Greg Lehman/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, young adults who left Washington State’s foster care system after suffering abuse or neglect as children were at risk for a litany of serious problems.
Without the financial and social safety nets enjoyed by many of their peers, young adults who must leave the protection of the foster-care system are a vulnerable group, national studies have shown. They are disproportionately people of color. Many become homeless. Statistically, they are more likely to commit crimes and to be arrested or jailed, and less likely to attend college. Many of these “aged-out” foster youth run short on rent and utility bills and depend on food stamps or other government support.
All that was the reality well before the coronavirus pandemic pummeled the economy. Now many of these young people across Washington are struggling to pay for rent and groceries, according to foster-youth advocacy organizations.
“This is a pretty scary time for everybody,” said Liz Trautman, director of public policy and advocacy for The Mockingbird Society, a Seattle-based nonprofit. But for foster youth, she said, the pandemic is “particularly scary and destabilizing.”
Even some of these young people who had achieved stability “feel that that’s been ripped out,” Trautman said.
Advocates for foster kids have spotlighted a solution that some other states have adopted that would help at least some of these young adults. In a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Children, Youth & Families Secretary Ross Hunter in early April, Mockingbird and other youth-advocacy groups pointed to the state’s Extended Foster Care system. The initial version of the program was established more than a decade ago. It allows youth who leave the regular foster care system at age 18 to continue receiving state aid with housing for three years, at which point they must exit this special program. As of late May, there were just over 800 people, ages 18 to 20, in the program.
The answer adopted by other states during the pandemic: Stop kicking young people out of Extended Foster Care when they turn 21. That’s what foster-youth advocates are calling for.
Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said in an email to InvestigateWest that no such moratorium is on the table.
Instead, Inslee’s office said his policy team is working with DCYF and with state financial officials on “a housing stability program that sits outside” the Extended Foster Care system. The proposed program would give needs-based housing grants to people who, on their 21st birthdays, are leaving Extended Foster Care, Faulk told InvestigateWest.
The program is aimed at helping young adults at risk of losing housing due to COVID-19, such as those who have lost a job or income, Faulk wrote. That’s significant because Extended Foster Care gives young adults foster-care payments for either a traditional foster home or an independent living arrangement, such as a college dormitory.
Jess Lewis, the DCYF official with department oversight of Extended Foster Care, said, “We’re actually looking at an opportunity to have the flexibility to serve youth beyond their 21st birthday.” Lewis added, “I think it will be something different from a moratorium.”
While young people wait on Olympia to find out what will happen once they exit Extended Foster Care, a number of them are receiving help from charitable groups.
Esther Taylor spent years-long stretches in foster care, living with a relative, and in Extended Foster Care. Now, at 21 years old, she is on her own in an apartment in College Place, where she is a junior at Walla Walla University.
The hours for her campus job were halved after the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“It’s stressful,” Taylor said of her usual 10 hours per week for the university’s communication and languages office getting cut down to just five hours. However, she got financial support: Taylor, who rents her apartment through a youth housing program managed by Catholic Charities, said the program covered her rent for April and May.
“I didn’t have to pay anything, which was a huge blessing,” Taylor said.
Times are tough for young adults because they lack the savings of older people. That is especially true for those who are in the Extended Foster Care program, those who have turned 21 and left it since early March and those on the cusp of leaving it now.
The correlation between a young person spending time in the foster system and becoming homeless is a problem threatening to explode.
Extended Foster Care, on the other hand, has proven results in keeping young adults in stable housing.
“We really believe it is one of the programs that has reduced homelessness for young people,” said Jim Theofelis, executive director of anti-youth-homelessness group A Way Home Washington.
“So we’ve come a long way, and we don’t want to return” to homelessness for foster youth, Theofelis said.
In fact, a just-released analysis of the effects of Extended Foster Care in Washington State concluded that the average youth in the program fared far better than ones who didn’t participate in it. The report last week by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy said Extended Foster Care “significantly reduced” homelessness, use of food stamps and welfare, use of emergency rooms and criminal convictions. Also, the typical participant “was more likely to be employed and have greater earnings.”
If the pandemic continues until the end of 2020 or longer, it could endanger the housing and financial stability of hundreds of young adults. In 2019, roughly 150 young adults in Extended Foster Care turned 21 and, as a result, fell out of the program, according to Lewis and DCYF spokeswoman Debra Johnson.
Helping hands for foster youth
Private nonprofit agencies working with current and former foster youth living on their own are seeing the damage.
