California Considers Extending Foster Care Supports for Youth Following Advocates’ Appeal for COVID-19 Relief

Ajanique Dunlap, 21, of Sacramento helped write policy changes sent to California officials this week to protect foster youth during coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of Anjanique Dunlap

In an urgent appeal to the governor and the California state legislature on behalf of the state’s 60,000 children and young adults in foster care, a group of leading advocates is calling for sweeping new measures to ward off devastating impacts from the spread of coronavirus.

Their impassioned appeal Thursday night got near-immediate response from state officials Friday morning, who vowed to respond to the changes being proposed: among them, allowing foster youth to receive housing and cash payments even after they turn 21, and declaring a temporary “moratorium” on work and study requirements increasing payments to foster parent and caregivers, and providing laptops, phones and WiFi access to all homebound youth.

As even the middle class and those with close families struggle to survive the pandemic, advocates say the nation’s most populous state must respond “swiftly and responsibly” to those no one else may be looking out for.

“COVID-19 poses a special risk to children and youth in foster care, who are the legal dependents of the State of California,” the letter states. “While California’s response to COVID-19 is critical for all, children and youth in foster care uniquely rely on the public child welfare system to ensure their economic, emotional and educational well-being.”

A national poll released Friday of 172 current and former foster youth revealed many are already experiencing alarming levels of need and instability. More than one-quarter of the 18- to 24-year-olds polled by the FosterClub network had been laid off because of the pandemic. Forty percent had work hours decreased, and were forced to move from their homes or feared being forced to move.

Nearly 28 percent reported “having a food crisis” or being “very low on food.” Among the respondents was a 23-year-old from Rhode Island, who “ran out yesterday,” and a 21-year-old in Florida who said she was denied food stamps. An 18-year-old in Nebraska had enough for two days of grilled cheese.

Many of those polled said they were completely or almost entirely on their own, with a 22-year-old in Washington stating: “I’m under a lot of pressure, but I don’t know what to do.”

Hoping to head off even more tragedy, child welfare advocates in California are asking for measures that would be considered dramatic changes in any other context, such as extending foster care for young adults by an additional six months and allowing virtual appointments to license new foster parents.

The advocates also described their concerns for new burdens on foster children’s caregivers, forty percent of whom are relatives, typically living in impoverished circumstances. Many have lost their jobs, while others are struggling to care for high-needs children with no respite and no child care.

For those caregivers, advocates recommend increasing the monthly foster care payments “across all programs” by $400 per child for at least 6 months.

The 10 organizations calling for the sweeping changes include John Burton Advocates for Youth, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the California Alliance of Caregivers, the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, Children Now, the Children’s Advocacy Institute the Children’s Law Center, the National Center for Youth Law, VOICES and the Youth Law Center. Their signed letter was sent Thursday to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D); California State Senate President Toni Atkins (D) and Anthony Rendon (D), speaker of the California State Assembly.

A Child Welfare Policy Roundtable being held April 3 will include a presentation about the groups’ recommendations, which center in part on “immediately” removing obstacles to distance learning, telehealth and virtual therapy appointments.

A California foster youth receives an academic award at an event put on by the San Francisco-based John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), an organization advocating for more supports for older foster youth in light of the impacts of coronavirus. Photo courtesy of JBAY

“These services are critical now,” they told state officials, “as youth are more isolated which can exacerbate their needs.”

In an indication of a state government that is widely considered to be among the country’s most responsive to low-income residents’ needs, the advocates’ letter that was sent Thursday at 5:30 p.m., received responses by the next morning from each of the offices it was sent to, said Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth. By noon Friday, meetings and phone calls with Sen. Atkins and the Speaker’s office were being arranged for the following Monday. Lemley said the governor’s representative had also responded first thing, and is reviewing the letter and pledging to follow up with any questions.

“All three offices have historically been very supportive of foster youth,” Lemley said.

The advocates are calling for otherwise disconnected groups to be able to study and connect with social workers and family in virtual and digital ways that so many others in society take for granted. They are asking the state to provide every foster youth with access to a laptop, WiFi and a telephone, without having to prove with documentation that they are in foster care. They want many of the routine in-person functions of the foster care and public welfare systems conducted online, so young people can more quickly receive food stamps to ward off hunger, and receive rent payments that are not in check-form, to prevent further homelessness. College students will also need to get state and federal aid payments in more direct ways, according to advocates calling for electronic distribution of these bare-necessities funds.

Key among the Thursday proposals is extending foster care beyond age 21, something that state Sen. Jim Beall had introduced in early bill language well before the outbreak of coronavirus – due to older foster youths’ desperate needs.

Recent research shows that youth who stay in foster care from 18 until age 21 have better financial and educational outcomes than those who once had to leave the system at age 18. And California advocacy groups are now joining Beall in calling for extending that support, albeit for only six additional months. Beall has proposed extending foster care through age 25.

Ajanique Dunlap is a 21-year-old who has been in extended foster care in Sacramento and worked on the advocates’ proposals to the state. Dunlap is a junior at Sacramento State University, in stable housing, working and receiving support from the Guardian Scholars program. But she fears for her peers.

“With everything going on, with the fear of everything, it’s kind of scary for foster youth that are going through this,” she said. She said between the empty store shelves, conspiracy theories and so much uncertainty, it’s a particularly hard time for young people who have experienced childhood trauma.

Dunlap’s last trip for groceries left her racing to four different stores, with shelves that looked like a Black Friday human tornado had struck. Given the chaos, she’s worried about the 21-year-olds aging out of foster care, and how they will survive with no further support.

“What’s going to happen to them, are they going to be released out of foster care?” she said. “Are they putting it on hold right now? What’s going to happen to those that have to emancipate?”

They seek a $10 million college relief fund for former foster youth tossed out of dorms and otherwise upended, who may face hunger and other emergency needs, and a dedicated 10 percent of the state’s funding to address overall homelessness that is included in next year’s budget.

Some of the measures proposed by advocates could well fall entirely on California to fund.

In an email statement this week, the federal government made clear that there is not currently a pipeline of funds that would be available to fund foster care past age 21.

For that to change, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families wrote in an email, “Congress would need to grant that authority during this emergency time.”

Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org. Karen de Sá is the Safety Net Reporting Fellow for The Chronicle, and a former investigative reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Jose Mercury News. She can be reached at kdesa@chronicleofsocialchange.org. Editor in chief John Kelly contributed to this report.

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