On Thursday, March 19, 2020, the Children’s Bureau and Think of Us hosted a Virtual Town Hall for Older Foster Youth.

The hosts in order in which they spoke were: Sixto Cancel, co-founder and CEO of Think of Us, Dr. Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner at the Children’s Bureau in the Administration of Children and Families at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Enid Rey, CEO of Our Piece of the Pie, and Marina Martin Nitza, a fellow of the Child Welfare Public Interest Technology Vertical at New America Foundation.

The purpose of this town hall was primarily to address the concerns of older foster youth during this unprecedented time. In addition, the concerns of federal, state, and local child welfare agencies were also discussed. Therefore, not only were foster youth in attendance during the town hall, so were many representatives from the child welfare field.

In the 48 hours leading up to the town hall, Cancel received 1,400 submissions from current and former foster youth about their major concerns as the country continues to fight against the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The top ten concerns of the foster youth were food, housing, health care, technology (i.e., access to laptops and WIFI), financial assistance (i.e., bills, reimbursement), employment, transportation, education, housing supplies, and parenting and child care, respectively.

Cancel expressed his surprise in the fact that foster youth’s top concerns were basic needs to everyday survival, stating, “…it was alarming that foster youths saw basic survival necessity as an uncertainty.” Cancel quoted the concerns of two young people, directly allowing viewers to understand the impact of this pandemic on a more personal level. One young person shared, “I am out of work due to COVID-19 and probably will not be able to afford my bills. My program hasn’t said anything, and I am soon to age out. I am worried about what will happen.” Another young person shared, “I aged out two years ago and have been couch surfing since. I am homeless and just had to leave rehab. I want mental health services, and they said I had to get a physical before I get into a housing situation.”

In the Town Hall, Commissioner Milner addressed how the coronavirus is impacting older foster youth and answered questions provided by the child welfare representatives online. Dr. Milner also shared what he and his team at the Children’s Bureau were doing to provide solutions to meet the needs of these foster youth and the child welfare agencies that serve them. He also encouraged local, state, and federal agencies to work together to address emerging issues, as they are often better equipped in identifying such issues and potential solutions. Commissioner Milner assured foster youth that the Children’s Bureau would be committed to addressing their concerns in his statement:

“We see you. We hear you. We care about you. We have not in any way forgotten about you. Each and every young person in or foster care system or alumni of our foster care system matters. We understand at the Children’s Bureau and the federal government that we have to demonstrate our commitment to you. Not just in a time of crisis, but absolutely every day.”

He went on to express the light in this dire time. “I do think that our current crisis highlights many of the existing shortcomings that we have in our foster care programs and if there is a bright spot here, it gives us the opportunity to understand better how we need to prepare our young people and support them, not just in a time of crisis, but every single day.”

Dr. Milner also made the point that it should not have taken a pandemic for the concerns of foster youth to be addressed and the importance of the Children’s Bureau support for youth during this time. “It should not take a pandemic for us to reach out and ask how everything is going and to be proactive about making sure that you get what you need to stay safe, to stay healthy, to stay connected.”

Dr. Milner went on to discuss some of the actions the Children’s Bureau has taken thus far such as asking state child welfare agencies to reach out to any young person who finds themselves in a situation where they’re not going to have the housing that comes with living in a college dormitory to reach out to offer assistance to try to help find solutions. For these situations, the Children’s Bureau has issued updated guidance on flexibilities that they can leverage in the federal government that will make it easier for some of the state and local child welfare agencies and organizations to reach foster youth and to provide ongoing critical services.

He encourages youth to reach out to their local child welfare organizations to ask for the assistance they need, and that child welfare agencies stand ready to hear those concerns and respond accordingly. Following his statement, Dr. Milner answered an array of questions provided by Nitza and Rey. These issues not only addressed foster care concerns but also concerns of federal, state, and local level child welfare organizations.

Many issues were addressed, ranging from CFRS case reviews, college students being forced to leave campus, juvenile justice violations, childcare for social workers, court closures and docket cancelations, best practice for conducting home visits, state flexibility regarding Title IV-E federal requirements, etc. In ending the Town Hall meeting, Dr. Milner made a commitment to follow up and communicated regularly regarding solutions produced to meet the needs of young people.

According to Dr. Milner, the Children’s Bureau has set up a page on their website devoted to being a central resource, particularly for policy language, guidance letters that are being sent out, and other helpful sources of information that young people may find useful. You can find these resources at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/resource/covid-19-resources.

Sixto and Think of US have also created a website where they are gathering similar information. You can find these resources at https://www.thinkof-us.org/.

To access the Town Hall meeting, please visit https://www.thinkof-us.org/town-hall.