COVID relief for thousands of foster youth has expired. Will lawmakers renew it?

Former foster children are among the most vulnerable people during the pandemic. They already are at greater risk for homelessness and living in poverty, advocates said, especially those who aged out during the pandemic.

A federal COVID-19 relief package passed in Dec. 2020 helped support more than 40,000 former foster youth, according to Think of Us, a national think tank that focuses on child welfare policy. The measure included extra stimulus money and expanded benefits that helped them survive during the pandemic.

That assistance, however, ended on Sept. 30 and left many former foster youth facing new challenges as the pandemic continues. Foster children age out of foster care at 18, but in most states they can stay in the system until they are 21, and some have extended “aftercare” for a few more years.

“Even before the pandemic, the system is never ready to ensure young people are ready for adulthood,” said Ryan Young, 20, a former foster child who had penned an open letter to lawmakers asking for an extension of the relief package, days before it expired.

“In all honesty, it’s been hard trying to navigate — as far as just trying to transition out of foster care, trying to adult all on your own and just attending college and attending work at the same time and navigating a worldwide pandemic,” Young said.

In late October, the House unanimously passed a bill that would reinstate the pandemic support for former foster youth. Advocates hope the Senate approves the measure as well, so that the gap in provisions is as small as possible.

In general, the pandemic struck many young adults hard, forcing some to seek support from their parents. According to Pew Research Center, 52 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 were living with at least one parent in July 2020 amid the pandemic. The year before, it was 47 percent, the largest share of young adults living with a parent since the Great Depression. Foster children who aged out of the system during the pandemic were facing a crisis with less support.

READ MORE: Why child welfare experts fear a spike of abuse during COVID-19

“Most kids, when they’re even in their early 20s, they still get money or allowance from their parents or help from their parents. And the state is like that for foster youth,” said Nedhal Al-kazahy, who grew up in Nebraska’s foster care system and is now a foster care advocate. “When you pull that funding, it’s like, ‘OK, well, that’s all I’ve ever known.’”

Al-kazahy, 23, was working as a server when the coronavirus first hit. The restaurant she worked at closed with stay-at-home orders, and when it opened back up, business was minimal – so were her tips. She had been building up her savings for years, but to survive the pandemic she drained it before maxing out her credit cards. Assistance from the pandemic relief package helped her cover some payments, she said.

Al-kazahy said the pandemic relief helped her pay off those monthly payments, “and feel like I’m doing something.”

How the COVID relief funding helped

The pandemic package allocated $400 million to expanded relief and benefits for current and former foster youth. It prevented youth from losing system benefits if they aged out during the pandemic, and expanded financial assistance to include former foster youth up to 27 years old. It also increased funding to provide current and former foster children with transportation and relaxed some requirements for benefits.

The extra help had come just in time for Spencer Llewelyn. Llewelyn turned 18 in November 2019. It was his senior year of high school he was excited for prom and college. He was paying rent to his foster family but had saved up money from his barista job to help him transition to living on his own.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

After he graduated, Llewelyn couchsurfed with friends until he found roommates and got a job at a Target store. But Llewelyn said too many people were hired for the holiday season and he was laid off.

Llewelyn began receiving a $700 monthly stipend when he turned 18 — an Arizona policy targeted toward helping aged-out foster children — but the amount goes down $50 every six months. At 19 years old, he now receives around $550 every month.

The federal pandemic assistance helped Llewelyn pay his bills as he continued his education at community college and looked for a new job.

Llewelyn said he was grateful to receive the support, but the process to access the resources can be frustrating.

Barriers to funding

Foster programs are run by states, local or private entities, and most don’t keep track of contact information for youth after they leave the system. This can make it difficult for former foster youth to receive benefits, or even know that they exist, experts and advocates told the PBS NewsHour. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, about 23,000 young adults age out of the system each year.

In the years from 18 and when the system stops supporting them, foster care youth have various options and resources to help them learn how to live independently. A 2019 study from Child Trends, a child welfare research group, found that youth who accessed extended care until they were 21 are three times more likely to be enrolled in school, nearly three times less likely to experience homelessness as they age out, and overall see better outcomes than those who do not access the extended care.

But according to Child Trends, staying in the system is an underused option. Former foster children in aftercare also said resources can still be difficult to access, in part, because caseworkers may not notify them about resources or the paperwork can be long and full of jargon.

While thousands of former foster youth were able to receive the pandemic relief, thousands more did not receive any at all. According to Think of Us, more than 800,000 former foster youth were eligible for the initial pandemic funding, but only about 16,000 people were signed up to receive it by the end of August – one month before the program ended.

The organization was able to connect with about 30,000 more young people across 44 states who were eligible for aid before the end of September by using local and national partners, said Sixto Cancel, CEO of Think of Us. He said states were struggling to disperse the aid for various reasons, including a lack of timely instructions from the federal government on how to use the money, or states keeping inaccurate records of birthdates and names.

Each state handles foster care differently — some have systems for each county, some have one large system for the entire state and others depend on private agencies. It’s difficult to enact a one-size-fits-all child welfare measure, and kids aging out of the system are left with less resources because of this, advocates said.

Al-kazahy herself only learned about the pandemic funding because it was announced in an email to the Nebraska Children Family Foundation’s advisory board on which she sits. Al-kazahy said she likely would not have known about the funding, and she may not have been able to stabilize her finances as quickly as she did.

Young adults who grew up in the foster care system might be struggling to navigate adulthood because they miss out on crucial support.

“Those youth who are 23 and up, we’ve been out of foster care for a long time,” said Laticia Aossey, a 25-year-old child behavioral specialist, advocate and former foster care youth. “Unless you remained active in the advocacy world or stayed in contact with your worker, it’s probably rare that you even knew about the services.”

READ MORE: Foster children, caretakers face new pressures amid coronavirus

Aossey said the extra payments helped her keep up with her bills and pay off her debt, but that more aid is needed to adequately support aging out foster youth — regardless of a pandemic. She said aftercare services should be extended nationwide, and that youth aging out of the system need to be properly educated about what resources they are missing out on if they choose to leave completely at 18.

One in four young adults who age out of foster care will become homeless within four years of aging out, according to the National Foster Youth Institute, and they are also more likely to have contact with the criminal legal system and live in poverty. Advocates said access to this pandemic relief has helped former foster youth avoid becoming unhoused.

How advocates want the system to work

Marie Zemler Wu, executive director of Foster America, said the pandemic relief package highlighted efforts that could be considered first steps to changing the system for the better. Young adults should have the option to be supported longer and be able to have equitable access to resources that parents often give their children — healthcare, financial assistance, education, and ultimately a safety net, she said.

Santa Clara County in California recently passed a measure to extend a pilot program that gave former foster youth a universal basic income of $1,000 monthly to help them get through the pandemic.

Melanie Jimenez Perez, the project lead, said the county is considering expanding the program to continue post-pandemic. She said youth who received the supplemental income have “transformed from being worried about the next meal and where they were going to sleep to talking about mortgages and cars and things, the basics need for things that are required so that they can move forward with their lives.”

Child welfare advocates say extra financial support is just one necessary measure to ensure kids who grow up in the foster care system to have the support they need.

“There’s all kinds of ways, emotionally and financially, that kids continue to rely on important adults, most especially their parents,” Zemler Wu said. “Young people who are exiting the foster care system [simply need] an equitable experience to their peers who are not in foster care. This is what is needed in policy and practice on an ordinary path to adulthood.”