WA advocates call for freezing foster care ‘age-out’ during pandemic

Young adults aging out of foster care face unique challenges in normal times, say advocates. Now, they face even greater risks.

Esther Taylor

Esther Taylor stands outside her College Place apartment on June 1, 2020. (Greg Lehman/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin)

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, young adults who left Washington state’s foster care system after suffering abuse or neglect as children were at risk for a litany of serious problems.

Without the financial and social safety nets many of their peers enjoy, young adults who must leave the protection of the foster care system are a vulnerable group, national studies have shown. They are disproportionately people of color. Many become homeless. Statistically, they are more likely to commit crimes and to be arrested or jailed, and less likely to attend college. Many of these “aged out” foster youth run short on rent and utility bills and depend on food stamps or other government support.

All that was the reality well before the coronavirus pandemic pummeled the economy. Now many of these young people across Washington are struggling to pay for rent and groceries, according to foster youth advocacy organizations.

"This is a pretty scary time for everybody," said Liz Trautman, director of public policy and advocacy at The Mockingbird Society. But the pandemic is "particularly scary and destabilizing" for foster youth, she said.

Even some of these young people who had achieved stability "feel that that's been ripped out," Trautman said.

Advocates for foster kids have spotlighted a solution that some other states have adopted that would help at least some of these young adults. In an early April letter to Gov. Jay Inslee and Ross Hunter, secretary of the state Department of Children, Youth & Families, Mockingbird and other youth-advocacy groups pointed to the state’s Extended Foster Care program. The initial version of the program was established more than a decade ago. It allows youth who leave the regular foster care system at age 18 to continue receiving state aid with housing for three years, at which point they must exit this special program. As of late May, there were just over 800 people, ages 18 to 20, in the program.

The answer adopted by other states during the pandemic: Issue a moratorium on moving young people out of Extended Foster Care when they turn 21. That’s what foster youth advocates are calling for.

Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said in an email to InvestigateWest that no such moratorium is on the table for Washington state.

Instead, Inslee's office said his policy team is working with DCYF and state finance officials on "a housing stability program that sits outside" the Extended Foster Care system. The proposed program would give needs-based housing grants to people who, on their 21st birthdays, are leaving Extended Foster Care, Faulk told InvestigateWest.

The program is aimed at helping young adults at risk of losing housing because of COVID-19, such as those who have lost a job or income, Faulk wrote. That's significant because Extended Foster Care gives young adults foster care payments for either a traditional foster home or an independent living arrangement, such as a college dormitory.

Jess Lewis, the DCYF official with department oversight of Extended Foster Care, said, "We're actually looking at an opportunity to have the flexibility to serve youth beyond their 21st birthday." Lewis added, "I think it will be something different from a moratorium."

While young people wait on Olympia to find out what will happen once they exit Extended Foster Care, a number of them are receiving help from charitable groups. Esther Taylor spent yearslong stretches in foster care, kin care and Extended Foster Care. Now, at 21 years old, she is on her own in an apartment in College Place, where she lives while attending Walla Walla University as a junior.

The hours for her campus job were halved.

"It's stressful," she said of how her usual 10 hours per week at the university's communication and languages office have been cut down to just five hours. However, she got financial support. Taylor rents her apartment through a youth housing program managed by Catholic Charities, and she said the program covered her rent for April and May.

"I didn't have to pay anything, which was a huge blessing," Taylor said.

Times are tough for young adults because they lack the savings of older people. That is especially true for those who are in the Extended Foster Care program, those who have turned 21 and left it since early March and those on the cusp of leaving it now.

The correlation between a young person spending time in the foster system and becoming homeless is a problem threatening to explode.

Extended Foster Care, on the other hand, has proven results in keeping young adults in stable housing.

"We really believe it is one of the programs that has reduced homelessness for young people," said Jim Theofelis, executive director of A Way Home Washington, a group fighting youth homelessness.

"So we've come a long way, and we don't want to return" to homelessness for foster youth, Theofelis said.

In fact, a just-released analysis of the effects of Extended Foster Care in Washington state concluded that the average youth in the program fared far better than one who didn't participate in it. The report last week by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy said Extended Foster Care "significantly reduced" homelessness, use of food stamps and welfare, use of emergency rooms and criminal convictions. Also, the typical youth in Extended Foster Care "was more likely to be employed and have greater earnings."

The study also calculated that every $1 spent on Extended Foster Care returned $3.95 in lifetime benefits —  and $1.58 of those benefits accrue to taxpayers.

If the pandemic continues until the end of 2020 or longer, it could endanger the housing and financial stability of hundreds of young adults. In 2019, roughly 150 young adults in Extended Foster Care turned 21 and, as a result, fell out of the program, according to DCYF spokesperson Debra Johnson.

