Officials seek halt to foster care age-outs

Tribune News ServiceDeborah Marlet, 45, hugs her three-year-old foster child at the family’s farm in Pasco County. She has raised the boy since he was 15 months old but on Friday must give him up after a judge ruled he be placed with two of his half siblings.

State lawmakers are demanding top officials halt youth in foster care from aging out of the system during the COVID-19 crisis, they said, as young adults released during the pandemic are more likely to be homeless, jobless and suffer health risks.

Young adults in foster care who have not been united with a permanent family “age-out” of the system after their 21st birthday in most of New York’s 62 counties, excluding New York City.

“So many young adults reaching the age of 21 are accompanied by a huge celebration, but for those on the precipice of aging out of foster care on their birthday, that day is fraught with fear, and often, anxiety,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, D-97. “Aging out means the child was not united with their family, and throughout all their time in foster care, not connected to any other permanent or familial support. As New Yorkers turn to their family and home in the face of this pandemic, it is more important than ever to have the opportunity to have the ability to maintain employment and housing, which right now still is very, very challenging.”

Representatives held a digital conference via Zoom on July 2 on behalf of the CHAMPS Coalition to draw support for legislation that sits in the Senate and Assembly to extend vital services to youth, including community-based housing and mental health services.

In March, attorney and activist Betsy Kramer, with Lawyers for Children Inc., wrote a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Office of Children and Family Services requesting an executive order preventing New Yorkers in foster care from aging out of the system, or stopping receiving benefits, if they turn 21 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She received a response indicating such an order would not be issued, adding the reason was unclear.

“Since then, we have not received any indication despite repeated requests that that position has changed,” Kramer said. “...ultimately, they said they didn’t see a reason or need for this. That’s why legislation is so important at this point.”

Cuomo signing an executive order is the fastest way for aging-out youth to receive relief during the pandemic, said Dede Hill with Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy.

“That can be done immediately,” Hill said during the July 2 event. “We are still hopeful immediate action would be taken by the governor. We won’t stop until these youth get the support we need.”

enate bill S8503B, sponsored by state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, D-25, would establish a six-month moratorium on aging out of foster care and allows certain youths to return to care of their foster families and receive benefits through the public health crisis. It would expire 180 days after the state emergency declaration because of COVID-19 ends. The bill, first introduced June 6, was amended Thursday and recommitted to the Rules Committee.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it increasingly harder for youth to find, and maintain, housing and employment, once aging out of foster care, Jaffee said, adding it is also a risk for their health.

Jaffee, who chairs the assembly’s Committee on Children and Families, said she has encouraged Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-83; and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-35; to prioritize the legislation.

“New York is yet to hit the aging out youth with our safety net,” she said. “Our young adults need now, more than ever, this effort providing them that stability and that future.”

Nine other states have issued moratoriums extending benefits to youth during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Minnesota and California.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced June 25 nearly $200,000 in grants for housing authorities in nine states for HUD’s Foster Youth to Independence Initiative to assist young adults transitioning out of foster care. Alabama, Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas received aid.

More than 20,000 young people age out of foster care each year, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare estimates that approximately 25% of these young people experience homelessness within four years of leaving foster care and a higher number live in precarious conditions, according to hud.gov.

Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106, who chairs the Legislative Women’s Caucus and Veterans Affairs Committee, threw her full support behind the measure, calling on other advocates across the state.

“As the mother of two young adults... the notion of being 18, 19, 20 or 21 and being thrown into the world and having to fend for yourself — often children without family, without kin — is unimaginable to me,” Barrett said during the July 2 briefing. “I’m disappointed we didn’t get the executive order you all have pursued. There’s a real sense of urgency. New York really needs to step up to the plate and make sure these children who are basically our responsibility are getting our opportunities and the support they need, and are not denied that because of an arbitrary policy that didn’t take into consideration everything the state, nation and world have gone through over the last few months.”

Youth who age out of foster care in the midst of COVID-19 — especially in low-income communities of color — are not ensured stable housing, said Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, D-56, adding the measure would help young New Yorkers officials have a duty to protect.

“The health pandemic couple with the ongoing racial discrimination pandemic, subsequent riots and protests and growing homelessness means we are in a state of emergency,” said Wright, who chairs the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus Committee. “We have to have an emergency response system for our youth.

Wright sponsors Assembly bill A10069, which would establish a state office for a foster care ombudsman to provide support and emergency response plans to foster and biological parents, relatives and youth in care.

“The Office of the Ombudsman would help craft emergency plans so we’re not pushing away our youth who happen to turn 21 during a pandemic,” she said. “We demand action. We must provide healthy and safe provisions for our youth aging out of foster care.”

Lawmakers have continued to pass legislation during the pandemic by voting remotely, or online, after accepting temporary rule changes because of the coronavirus. Barrett said she hopes legislators will return to session this month, and several more times until Dec. 31.

“It’s widely known youth who age out of foster care face dismal odds for long-term success, made worse by the pandemic,” Kramer said. “Legislation would help youth beat those odds, no matter where they live in the state.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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