California legislation that would have permanently extended foster care payments and housing benefits to young adults through age 25 has now been scaled back to a short-term support plan triggered by a state of emergency such as the current coronavirus pandemic.
In an era of unprecedented health crises and economic mayhem, Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall – donning a face mask emblazoned with California bears – garnered unanimous approval on Tuesday in a key policy committee for his Senate Bill 912.
The bill, which appeared to be a capstone for a lawmaker hitting term limits at the end of this year, was introduced in February. Beall’s original proposal extended support to young adults leaving foster care with no adoptive or legal guardians until they turned 26. The system now ends at age 21.
But in the age of coronavirus, and with the state now facing a bruising $54 billion budget deficit, the California Legislature is only considering bills that address three key issues — the pandemic, wildfires or homelessness — and the veteran Silicon Valley lawmaker’s bill has been significantly amended. In its current form, the proposed law would allow 21-year-olds to stay in extended foster care for as long as California is in an official state of emergency, and then for six additional months after the emergency order is lifted.
The bill also includes an “urgency clause” that would allow it to go into effect immediately upon signing, rather than the following calendar year, as is the case with most state legislation.
“When a crisis happens, foster youth are usually hit the hardest,” Beall said during his appearance at Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Human Services Committee. “Unfortunately, they are not given the necessary protections to weather the crisis and, without our support, they are left alone to deal with food and housing insecurities.”
Absent such support, there are signs that an already impoverished and struggling group of young Americans could be even harder hit with life’s realities. According to a recent survey of youth 18 to 24 from the national nonprofit FosterClub, two-thirds of current and former foster youth across the country have been laid off or had their hours slashed due to the pandemic, and half don’t have enough to eat.
When Beall’s bill was introduced, it was a pioneering concept. While 49 states have some form of extended foster care for young adults beyond the age of 18, for the most part, they cap benefits at age 21. With the COVID-19 pandemic throwing the country into upheaval, nine states and Washington, D.C., have taken steps to temporarily prevent foster youth from aging out of the system, including California. New York, the state that has been hit hardest by the coronavirus, has so far not chosen to extend benefits past age 21.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued an executive order in April providing for extended foster care benefits through June 30 for young adults set to age out during the economic shutdown triggered by the global pandemic. The governor set aside $1.8 million to pay for the benefits, which include monthly rent payments, cash assistance and caseworker support.
Newsom’s executive order also placed a temporary moratorium on the requirements that participants must work or study in order to remain enrolled, as would Beall’s bill.
The San Jose senator and supporters of his bill want this grace period extended and written into law for future declared states of emergency, such as the wildfires that have plagued the state.
“Foster youth cannot risk being transitioned during such crises and need the assurance from the state they can weather the storm with support from safety net services,” said former foster youth Ashley Lizarraga, who is graduating this week with a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University.
In her virtual testimony, Lizarraga said the pandemic has thrown the lives of transition-aged youth into anxious uncertainty, at a time when they are striving to become stable and self-sufficient. This return to the instability they felt during their childhoods, coupled with going through such a scary time without the comfort or support of family, is leading to high levels of depression and anxiety among foster youth, she said.
This bill is being heard at a time when tens of millions of dollars are being cut from California’s child welfare budget amid record unemployment and an economy pummeled by shutdowns to prevent COVID-19 infections. But Julie McCormick, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center of California who testified in support of SB 912, argued that foster youth will be particularly vulnerable to broader cuts to the social safety net, making it even more crucial to preserve their foster care benefits.
So far there are no clear estimates of how much further extending foster care age limits would cost in California, nor where the funds would come from. But there are signs that matching funds could soon be available. Federal legislation proposed last week would temporarily remove the age restriction on the Title IV-E entitlement, the main source of federal child welfare funding, to support states in their pandemic-related extensions of benefits beyond age 21.
If signed into law, SB 912 would be retroactively applied as of March 4, to ensure any young people who aged out of care from the start of the state of emergency would regain access to benefits.
Beall’s bill would also close loopholes that exclude some 18- to 21-year-olds from participating in the voluntary extended foster care program, including those who have been taken from their parents but hadn’t completed the court process of officially entering foster care before turning 18. An analysis of the bill for the Senate states that between 50 and 120 young people would become newly eligible for extended foster care if those loopholes were closed.
Beall was one of a handful of lawmakers — all speaking from behind cloth face masks of various colors and designs — who attended the legislative hearing in person. Bill sponsors and members of the public provided testimony via teleconference, with occasional confusion and muted phone lines.
In his closing statement at that extraordinary semi-virtual hearing, Beall reflected on history — and the impact of his 2012 landmark legislation that created California’s original extended foster care program, serving those ages 18 to 21. Those additional three years of support have helped young adults transition more successfully into independence, he said, and his latest legislative proposal will allow that success to continue “while we go through this horrible crisis.”
Sara Tiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.