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State must do more for former foster children

State must do more for former foster children

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Each year, approximately 1,200 foster youth in Texas reach their 18th birthday without being successfully reunited with their birth family or adopted. They age-out of foster care and become adults. These young people often are sent out into the world without the preparedness — let alone connections, financial or emotional support — needed to begin life as an adult on solid footing.

In Texas, more than a quarter of young people aging-out of foster care lack a high school diploma or stable housing, nearly half are unemployed, and more than a third are already parents. This challenging situation is being exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. In April, the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research conducted a study of 18- to 23-year-old youth in 32 states who were in foster care and aged out during the COVID-19 crisis. The findings illuminate a dire situation, and illustrate why we in Texas need to take swift action to provide these youth with a stronger safety net.

CASA volunteers, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, are by the side of many young people in foster care throughout their time in the child welfare system — working to promote their well-being, helping to ensure their needs are met and advocating for their best interests in court.

Locally, Voices for Children served 480 children and youth in foster care over the past year, with a corps of 217 volunteers working in Brazos, Burleson, Grimes, Freestone, Leon, Limestone and Madison counties. They actively are seeking more volunteers (who now safely can complete training and advocate online) to serve more young people and help improve these difficult outcomes.

Housing and

support

Even before the pandemic, nationally, 20% of 18-year-olds who aged out of foster care instantly became homeless and now the situation is worse. Forty-three percent of the youth in the Field Center survey reported that the pandemic had a negative impact on their living situation. Additionally, 55% reported being food insecure as a result of COVID-19, “including only having access to ‘some’ food, ‘very low’ access to food, or being unable to access food.”

Some positive structural supports are already in place in Texas, such as Extended Foster Care and Supervised Independent Living (SIL). These can buffer the brunt of the pandemic.

Extended Foster Care is a voluntary program that offers young adults turning 18 the opportunity to stay in foster care until their 21st birthday. However, to qualify, youth must be attending a secondary or post-secondary educational program, be employed half-time, or be incapable of either due to a medical condition.

Those qualifications are barriers between youth and a roof over their heads. Before the pandemic, Texas’ unemployment rate was 3.5%; it’s now 13%. Schooling at all levels is in limbo and more difficult to access. We recommend the state grant exemptions and waivers to all youth applying for Extended Foster Care at this time.

A Supervised Independent Living (SIL) arrangement allows young adults 18 and older to live on their own in a less restrictive environment and learn adult living skills while still in paid foster care. However, youth cannot apply for SIL until their 18th birthday — the same day they have to leave their foster homes. This leads to many entering homeless shelters or the streets. We recommend that youth be allowed to apply for SIL six months before their 18th birthday so they don’t end up in this traumatic predicament. We also recommend that more SIL placements be developed in urban areas, where demand and need are highest.

Health care

Youth who age-out of foster care automatically are enrolled in Medicaid, and federal law allows them to remain on Medicaid until their 26th birthday. However, the challenge becomes renewing their health coverage. Each year, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission mails the young adult a renewal packet, which must be returned to verify residency. Due to the transiency and unstable housing these young adults experience, they often don’t receive the packet. Through no fault of their own, they fail to respond and lose their health coverage.

We recommend that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission create a Medicaid auto-renewal process that assumes all youth formerly in foster care are Texas residents unless it is determined they are receiving benefits in another state. This would ensure that these young people have the coverage they need and deserve to care for their physical and mental health during this critical time.

Children who age out of the state’s care are very much the state’s children.

They deserve love, support and continuity as they begin the long process of becoming adults. Let’s take the opportunity the COVID-19 pandemic provides to improve the way Texas cares for its young adults at this most pivotal moment in their lives.

Vicki Spriggs is the chief executive officer of Texas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a nonprofit dedicated to improving the child protection system.

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