Private nonprofit agencies working with current and former foster youth living on their own see the damage.

"They have been really impacted," Sarah Birch, an education specialist with foster youth education group Treehouse, said of her student clients in Bellingham and Sedro-Woolley, north of Seattle. She works with 20 young people formerly or currently in foster care, ranging from high-school freshmen to 21-year-olds getting their GED or studying in special education programs.

Her older cohort has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus epidemic. One high school student lost her salary in the food industry, with her employer cutting her hours from about 40 per week to about 15. She’d been staying on someone’s couch but had to move out to a hotel about the same time — making her effectively homeless.

Now she has found a rental, and Treehouse has arranged to help pay for her groceries. Birch communicated with her almost daily while she was in the hotel. The woman knows Birch cares deeply about her, Birch said. "A lot of kids in foster care have been let down by a lot of adults," she said.

Many current and former foster youth in the workforce have lost their jobs, said Julie Brown, the director of foster care transitions at the Accelerator YMCA in King County.

Brown runs a program that helps 15- to 23-year-olds who are aging out or have aged out of foster care with education, housing, employment and life skills such as budgeting. Losing a part-time or full-time job leaves young adults in a precarious position, since they might lack the family ties, homes and finances that are keeping nonfoster youth afloat. "There's a lack of a fallback" for past and present foster youth, Brown said.

She is especially worried about the scheduled end of the statewide moratorium on residential evictions on June 4. Brown said the fact that these young people have now gone weeks — or perhaps months — without salaries could mean that they will be unable to pay their next rent bills and be evicted. "Housing instability is something we're just bracing for," she said.

Special foster care for young adults provides a safety net of sorts for youth aging out of regular foster care. But turning 21 in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, during which hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians have filed for unemployment with the state, is daunting for any young person, much less one without financial and family support.

A long list of foster care advocacy groups is now trying to make this time less frightening with temporary changes to the foster care system.

In the letter emailed to Inslee and DCYF's Hunter in early April, leaders from Mockingbird, Treehouse and 17 other groups called on the state not only to create a moratorium on discharging young adults from the special foster care program, but also to offer them other protections. For example, they asked Inslee and Hunter to waive eligibility requirements for current and prospective enrollees into the special program.

Currently, according to state regulation, young people must be engaged in one of four types of settings to enter Extended Foster Care. They can be enrolled in high school or a GED program; enrolled in vocational or post-secondary academic offerings; participating in a program to help them get a job; or employed 80 hours a month. (Exceptions are made for those who have a documented medical condition that prevents them from taking part in those settings.)

Lewis at DCYF said the department isn't waiving eligibility requirements for Extended Foster Care. However, "if a youth loses their job, they shouldn't be kicked out of Extended Foster Care," Lewis said. "We've been very clear about that."

Foster care advocates are growing restless for action from Inslee to help young adults who have foster care history. "This has just taken way too long," A Way Home Washington's Theofelis said of Inslee not issuing a moratorium in the nearly two months since he and others signed the letter to Inslee and Hunter.

Theofelis talked about "the young person who's going to turn 21 in June, the level of stress and anxiety they're feeling" as they near a discharge from the special foster care program.

"I'm concerned that it's two months after the crisis has begun," Trautman said, yet there isn't any moratorium. "People have already aged out since this crisis began," she added.

Faulk said the governor's team ruled out a moratorium because the so-called Four Corners of the Legislature — the speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the Senate majority leader and the Senate minority leader — haven't granted Inslee all of the specific moratorium extensions that he has requested. Inslee needs the unanimous permission of those four leaders to suspend state law for more than 30 days if the Legislature isn't in session, according to state law.

When asked why Inslee hasn't acted faster to protect young adults coming out of foster care, Faulk replied in an email that it is a matter of procedure. Noting that a proclamation that keeps young people from being kicked out of the Extended Foster Care program is effective for only 30 days, Faulk said it "is not a workable solution." He added, "This is because legislative approval to continue proclamations has been difficult and unpredictable."

Saying "the governor does not want foster youth to age out of the system into homelessness as a result of the COVID-19 crisis," Faulk also said that helping young adults who age out now is "a solvable problem if we can find the money."

Foster youth advocate Trautman said in an interview that during the coronavirus crisis, the state needs to do more to help young adults who are trying to make it after time in the foster system. In a follow-up email, she said Extended Foster Care can bolster the positives in foster youths' lives.

“We should be thinking about how we support young people to thrive, not just avoid going to jail,” she said.

InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit newsroom producing journalism for the common good. Learn more and sign up to receive alerts about future stories at http://www.invw.org/newsletters/.

About the Authors & Contributors

Rachel Nielsen

Rachel Nielsen is a freelance reporter based in Seattle. Previously, she covered venture capital and technology from New York/Jersey City, affordable housing from New York and business and politics from Russia.