“They have been really impacted,” said Sarah Birch, an education specialist with foster youth education group Treehouse, of her student clients in Bellingham and Sedro-Woolley in northwest Washington. She works with 20 young people formerly or currently in foster care, ranging from high-school freshmen to 21-year-olds getting their GED or studying in special education programs.
Her older cohort has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus epidemic.
One high school student lost her salary in the food industry, with her employer cutting her hours from about 40 per week to about 15. She’d been staying on someone’s couch but had to move out to a hotel about the same time — making her effectively homeless.
Now she has found a rental, and Treehouse has arranged to help pay for her groceries. While she was in the hotel, Birch was communicating with her almost daily. Birch said the young woman knows that Birch cares deeply about her. “A lot of kids in foster care have been let down by a lot of adults,” said Birch.
Many current and former foster youth who are in the workforce have lost their jobs, said Julie Brown, the director of foster care transitions at the Accelerator YMCA in King County.
Brown runs a program that helps 15- to 23-year-olds who are aging out or have aged out of foster care with education, housing, employment and life skills such as budgeting. Losing a part-time or full-time job leaves young adults in a precarious position, since they might lack the family ties, homes and finances that are keeping non-foster youth afloat. “There’s a lack of a fallback,” Brown said.
She said she is especially worried about the scheduled end of the statewide moratorium on residential evictions. That was set for June 4 until Inslee on Tuesday extended it to Aug. 1. Brown said the fact that these young people have now gone weeks — or perhaps months — without salaries could mean that they will be unable to pay their next rent bills and be evicted. “Housing instability is something we’re just bracing for,” she said.
Special foster care for young adults provides a safety net of sorts for youth aging out of regular foster care. But turning 21 in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, during which hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians have filed for unemployment with the state, is daunting for any young person, much less one without financial and family support.
A long list of foster-care advocacy groups is now trying to make this time less frightening with temporary changes to the foster-care system.
In the letter emailed to Inslee and DCYF’s Hunter in early April, leaders from Mockingbird, Treehouse and 17 other groups called on the state not only to create a moratorium on discharging young adults from the special foster-care program, but also to offer them other protections. For example, they asked Inslee and Hunter to waive eligibility requirements for current and prospective enrollees into the special program.
Currently, according to state regulation, young people must be engaged in one of four types of settings to enter Extended Foster Care. They can be enrolled in high school or a GED program; enrolled in vocational or post-secondary academic offerings; participating in a program to help them get a job; or employed 80 hours a month. (Exceptions are made for those who have a documented medical condition that prevents them from taking part in those settings.)
Lewis at DCYF said the department isn’t waiving eligibility requirements for Extended Foster Care. However, “if a youth loses their job, they shouldn’t be kicked out of Extended Foster Care,” Lewis said. “We’ve been very clear about that.”
Foster-care advocates are growing restless for action from Inslee to help young adults who have foster-care history.
“This has just taken way too long,” Theofelis said of Inslee not issuing a moratorium in the nearly two months since he and others signed the letter to Inslee and Hunter.
Theofelis talked about “the young person who’s going to turn 21 in June, the level of stress and anxiety they’re feeling” as they near a discharge from the special foster-care program.
“I’m concerned that it’s two months after the crisis has begun,” Trautman said. “People have already aged out since this crisis began,” she added.
Faulk said the governor’s team ruled out a moratorium on discharging young people from Extended Foster Care because the so-called “four corners” of the Legislature — the speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the Senate majority leader and the Senate minority leader — haven’t granted Inslee all of the specific moratorium extensions that he has requested. Inslee needs the unanimous permission of those four leaders to suspend state law for more than 30 days if the Legislature isn’t in session, according to state law.
When asked why Inslee hasn’t acted faster to protect young adults coming out of foster care, Faulk replied in an email that it is a matter of procedure. Noting that a proclamation that keeps young people from being kicked out of the Extended Foster Care program is effective for only 30 days, Faulk said it “is not a workable solution.” He added, “This is because legislative approval to continue proclamations has been difficult and unpredictable.”
Saying “the governor does not want foster youth to age out of the system into homelessness as a result of the COVID-19 crisis,” Faulk also said that helping those young adults who age out now is “a solvable problem if we can find the money.”
Foster youth advocate Trautman said in an interview that during the coronavirus crisis, the state needs to do more to help young adults who are trying to make it after time in the foster system. In a follow-up email, she said Extended Foster Care can bolster the positives in foster youths’ lives.
“We should be thinking about how we support young people to thrive, not just avoid going to jail,” she said.
Note: The town where Esther Taylor’s apartment is located was initially incorrect in this story. The story has been updated to correct the location to the town of College Place.