Members of the Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Fostering Change pose in Harrisburg in better days

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

For Philly resident Lexi Andino, September has looked a lot like the six months before it: a struggle for food, work, and emotional support. She works two jobs, one of which reduced her work hours after the coronavirus hit. School has become harder, since virtual learning deprived her of the personal contact that meant so much to her.

At the beginning of the month, Andino suffered one more cruel kick.

“I was all ready to go out grocery shopping,” she said, and so she went online to check the balance on her food benefits. The $190 she expected to find via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program had been, without warning, reduced to $18. For the entire month.

“How do they expect me to live off that?” Andino remembers thinking. Now 23 years old, Andino is a former foster youth. She has nobody to reach out to for support, she said, beyond the staff at Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of youth in the child welfare and justice systems. And the last six months have been “depressing… a lot of negative thoughts.”

Andino sometimes feels alone, but she is one of many. “Transition-age foster youth,” as this group is called, must navigate the gray space between adolescence and adulthood, between living as a ward of the state and being completely on their own.

New research from the Field Center For Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania shows Andino’s experience is unfortunately typical for former foster youth.

The UPenn paper, published Tuesday, does put forth some pathways to solutions — like extending government services to cover vulnerable young adults aging out of the system.

That’s exactly what foster youth advocates have been asking Governor Tom Wolf to do since the pandemic’s toll on foster youth became apparent. A formal request, cosigned by more than 100 experts and organizations, however, received a kind of bureaucratic stiff-arm, particularly when compared to the stewardship some other governors have provided.

Disappearing jobs, food, housing, mental health

Across the U.S., the pandemic’s worst effects have been visited most pervasively on foster youth. Consider the numbers with regard to:

  • Jobs. Nearly half of current or former foster youth aged 18 to 23 lost their jobs or had hours cut, according to  the April survey just published by the Field Center. Among all Americans, that number was 19%, per a May report from the Federal Reserve. 
  • Food. Over half the respondents in that same survey of 281 transition-age youth from around the country reported they were food insecure, with only “low” or “some” access to food during the pandemic. That compares to 17% among the U.S. adult population as a whole, according to a May Urban Institute study.
  • Housing. About 25% had to find new living arrangements, reflecting factors including economic hardship and simple rejection, as people sometimes asked youth to find new places to live out of fear of infection. In the general population, moratoriums on eviction have prevented many forced relocations (so far).
  • Wellness. A little more than half of the survey participants screened positive for symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Study co-author Johanna Greeson, the Field Center’s managing faculty director at Penn, said these stats reinforce what previous research had shown were pain points even before the pandemic — and should create a sense of urgency around the situation.

“The pandemic exacerbated the issues that have always been,and continue to be, problematic for youth who age out of care,” Greeson said.

A pressing need for more emotional support is also significant, according to Greeson, as one third of those surveyed wished they had connections with more people, or felt themselves entirely alone during the crisis.

“Everything is just harder,” confirmed Andino, the 23-year-old in Philly. “And when you make calls, to try and get help with food or whatever, I feel like all the workers are just overwhelmed, too, if you can even reach them.”

Solving these problems will take a systematic approach to meeting these needs, Greeson said. But getting that support has not been easy.

Members of Youth Fostering Change, an advocacy organization, are part of a a constituency that Governor Tom Wolf has yet to heed Credit: Courtesy JLC

Advocates: Lack of leadership from the top is a problem

The Pa. chapter of the Foster Care Alumni of America in April called on Gov. Wolf to extend significant aid to foster youth during the crisis.

One of the main asks was for the state to stop discharging youth from care during the government shutdown, if they didn’t want to go. The FCAA request also outlined the need for additional assistance services.

In July, Pennsylvania raised the age limit to 23 for aftercare services, which include things like needs assessment, planning help and job placement. But that change was in the works prior to the pandemic. The FCAA’s requests for a moratorium on discharging youth — and for additional services funding — went unheeded.

“We thought the state could have responded with more action to FCAA’s requests,” reports Jennifer Pokempner, senior attorney at JLC, which was one of more than 100 organizations and advocates to cosign the letter.

Governors in California, Ohio, Rhode Island and Illinois all took more dramatic steps to help foster youth, and declared moratoriums on aging out during the crisis.

The Wolf administration’s relative inaction left most decisions about how to respond to the foster youth crisis in the hands of county governments. Instead, said Pokempner, “it would be appropriate for the state to take the lead during the nationwide pandemic.”

Locally, representatives from the Philadelphia Department of Human Services have indicated during conference calls that they’re “committed” to supporting young people who age out during the pandemic without a plan for housing and self-support, according to Pokempner.

DHS has held 173 meetings for youth aged 18 to 21 since mid-March, said department spokesperson Heather Keafer. “This is not something a youth has to request,” Keafer said. “These meetings gather everyone in one (virtual) space to ensure youth have a viable transition plan and are not discharged to homelessness.”

Pokempner believes these efforts need to be better publicized.

“We have seen DHS follow through on this commitment in several cases,” the JLC lawyer said, “and would like to see this commitment be written as clear policy so that all youth and stakeholders are aware.”

Without government assistance, grassroots support is key

Greeson’s paper offers several recommendations to address the travails faced by transition-age and former foster youth during the pandemic.

These include:

  • Keeping foster youth in safe housing with “caring adults.”
  • Providing increased personal support for youth in foster care and young adults who have recently exited foster care.
  • Guaranteeing access to assistance programs
  • Providing resources like gift cards, bags of groceries, laptops and WiFi hotspots.

The state, Greeson notes, is positioned to help with technology, funding and in pulling together an “emergency response plan.”

Without these care pillars in place, however, former foster youth like Andino — who’ve aged out — must engage in a constant scramble.

They do have some grassroots support. Constance Iannetta, founder of Foster Strong, which brings together resources to improve child welfare practice and raise public awareness, describes a kind of loose network of child advocates who stay in touch, sharing details of transition-age foster youth who need help with food, clothes, housing, rides and emotional support.

“It’s whatever comes up,” said Iannetta, who is also the FCAA’s Pa Chapter chair. “About every other week we learn of someone who is about to become homeless, and we intervene to help.”

Calls for reform can’t come fast enough for Andino, who made some calls and learned after a couple of weeks that her missing food benefits for September would be restored.

In the meantime Andino relied on her personal network to get some help. One of her jobs is as a youth advocate for JLC, and the organization provided groceries when money was tight.

“Juvenile Law Center did step in,” the 23-year-old said. “I didn’t want to ask them for too much, but having support is a blessing for me, because I don’t have a lot of it.”

She has kept up attendance at Community College of Philadelphia, where she’s studying business, and continues to network as best she can with fellow former foster youth, who all struggle with the same things.

“Food, housing, jobs, feeling alone,” Andino said. “All of us dealing with the same stuff.”

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,...