California Foster Youth Prepares to Welcome First Baby Amid Pandemic

Nikki Almendarez and Angel Castro celebrate the upcoming birth of baby Emilia at their baby shower. Photo courtesy of Nikki Almendarez

Nikki Almendarez was thrilled when her boyfriend’s mother gave the teenage couple the gift of a Lamaze class to prepare for the birth of their first child.

But as the March date approached and her belly swelled, Almendarez, 18, had a creeping feeling she would not be discussing birthing balls, breathing techniques or breastfeeding with a cohort of other expectant parents in her San Diego community. With the coronavirus on a rampage across the globe, shutting down stores, restaurants and schools all around her, it wasn’t long before the foster youth’s answer came.

Just days before the class was to take place, the cancellation notice landed in her email inbox. Now, her classes have been refunded and with her induction date looming this week, she’s not feeling as prepared as she’d like.

“I feel like at this point in my pregnancy that I should be a lot more knowledgeable about what’s going to happen,” she said.

Almendarez and her boyfriend, Angel Castro, 19, are doing their best to stay positive and focused on the any-minute-now birth of their baby. They know she’s a girl, and they’ve named her Emilia. 

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the already-challenging final stretch of Almendarez’s first pregnancy. The excitement she felt when she first learned she was pregnant has given way to fear — fear of falling ill, of transmitting the virus to her baby, about going to a hospital where patients suffering from the terrifyingly contagious virus are being treated. 

“It’s something that’s on my mind all the time,” she said.

Almendarez, who is in the extended foster care system in place for 18-to-21-year-olds, is going through perhaps the most difficult challenge of her life without parents to support her. 

In an interview, Almendarez explained that her mother hasn’t been in her life since she entered San Diego’s foster care system at age 11, and her father is in a Florida prison. He was scheduled for release in March, and both father and daughter were hoping he’d be around for the birth, but his court date was pushed back to May because of the global pandemic. 

Almendarez is doing her best to navigate new parenthood. She’s close with her boyfriend’s parents and his siblings, one of whom just had a baby a few months ago and has been an excellent source of advice. A close family friend, Clover Ericson, who lives just down the road from Almendarez, is another parenting role model whom she feels comfortable turning to with the endless questions every new mom has. 

Help has also come from Phenomenal Families, a San Diego nonprofit that serves young parents with histories in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, providing education, mentorship and help securing baby essentials like cribs, diapers and wipes. 

For the past few months, Phenomenal Families founder and CEO Sarah Pauter has offered advice on everything from the labor and delivery process, to self-care during pregnancy as a new mom. Pauter said social distancing orders will prevent her from visiting Almendarez and Castro at home, as she typically does, but she plans to get creative and stay available via Zoom and Facebook Chat. 

Pauter said she’s confident that Almendarez is well-equipped to handle what lies ahead. 

“Since I’ve known her, she’s demonstrated such a commitment to her future,” Pauter said of the young lady who graduated high school early and started college well before she turned 18. “She’s so resilient, so smart.” 

But the challenges presented by the pandemic are making life harder for even the most prepared foster youth, Pauter added. And though she feels surrounded by support, Almendarez has been frustrated by the lack of assistance coming from the foster care system and her social worker. 

In a state with 2.3 million unemployment claims filed in the last month, both Almendarez and Castro have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Castro was laid off from his two jobs – one in construction because business slowed down and another at a retirement home that cut staff to minimize the number of visitors who posed a risk of infection to the vulnerable residents.

When Almendarez first got pregnant, she was meeting the requirements of extended foster care by working three jobs in the food service industry, though she cut back to just two jobs after fainting during an early-morning shift at a coffee shop. As coronavirus infections grew by the thousands, she left her other jobs to protect the health of herself and her baby. 

“As soon as I saw it on the news on the TV at work, I texted my boss and told her it was my last day,” she said. Fortunately, it was late enough in her pregnancy that she was able to access state-funded disability benefits provided to expectant mothers, and once the baby is born, Castro will be able to take advantage of weekly paid family leave payments for six weeks. They hope the job market stabilizes a bit by the time he has to start searching for work again. 

While young adults in foster care in California typically need to be either working or in school full time to receive extended foster care benefits, state officials have declared a temporary moratorium on these requirements during the economic shutdown.

For now, though, Pauter is encouraging Almendarez to try her best to forget about coronavirus and “lean in” to the experience of becoming a mother. 

“You kind of just have to block out what’s happening in the world and stay home and bond with the baby and learn how to be a mom,” Pauter has advised her.

But there are still too many unknowns to rest easy. 

Almendarez knows under ordinary circumstances she would have at least a day to rest in the hospital after delivering and get support from the nursing staff. 

But she said her OB-GYN has warned her that they’re trying to get people out of the hospital as quickly as possible. Will she get enough help and guidance before she’s sent off to fend for herself? Almendarez can’t stop wrestling with that question. 

“I just want to make sure that me and the baby are OK before we leave the hospital,” she said. 

Sara Tiano can be reached at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change 124 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.