By Serita Cox
Illustration by Christine Ongjoco
On Jan. 1, 2022, we estimate that 3,600 California youth will age out of the foster care system. On a single day. The fact that we — those of us working in the child welfare system, and the state system itself — cannot identify the exact number is itself alarming.
Behind each case number is a human being, a young person who was removed from their biological home for their own safety and put under the protection of the state. On Dec. 31, 2021 the state’s moratorium on aging out due to the COVID-19 pandemic will end, and these vulnerable youth will be forced out of the protection of foster care. They will be on their own, as yet another potential wave of coronavirus and new variant threatens our borders.
We, the California taxpayers, can and should demand the state fulfill our investment in the care and protection provided to these young people. We should not only know the exact number of youth aging out on New Year’s Day, but also what has been done to prepare them to be independent and self-sufficient. We should know the investments made in each and every one of them, and how successful those investments have been.
Did every one of these youth in the state’s care receive the federal pandemic relief funds to help smooth their transition to living on their own? Are they enrolled in the adult government programs that can give them some security as they transition – supportive housing, MediCal, CalFresh, CalWorks? Did they receive job skills training and employment placement?
The short answer is no. We know that because at least one third of them live in placements and have case types that deem them not eligible for many or all of these funds and services. The sad reality is that many more who are eligible go unserved either for lack of knowing they exist, or the sheer inertia of a system so bogged down in regulation and process that it cannot deliver emergency funds equitably and efficiently.
We know that lack of investment matters. Millions were spent on researching California youth aging out of the foster care system as part of the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study. What we know is that by age 23, less than half of youth aging out of the system had full time employment, and more than a quarter had experienced homelessness.
But now is not the time to rail against the government and decry another waste of taxpayer dollars. It is time to rally as a community and spend the next few weeks figuring out how to make sure these young people are supported as they leave the system. Because whether we like it or not, whether they are ready or not, on Jan. 1, 2022, the State of California is no longer responsible for thousands of young people who have no other option but to try and make it on their own.
It is up to us as a society to ensure their lives aren’t derailed. That they can make that transition to independence and become the productive citizens they desire to be. We have the rest of their lives to help them achieve their potential. Our responsibility should not end on Jan. 1 for this wave of 3,600 young people, or every other day that young people age out of the foster care system without being prepared or supported.
We can do it. We’ve done it before. A mere year and a half ago, at the start of the pandemic, as the world shut down, we rallied. People in government agencies, community nonprofits, philanthropy and the public at large came together to ensure that children in foster care and those who aged out had the technology they needed for distance learning, for telehealth, for visitations and for the simple well-being necessity of being able to talk to their family, friends and support network.
In days, we organized ourselves, taking on roles of funding, resource sourcing, outreach, needs assessment and eligibility validation, ordering and shipping, and support. Within a week the first laptops, hotspots and smartphones were in the hands of kids connecting them back to school, to their social workers, to their therapists and the adults that support and love them.
Within a year, 18,240 children and youth between the ages of 5 and 26 in foster care and those who had aged out got the technology they needed. 4,924 of them were youth who had aged out of the system, yet we tracked them down and got them what they needed.
Over 750 separate organizations representing tens of thousands of dedicated people came together to make this happen. We outreached to youth who had aged out of the system on college campuses, in transitional housing programs and shelters, through social networks, using every known email or phone number they had. I am pretty sure some set up on street corners loudly proclaiming, “we have resources” and handing out laptops like Oprah, albeit documenting eligibility and tracking distribution.
And our efforts paid off, our youth stayed in school, they landed and kept jobs, they accessed resources from housing to tutoring, and they reached help in times of crisis. They told us they felt someone was looking out for them, that we were life savers, that we cared.
We must rally again, and we’ve proven we can. The number of youth we need to help is smaller than the number we’ve already rallied to serve, but their needs are more significant and complex. Housing, food, emergency funds to pay the bills, supports to stay in school, job training and employment, and yes – some may still need tech too.
Let’s do this. Together we can ensure that what is happening in other states that have already ended their moratorium and transitioned out tens of thousands of youth – a transition to homelessness, food insecurity, school dropout, hopelessness – does not happen here. You need only pick up a newspaper in Washington, Virginia, Texas, or New York to read about their results.
We in California are now forewarned. We can act. We can come together and collectively provide the safety net that all young people need as they figure out how to become independent. The average family continues to provide for their youth well past age 26 financially, and emotionally, for a lifetime. It is not too much to ask for us to be there for some 3,600 youth who just need someone looking out for them.
We’ve done it before. We can do it again. We at iFoster will do our part. As we did with tech access, we will connect any youth to the resources they need – whether it is one we have in-house or one that resides with our partner organizations.
If you know an aging out foster youth in need of assistance, send them to us – Download the iFoster app, call or text 213-320-1242, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.