When she turned 21 in June, Taylor Campbell normally would have been kicked out of the foster care system. As a young adult living independently, she was receiving $810 a month through a program that helps support young people after they leave foster homes.
But as part of its emergency response to the pandemic, the federal government last year required states to continue providing benefits to those who would otherwise age out of “extended foster care” programs for young adults. Washington used federal pandemic relief money to do so.
On Thursday, the moratorium on aging out is set to expire, cutting off payments to about 320 people in Washington and 20,000 nationwide, unless the feds or the state step in.
Without that support, Campbell, who pays $1,200 a month in rent, said, “I wouldn’t be able to survive. I’d be homeless.” Working 25 hours a week at a Pierce County restaurant, she said her income has dropped by about a third as the pandemic has kept customers away.
Advocates for foster youth, worried others will become homeless, too, are lobbying for congressional action to extend the moratorium, and have pleaded with Gov. Jay Inslee and the Department of Children, Youth and Families to continue the payments even absent federal action.
“We know the pandemic is resurging,” said Liz Trautman, director of public policy and advocacy for the Mockingbird Society, which works on behalf of foster kids and those at risk of homelessness. She and others say it has hit young people, especially those without a support system, hard.
Dawn Rains, chief policy and strategy officer for Treehouse, a nonprofit helping current and former foster youth graduate from school and start careers, said that in the first month of the pandemic alone, 39% of the youth it serves lost jobs.
The federal government, in addition to issuing the moratorium, allocated $400 million in emergency funding to help 23- to 26-year-old former foster children. The deadline for distributing that money, unless extended, is also Thursday. Treehouse, charged with administering $1.65 million in Washington, has so far only been able to find 600 of an estimated 2,800 of these young adults, according to Rains.
The pandemic has heightened worries that already existed about those aging out of the foster system. Some say 21 is too soon — even in normal times — to expect them to be completely independent.
“These young people don’t tend to have the kind of safety nets that other young adults do,” Rains said. “I think about the times my parents bailed me out in my 20s.” That’s not an option for most people coming out of foster care.
Advocates note California in July approved a plan to send monthly checks of up to $1,000 to 21- to 24-year-olds who have been through the foster care system — heralded as the country’s first guaranteed income program.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily that the support should go on forever,” Rains said. “But there needs to be a thoughtful transition plan.” It’s something the Legislature is working on, she said.
DCYF has also been looking into the possibility, long term, of keeping kids in the foster system past 21, said Jennifer Zipoy, DCYF’s administrator of adolescent programs.
Zipoy used to work in the state’s juvenile rehabilitation system, part of DCYF. Thanks to a recent legislative bill, she pointed out, young adults who committed crimes as children are no longer transferred to the adult correctional system at 21, but remain in juvenile facilities until they are 25.
“What that recognizes and validates is that kids’ brains are not developed fully until age 25,” Zipoy said. The same principle applies to those in foster care, she said, and it would make sense to keep kids in the system until 25.
“There’s no plan to do that at this time,” Zipoy said. “It’s one of those things that sounds good and is best for kids.”
At the moment, she said, DCYF has no authority to keep those 21 and older in the foster system. State law requires they age out. Advocates say the state could provide support to these young adults even if they’re no longer technically in foster care. Witness California.
Zipoy said she was not familiar with what that state is doing.
“I’m not sure how that would work,” she said, noting DCYF receives funding according to its programs, like foster care. Inslee’s office referred questions about those aging out of the foster system to DCYF, and did not respond Friday afternoon to a question about whether the governor might find funds to help these young adults.
“My concern is that the perception is we’re just cutting kids off and sending them out onto the street,” Zipoy said. “I don’t think that is the case.”
She said a program manager has been reviewing the cases of all 320 people who would be affected by an end to the moratorium, and working hard over the last month to make sure their housing is as stable as possible.
“We do not want anything bad to happen to these kids,” Zipoy said.
Campbell said her DCYF social worker has talked to her briefly about the possible end to benefits, but has not put forward alternatives that might help. “She has a lot of kids on her caseload,” Campbell said, referring to a long-standing problem for the child welfare system.
Even in the extended foster care program, Campbell struggled. She became homeless for about six months last year when the lease on a house she was renting a room in expired. She slept in the back of an old Honda Accord, all the more uncomfortable because her back was injured in a car accident.
“Then, it was cold or too hot. Do I fall asleep with the window open and risk dying or somebody kidnapping me?”
Family members were not in the picture and she didn’t have a former foster parent she felt she could turn to. From 15 to 18, Campbell said she had been moved among dozens of homes.
Through a program called Housing for Success, Campbell found the Tacoma one-bedroom where she lives now. She’s been looking into a community college program that would give her a high school degree at the same time since she never graduated.
Losing the $810 payments, she said, would come as she “finally got my life kind of together.”