State scrambles to get federal money to former foster youth
Clock runs out in September on millions of dollars in pandemic aid
FOR A YOUNG ADULT who has aged out of the foster care system, $3,200 can mean the ability to put a deposit on an apartment, purchase car insurance, or buy textbooks. Millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid are earmarked to provide exactly that sort of assistance – but advocates worry that a good chunk of it may never find its way to those it is meant to help.
Massachusetts has gotten $7.9 million from the federal government for direct assistance to help current and former foster children recover from the pandemic. Yet finding those young adults who are no longer tied to the system is a challenge, and it is also now a race against time. If the Department of Children and Families cannot identify and pay them by the end of September, many individuals will lose eligibility. So far, it looks like DCF has awarded money to just a fraction of those who should be able to benefit.
“I’m not sure they’re being creative enough in their notice to the kids,” said child welfare attorney Debbie Freitas.
The money comes from a federal budget bill passed last December. The $7.9 million for DCF is part of a $400 appropriation nationally given to the federal Chafee Foster Care Independent Living Program, which helps foster children transition to adulthood.
According to DCF, the agency has paid out almost $1.1 million to 339 young adults ages 18 to 26 who aged out of foster care and are no longer involved with the department. That works out to an average of around $3,200 per person. It paid another $1.1 million to 753 youth and young adults still in foster care (including those who turned 18 but are still receiving services), an average of $1,460 per person. It spent $839,000 on one-time $1,000 payments to young adults ages 18 to 22 who remain involved with DCF and live independently while attending school or working.
That means the agency has spent around $3 million so far – less than half the total amount available.
The money must be tied to specific expenses, so a young person must apply with a particular need, like rent payments, utility bills, transportation, or technology.
DCF has until September 30, 2022, to pay the money to kids currently in foster care or who are under 23 but still receiving services. But for the hardest to reach group – the 23 to 26-year-olds who are no longer getting state services – the federal government imposed a deadline of September 30, 2021, to request relief payments. National child welfare advocates want Congress to extend the deadline, but lawmakers have not yet acted.
Although DCF has not released an estimate of how many individuals are eligible, Cristina Freitas, a child welfare attorney who works with her sister and fellow attorney Debbie Freitas, estimated that there are around 7,000 young people who are eligible for the money – compared to approximately 2,000 DCF has reached so far.
Cristina Freitas said lots of young adults who came out of the foster system are at serious risk of being evicted from their homes, losing their cars, or having their utilities shut off. She said these young adults generally have no family support, and the pandemic decreased their access to services, jobs, and education.
Even pre-pandemic, outcomes tended to be worse for children who age out of foster care on metrics like homelessness, employment, arrests, and substance use.
According to a response to a public records request filed by attorneys with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which was shared with CommonWealth, DCF paid $176,400 to Solomon McCown, a public relations firm, which created targeted ads to young adults via social media platforms, including Facebook and Tik Tok. The firm also created a flyer detailing benefits available to youth and young adults.
DCF also paid $8,300 to Judge Baker’s Children Center, which is providing administrative support. Judge Baker’s Children Center also runs a Massachusetts network of foster care alumni, which created e-flyers and posted them on the network’s website.
“The Department of Children and Families is actively working to reach as many current and former foster youth who are eligible for federal pandemic relief payments,” DCF spokesperson Andrea Grossman said in a statement. “By partnering with the Massachusetts Foster Care Alumni Association, outreaching to community organizations that work with older children in foster care, and launching a digital advertising campaign, DCF has made direct payments of $3.1 million.”
But some advocates say DCF may not be doing enough to reach these young adults, and they question how applications are being considered and money is being distributed.
“I’m upset about the fact that this money is intended to be flexible, generous, and life changing,” said Anne Baeder Martin, an attorney who specializes in juvenile law and is executive director of the nonprofit One Can Help, which provides resources to underserved families and foster children. “It’s being given out parsimoniously and without a clear plan about how the money is going to be provided and how life enriching it can be.”
Baeder Martin said she has not seen a transparent, standardized system with clear criteria for distributing the grants. She called it a “slow process” where social workers and advocates are “not able to find out what’s going on behind that curtain.”
Baeder Martin has one client who is pregnant and attending community college but living in a location without public transportation in a less-than-ideal building. The young woman was approved for $800 for a ride service – although she has not yet gotten the money – but also she requested money for driving lessons, a car, moving costs, and a security deposit on a new apartment and has not heard back.
“This is a chance to do big things,” Baeder Martin said. She worries DCF is taking a “Band-Aid approach” and giving out small amounts.
Jodi Rosenbaum, executive director of More Than Words, a nonprofit that provides job training and case management to young adults, said there is a broader question about whether DCF successfully draws down all the federal money it can to transition-age youth. “There’s a dearth of clear information,” Rosenbaum said.
Sixto Cancel, CEO of the Washington, DC-based child welfare advocacy organization Think of Us, said part getting the money distributed has been a problem across the country. Although Congress approved the money in December, federal guidance on how to spend it was only published in March, leaving just six months until the deadline for the 23 to 26-year-old population to obtain the money. State agencies then had to find those people and develop systems for verifying someone’s status as a former foster child and paying out the money.
Cancel said the money was meant to be for pandemic relief, to address immediate needs. Delays in getting the bill passed and implemented gave the false impression that the money is not needed. Think of Us ran its own grant program for former foster youth, and those applications provide some indication of what the needs are. Of around 550 Massachusetts applicants, more than 250 had either been laid off from their job or had work hours cut, and more than 200 requested help networking for a job. Around 200 requested a federal housing voucher, while more than 50 asked for help avoiding eviction. Around 100 asked for donated groceries, and 80 sought help applying for public assistance.
Think of Us created a social media campaign for the federal money to convince eligible young people to give the organization their contact information, which it then shared with the person’s home state. So far, 180 Massachusetts young adults have signed up. But Massachusetts is one of nine states that have not yet registered with Think of Us’s platform to get the names.Cancel said his organization aims to be a trusted source to get eligible individuals – who may not trust DCF – to register. “If you aged out of foster care, the system failed to get you a forever family or return you home, so why should you trust the system?” he said. “People need an external voice to say it’s safe enough to try this thing.”
Cancel said he is frustrated with the whole process. It took a long time to get the money appropriated and get guidance out; now states must race to spend it. “The whole entire system all the way through was broken,” Cancel said.