We can't let our nation's foster youth age out of the system

We can't let our nation's foster youth age out of the system
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The COVID-19 pandemic has been emotionally traumatic for us adults, but its impact on our nation’s youth is arguably far greater. Even young people with loving and present parents and kin are experiencing an emotional and financial toll of unforeseen magnitude as families are forced to navigate what this crisis means for their education and their future. 

This devastation is disproportionately multiplied for older youth with experience in the foster care system who don’t have stable home environments or families to fall back on amid the crisis. Without the education or job status they need to maintain extended foster care status, many young people are rightfully worried about losing support from the state, just when they need it the most. 

As policymakers at both the state and federal level consider how to implement protections for American families from the economic and societal consequences of the pandemic, they must not forget about our nation’s foster youth preparing to age out of the system who need continued assistance to avoid falling through the cracks. 

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Due to the difficulties and trauma foster youth often experience in the system, these young people already face severe disadvantages in terms of their economic prospects and life outcomes when they inevitably age out of state support. They are often left to fend for themselves without adequate means and absent any sort of preparedness for the transition into the real world — both emotionally and financially. Even without the backdrop of a global pandemic, they are more susceptible to homelessness and unemployment: more than 1 in 5 young people who age out of foster care will be homeless after age 18, while at age 24, only half are employed.

A few states — Connecticut, Illinois, California, and Rhode Island — have already put policies in place to stop youth from aging out during the crisis. Governors who have not yet acted must follow their lead, and do it now. 

States can begin by making sure that an equitable portion of current and future federal funding supports the needs of these, particularly vulnerable youth. What’s more, states can require that county child welfare agencies provide expedited processes for youth to re-enter care that allows their immediate needs to be met. Re-entry into care is a crucial safety net available to youth who aged out of care and are under age 21. Any requirements for extended care related to participation in school, training, or treatment must be suspended. No youth should be denied care because COVID-19 has shuttered these programs. 

At the federal level, Congress needs to feel the pressure to incorporate funding for the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which helps young people discharged from foster care access housing, education, financial support, and other lifelines, as part of any future stimulus packages. Former foster youth now facing adulthood in the middle of a public health crisis need these resources now more than ever. 

Withdrawing the support that the foster care system provides when the dismal economic prospects these young people face are borne out of circumstances beyond their control is simply irresponsible. The responsibility is ours to ensure the health and safety of our nation’s children by protecting their basic needs at a time when they are most vulnerable. Older youth on the margins between foster care and adulthood cannot be an exception.

Sandy Santana is the executive director of Children's Rights.