eat. 20% said they had run out of food.
Housing instability - 40% were forced to move or fear they will lose housing.
Food insecurity - nearly 30 percent are in a food crisis, or are very low in food supplies.
Insufficient financial resources - nearly a third have less than a week of money to pay for basic needs.
Clearly, youth transitioning from foster care need more support. They need Congress to pay attention and find ways to help them right away. I can think of two things that should be done.
First, youth who were formally transitioned out of foster care may not have access to the services they had while in care, such as housing or educational supports. Congress should allow young people to “re-enter” care because of this crisis, so that they can access these services and supports.
Second, Congress should increase support of the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP) which provides flexible funding to meet youth needs, including things like room and board, educational supports or job training. Young people need a way to access the Chafee supports, which might mean waivers of work and education requirements during this crisis.
Perhaps most of all, young people from foster care need someone they can call to ask for help; someone to check to see if they are ok. Chafee provides case management resources to keep eyes on a young person during this time. In the FosterClub survey, other young people from Minnesota reported feeling alone, and wishing they had “connections with more people to help me through this crisis.”
Youth with foster care experience need stability supports now more than ever. Housing, health care coverage, and enough money to cover basic needs are a must. If a youth lacks any of these, it’s a negative domino effect that leads to other issues, which costs everyone more money in the long run.
Most of our transitioning young adults don’t have anyone but Congress and their state child welfare systems to fall back on. I hope our elected representatives in Washington will hear their calls for help.
This perspective piece was written by Russell Barnes, a former foster youth from Minnesota.