State Lawmakers Race the Clock to Prevent Hundreds of Foster Youth from Aging Out Alone

state legislators aging out foster youth executive
Bills to allow foster youth to continue receiving services past the age of 21 during the pandemic have been introduced by New York Assemblywoman Didi Barrett and California Sen. Jim Beall. (Photos courtesy of their offices).

With dozens of foster youth reaching their 21st birthday each week and job prospects still bleak, state legislators in New York and California advocates have introduced bills that would preserve young people’s access to essential support throughout the public health and economic crisis. One-quarter of the 2 million Americans who have been infected with the coronavirus live in the two states, and shutdowns have left millions unemployed – with those ages 20 to 24 suffering the highest rates of job losses, according to a working paper from Indiana University researchers.

But the legislators remain worried that the pace of lawmaking means their help will come too slowly for hundreds of young people who urgently need money for rent and food. They and other advocates for youth are also imploring the governors of New York and California to immediately issue or extend executive orders enacting the changes.

On May 22 – roughly a month after service providers and legal advocates first wrote to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) requesting an executive order – Assemblywoman Didi Barrett (D) introduced a bill reflecting the policy changes they’d asked for. The legislation would allow foster youth to remain in care for 180 days after the state fully reopens, and enable youth ages 18 to 20 who previously left the system to reenter foster care without a court’s approval. 

The Poughkeepsie lawmaker said a constituent who works closely with foster youth persuaded her of the importance of ensuring the changes are made.

“Age is sort of just a random number,” Barrett said, noting she is a mother of two young adults herself. “At these ages, they’re not able to fully understand the responsibilities of caring for themselves – especially when they’ve experienced trauma.”

But in order to become law, Barrett’s bill would need to make it through committee and be passed by both houses of the Legislature – a process likely to take additional weeks or months. Advocates say that won’t be fast enough.

“We are pleased that the Legislature is taking up this critical issue, but we continue to urge the Governor to sign an executive order so there is immediate relief for vulnerable young people,” said Betsy Kramer, director of policy and special litigation at Lawyers For Children.

Onlookers say that in a state bludgeoned by the pandemic, the governor is likely reluctant to commit any additional funds. With the entire state largely shut down for nearly two months, New York’s pre-existing budget shortfall more than doubled to $13.3 billion with astounding speed.

But those speaking up for current and former foster youth argue that the cost of extending benefits to them would be relatively small – an estimated $1 million to $1.8 million through the six months after each state lifts its emergency order. What’s more, they say the spending would be offset by future savings, if it helps foster youth avoid the far more costly outcomes of homelessness, incarceration and hospitalization.

“The penny-wise and pound-foolish mindset often does a really big disservice in the way we approach our most vulnerable,” Barrett said. “There’s no excuse to be pushed out of your home in this challenging time without the safety net you’re used to or any resources to turn to.”

In California, home to the nation’s largest foster care system, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued an executive order in late April to prevent youth from aging out of care amid the pandemic. But the order expires at the end of the month – even as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise throughout the state and the promise of work for the unemployed grows dimmer. 

Now, state Sen. Jim Beall (D) wants to change California law so that foster youth will not be forced out of care during any statewide emergency, or for six months thereafter. The bill is a scaled-back version of an effort he launched before the pandemic to extend foster care benefits through age 25; that goal that has been hamstrung by the coronavirus, which turned a $5.6 billion budget surplus into a projected $54 billion deficit in a matter of months.

If the new bill is not adopted by June 30, hundreds of young people who turned 21 in the past four months will lose access to a broad range of services provided by extended foster care, including financial support, housing placements, case management and counseling.

In hopes of ensuring the new measure takes effect immediately, Beall is appealing to the governor to include the policy in the state budget, rather than waiting for it to move through both houses. 

“We are hearing directly from foster youth who are fearful of being on the streets at the end of month,” when the executive order ends, Beall wrote in a letter to the governor this week. 

On the other side of the country, New York legislators say they’re doing what they can to provide support for vulnerable youth, but they worry that too many young people remain at risk in the meantime.

“When the damage hits a certain point, you have to make a decision because you know it’s the right thing to do and it’s going to have a net positive fiscal impact in the end,” Barrett said. “If we’re going to ever do this, this is the time.”

Megan Conn can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

Sara Tiano contributed to this report. 

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