On Wednesday, April 22, CWLA hosted the webinar, Pandemic Shines Light on Needs of Older Youth Involved with Child Welfare. Victoria Kelly, CWLA board member, and Professor Cassandra Simmel from Rutgers’s School of Social Work moderated the panel. Panelists included Professor Laura Abrams from UCLA, Grace Hillard-Koshinsky from New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioner and Directors (NEACWCD), Tori Schuler from Fostering Great Ideas and a Former Foster Youth, Professor Darcey Merritt from New York University, and Robin Petering from Lens Collective. Panelists addressed many concerns for transition-age youth and spoke on how states can move forward during the pandemic.

Transition age youth face many challenges, even in non-crisis times. Three primary challenges amidst this national emergency are employment, housing, and isolation. Petering highlighted that youth need employment opportunities. It is difficult for youth to find long-term, stable employment that pays livable wages in normal circumstances. During this pandemic, many foster youth lost employment or had their hours reduced. Without income, many are at risk for homelessness. Even if youth are still employed, foster parents are concerned with youth being exposed to the virus. Furthermore, Schuler shared that the informal safety net of couch hopping has been eliminated as people are worried about letting someone into their home, leaving many homeless.

For foster youth, independence often means isolation. Merritt is concerned for the emotional and mental wellbeing of youth, and the long-term effects isolation can have on skills that youth have been building. Abrams further highlighted the issue of isolation for incarcerated youth. She shared that youth are being kept in cells as a means of social distancing, and family visitations have been cut off. Confinement for incarcerated youth has increased isolation significantly, negatively impacting their mental health and recovery upon re-entry. Abrams and other advocates are hoping that courts will release youth, like adults who have slowly been allowed to reenter sooner. Other vulnerable populations are the many recognized and unrecognized tribal foster families, and in New England, Hilliard-Koshinsky shared that access to clean water and technology is a problem. Furthermore, tribal families are multigenerational, so there is an increased risk of spreading COVID-19 to high-risk grandparents.

To help keep families together during this pandemic, Darcey believes testing is crucial. If someone can be tested, they would not have to self-isolate in fear. Foster families would also be reassured that an incoming child is not sick. Testing should also be distributed equitably because it is known that COVID-19 deaths have disproportionately impacted the African American communities, and testing would help keep high-risk communities safe.

All of the panelists highlighted the importance of state and federal funding becoming more flexible, proactive, and accessible to address the immediate crisis. To help guide programmatic changes, Shuler emphasized that states need to be asking foster kids, parents, and alumni for their experiences. She appreciated Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner of the Children’s Bureau, speaking directly with older foster youth. Petering recommended that direct cash relief and simple food security will help youth during their time of need.

Despite the stressful situation, families are resilient, and people are coming forward to help. Moving forward, the panelist agreed that communities need to create an environment that allows former foster youth to return to care. Hilliard-Koshinsky encourages parents to teach youth to be interdependent and enable youth to be ok with needing help. Similarly, Shuler shared that emancipated youth feel like failures if they need help to be independent. By changing a community’s mindset from independent to interdependent, youth won’t feel shameful of asking for help. Older youth are unlikely to want to return to a foster home if they’ve already lived alone. If states created more independent opportunities for youth to return to care from ages 18-21, youth would be more likely to take advantage of those resources. Investing in youths’ future now will give them the skills they need to survive in life. Therefore, allowing them to be less dependent on government assistance and putting them in a better position to give back to the community that served them in the long run. Hillard-Koshinsky wants to remind public officials that, “We are your kids, and we are a product of the services you provide.”