Monkey and the Elephant in Brewerytown, which usually offers employment to youth aging out of foster care, is closed because of coronavirus mandates

Advocates for Pennsylvania foster youth are putting Governor Tom Wolf on blast, saying his response to requests for help during the pandemic fails to tap into executive powers he’s used widely elsewhere.

“During this time of crisis, parents and families are going to great lengths to ensure that their children — including their young adult children — are safe, healthy, and are not fearful that they will be on their own as the crisis proceeds,” said Jennifer Pokempner, senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center.

“Young people in foster care do not have this security, and many are living in fear and without support.”

The Wolf administration took three weeks to respond to a letter sent by the Pa. chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America and 100 other organizations, which suggested specific steps to protect transition-age youth.

His answer, for the most part? It’s beyond my control.

In a May 6 letter sent from the state’s Department of Human Services to FCAA Pa. chapter chair Constance Iannetta, the governor’s administration said changes in law would be required to effect the organization’s most fundamental requests, namely:

  • Suspending school and work requirements for older foster youth
  • Extending care for foster youth beyond age 21

That deflection doesn’t capture the governor’s true power, said Pokempner.

“The governor has the authority under state law to suspend certain regulations and laws during a disaster like COVID-19,” the JLC attorney explained. “[Wolf] can use this authority to allow child welfare agencies to provide services to youth past age 21.” Indeed, the federal Children’s Bureau just issued guidance giving states the option to waive work and school requirements for youth in extended care.

Wolf has not hesitated to use his executive authority to address other pandemic-related issues.

After declaring a state of emergency on March 6 in response to the coronavirus, Wolf used his power to shut down schools and close restaurant dining rooms statewide. Other governors, Pokempner noted, including those in Alaska and Ohio, have already used the broad powers granted to them during the pandemic emergency to extend care for foster youth past their 21st birthdays.

On Tuesday, the FCAA Pa. chapter issued a new letter regarding what it sees as the Wolf administration’s dismissal of its concerns: “[Y]our response demonstrates a lack of consideration for our credibility, expertise, and the value our chapter offers regarding key decisions that impact the foster care system in Pennsylvania.”

More than half of foster youth say they’re struggling to get food during the crisis

The dustup between the governor and foster youth comes at an odd time.

Wolf is earning high marks for his response to the coronavirus in public polling. May also happens to be National Foster Care Month, a time when foster youth are supposed to be accorded extra attention.

The state’s decision to punt on providing additional help to foster youth also follows on the heels of a survey conducted by the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at UPenn.

Titled “The Experiences of Foster Youth During Covid 19,” the report compiles responses from 281 people aged 18 to 23 who are either still in or freshly out of foster care across the nation. Findings include:

  • 7% of transition age foster youth were homeless or couch surfing as a result of the crisis
  • 55% reported only having “some,” “very low,” or no access to food
  • 48% indicated financial distress due to layoff, or having their work hours severely cut

The Field Center and the JLC are among the organizations that signed on to the FCAA’s requests.

“All our results are disconcerting and paint a picture of crisis, but the impact on mental health, food security, and finances is especially troubling,” said Johanna Greeson, managing faculty director at the Field Center.

Foster youth advocates note people in foster care have traditionally held little political power. The approximately 700 Pennsylvania youth who age out of foster care each year suffer increased rates of homelessness and poverty compared to the general population, rendering them unlikely to contribute to political campaigns.

The Foster Care Alumni of America formed in 2004 to give a cohesive voice to these issues and bring them to the fore.

Tuesday’s response from the the organization’s Pa. chapter speaks to its growth over the past decade and a half.

“Like you, we strive for a safer world for our children and families and want to share with you who we are — beyond the label of being “alumni” of the foster care system,” the letter to the Wolf administration reads. “Our members include licensed clinical social workers, attorneys, public policy analysts, direct care providers, resource parents, educators, those in leadership positions at child welfare agencies, and national training and technical assistance agencies.”

All that is still not enough influence to move the needle as much as advocates would like.

“If we fail to act on this, we will see an increase in the already alarming numbers of young adults who age out of foster care to instability and homelessness,” said Sarah Wasch, Field Center program manager. “The middle of a public health crisis is no time for the government…to turn their back on them.”

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,...