Founding members of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America

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Carlette Brown was set to start a job in housekeeping at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania in March, the conclusion to a successful internship there. She’d looked hard at the numbers. About nine months shy of her 21st birthday, she would soon be discharged from foster care and have to support herself. This position would allow her to get by while she studied to become a cosmetologist.

Then the coronavirus hit.

“The pandemic put a pause on a lot of things,” said Brown, whose class time and new job were delayed by the pandemic shutdown. “Eventually we are going to have to pay our own bills but with government wanting us to stay in the house, how are we supposed to do that?”

Each year, about 700 or more young people in Pennsylvania  age out of the foster care system. The transition is rough even in the best of times. Research shows foster youth who age out of the system without achieving the permanency of family reunification, adoption or guardianship face increased risk of experiencing poverty, homelessness, trauma and more.

“It’s lonely out here,” said Lexi Andino, who exited foster care when she turned 21 about 18 months ago.

Andino said foster kids she knows are anxious right now about “housing, food, anything money related, and just support, you know, mental and emotional. Because if you’re a foster kid you don’t have those things.”

Advocates have been pressuring state government to address the situation — but haven’t yet gotten much of a response.

Anxiously awaiting a reply

About two weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America sent a letter to Governor Tom Wolf, suggesting specific steps to protect transition-age youth like Brown.

Jennifer Pokempner of Juvenile Law Center, one of more than 100 organizations to sign on in support of the letter, said Wolf’s office has indicated it’s reviewing the requests, which include suspending school and work requirements, extending care beyond age 21, and requiring counties to expedite requests to re-enter care.

Pa.’s Office of Children, Youth and Families is “committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all children and youth” and is working with the Governor’s Office on a “formal response” to the letter, according to spokesperson Erin James.

The wait for a firm response is now playing out against the backdrop of National Foster Care Month, which began today.

Brown, the former CHOP intern, said she was relying on the time she had left in foster care to save money for an apartment and all the bills associated with independence.

Philadelphia has at least partially addressed some of the concerns raised in the alumni association’s letter.

According to Philly DHS spokesperson Heather Keafer, the city on March 20 declared a moratorium on discharging youth “who are not able to comply with work, education, or mental health requirements, due to the impact of COVID-19.”

It’s unclear how long that moratorium will last. Keafer said the agency remains “committed to working with advocates and across city departments to assess any next steps regarding youth aging out of care.”

Pokempner, the JLC attorney, said youth need assurance they’ll be able to meet their basic needs at a time when self-sufficiency — working, maintaining an apartment- has become that much harder, if not impossible.

“Because many courts are only dealing with limited matters or emergencies,” Pokempner said, “we are hearing that youth are not getting the assistance they need to re-enter care and remain in crisis without having their needs met.”

How Pennsylvania lags behind

For now, Pennsylvania is trailing behind several other states in taking action on the foster front, including Rhode Island, Illinois, California and Ohio.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced $42 million in funding to protect foster youth and families, making money available for housing, food and additional support. The state is also allowing youth to stay in foster care beyond their 21st birthdays.

Under current Pennsylvania law, those services stop at age 21 said James, the DHS spokesperson.

“It is important to note that, under the Juvenile Act, youth may stay in extended foster care until they turn 21,” she wrote in an email. “Continuing court jurisdiction for youth age 21 and older would require a legislative change.”

JLC’s Pokempner said Wolf could handle this with an executive order that allows youth to stay in care. She provided a chart showing the actions to protect foster youth already taken in nine different states, including Ohio and Arkansas. “If a state would like to provide this support to older youth during this time,” she said, “it can find a way to do it.”

With seven months before her 21st birthday, Brown is fervently hoping Pennsylvania does find a way.

“They got us panicking and worrying about what we are going to [do],” Brown said, “so we will be able to pay bills when the time comes.”

Steve is a freelance writer and investigative reporter at Resolve Philadelphia, a collaborative journalism project focused on problems and solutions. He has served as a contributing editor for Discover,...