Massachusetts distributes 80 percent of money for foster kids
Advocates ask Congress for more time to hand it out
MASSACHUSETTS HAS DISTRIBUTED about 80 percent of the $7.9 million it was given by the federal government to help current and former foster children during the pandemic, and it has a little over 10 months to hand out the rest.
But advocates say one subset of the target group – foster children who have aged out of the system – need more help. They were cut off from the federal funding at the end of September even though they tend to be the most in need and the hardest to find.
“Young people aren’t so easily found,” said Lesli Suggs, president and CEO of the Home for Little Wanderers, which provides residential and community-based services to state-involved children until age 26. “They need more time to get the dollars out to young people.”
A federal budget bill passed in December 2020 gave the Department of Children and Families $7.9 million, part of a $400 million appropriation nationally given to the federal Chafee Foster Care Independent Living Program, which helps foster children transition to adulthood.
Information provided by DCF shows that, so far, DCF has given out $6.01 million in direct payments and spent $331,000 on administrative costs.
The agency has until September 2022 to release the rest of the money, but only individuals still involved with the department – young people ages 14 to 23 – will be eligible.
The total spending includes $2.98 million given to 688 young adults ages 18 to 26 who left or were leaving care. This is the category where many potential recipients lost eligibility in September. That number reflects a significant uptick from when CommonWealth last reported on the issue in mid-August, when DCF reported that it had distributed almost $1.1 million to 339 young adults in this category.
DCF distributed another $2.9 million to 1,344 teenagers and young adults ages 14 to 22 who are in foster care or still receiving services. This includes 865 payments of $1,000 each made to 18 to 22-year-olds who are living independently while getting services.
Another $121,000 was given to youth ages 17 to 23 upon graduation and for their participation in a survey on youth in transition.
In administrative expenses, the state paid $250,000 to a public relations firm for a social media campaign advertising the availability of the money. Another $81,000 went to the Judge Baker Center, a network of foster care alumni, and the Key Programs, which operates residential youth programs, to raise awareness of and help distribute the money.
Suggs said the state needs more time to track down the young adults who have aged out of the foster care system. These young adults may come to the attention of a school, homeless shelter, or food pantry, but “they aren’t necessarily knocking on the door to DCF,” she said.
Matthew Stone, executive director of Youth Villages Massachusetts, which provides home-based mental health services to kids, said young adults leaving foster care are often transitory, and someone who last came into contact with the system several years ago is likely to have a different address and phone number. Stone said Youth Villages is just now meeting young adults who have been struggling throughout the pandemic. “Having additional time and flexibility is critical to be able to really get them the support they need,” Stone said.
Stone said young people aging out of the foster care system without a permanent family were already a vulnerable population pre-pandemic, but COVID “has just made life 1,000 times harder.” The Chafee money can be used for things like paying rent, putting down a housing deposit, turning on utilities, buying books for college, or taking a driving class.
Stone told the story of a young man who bounced between foster care homes and group homes since age three and began working with Youth Villages at 19. He was able to manage his mental health problems, get a driver’s license, and obtain steady work – but he needs money for trade school to get an electrician’s license.
“Young people need resources now, especially because of the challenges of the pandemic,” Stone said. “If this bill passes, if we can get an extension on the Chafee dollars, it makes a huge difference.”
Suggs and Stone wrote to Massachusetts’ congressional delegation in September asking them to support a bill that would expand the pool of money and also extend the timeline for distributing it to former foster kids through September 2022, rather than September 2021. The bill would also extend pandemic-related provisions that allowed young adults to continue receiving services past age 22 and provided more flexibility on what the money could be used for.
The bill has passed the US House, but not the Senate.Cristina Freitas, a child welfare attorney who works with her sister and fellow attorney Debbie Freitas, said young adults with no familial supports have few resources available to them other than public money and any additional services they can get, particularly at a time when the economy has not fully reopened. Cash payments can help them with food, rent, or car insurance.
Debbie Freitas said the timeline established by Congress “had no real connection to a child’s needs.” Even after the deadline passed, her clients still need more help. “We can’t leave money on the table when there’s real people who still have need,” she said.