Foster youth have often been a forgotten part of society. So, where’s their place in a post-pandemic world?
By Pivot Staff
April 27, 2020
With almost half a million foster kids across the United States, COVID-19 has had a major impact on the already-flawed foster care system. With fewer housing options and higher risks of abuse and neglect, problems for the young people reliant on such programs continue to grow, according to experts.
“Many foster kids are trying to navigate this world on their own, and now they're going to be trying to navigate this world in a broken economy where jobs won't be available [and] where housing is difficult to come by,” says Jane Spinak, a professor of law and child welfare expert at Columbia Law School. The Pivot asked experts and people directly involved in the foster system about the issues that foster youth are facing now because of COVID-19. Here’s what we uncovered.
Increasing trauma, neglect, and loneliness
Research has shown that nine in 10 foster youth have experienced trauma — and COVID-19 is expected to significantly intensify those traumas, experts warn. “We know abuse and neglect happens in high-stress situations,” says Trey Rabun, a social worker from Amara, a foster care organization in Washington state. The pandemic creates “some of the biggest stressors our foster parents have experienced,” he said.
The numbers are already high: In 2018, 62 percent of kids entering the foster system were removed from their original parents’ homes due to neglect, and 13 percent were removed due to physical abuse, according to the Children’s Bureau. Additionally, foster youth are almost twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than veterans who served tours of duty in Iraq, a study done by researchers at Harvard and the University of Michigan found.
Amber and Jeff Whitney are foster parents in Seattle, Washington, and are no strangers to taking in kids who have endured severe traumas. One young boy they took in arrived with a black eye, having been punched by his mother. Another girl they fostered told stories of living through a house fire that she accidently started with one of her parents’ used crack pipes, in a home where her biological parents suffered from addiction.
“She came in saying my cat died in a fire, my dad’s dead… and my kids were so scared,” Amber recalls.
Loneliness — a byproduct of neglect — is another factor experts say could jeopardize the mental health of foster youth. Feeling more isolated than ever, kids are having little, if any, interaction with friends from school or outside of the home during this time. “They’re dealing with the tension of wanting to be a part of a family and wanting to be independent just like any other adolescent,” says Jane Spinak, the professor at Columbia University.
More difficult job prospects
Finding employment for emancipated foster kids has always been a challenge many struggle with. Prior to the pandemic, only half of aged-out (18 years and older) foster youth had a job within four years of being on their own, according to iFoster, a nonprofit foster care organization. However, the average yearly income for the employed 50 percent was a mere $7,500.
“It’s unfortunate, but the foster youth have always been a forgotten part of society,” says Travis Schwerin, 36 — a former foster care youth who has lived in New York City since in 2013. Schwerin left the foster system in Wisconsin when he was 17 years old, receiving $2,000 from the state to help him become financially independent. On his own, he found a home — a studio apartment in the city of La Crosse for $350 a month — and landed a minimum wage job. Throughout the following years, he moved from Wisconsin to Illinois to California, and eventually, New York.
Today, Schwerin volunteers for Culture for One, a nonprofit that supports foster youth through exposure to the arts, museums, and Broadway shows. He’s concerned that, for foster youth aging out during the pandemic, finding a job may be more challenging than ever.
Celeste Bodner, executive director at FosterClub, a national foster care nonprofit, agrees. “Young people in and leaving foster care are incredibly vulnerable and are being hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis,” she said in a statement. “This pandemic threatens to undo all their hard work and places vulnerable young people in danger of homelessness, food insecurity, and mental health crisis.”
In a recent Facebook and email survey that FosterClub conducted in late March, polling former foster youth, more than one in four respondents said they’d been laid off from their jobs. Nearly two in five said their working hours had been slashed. Almost one in five “indicated they are in a money crisis.”
Post-coronavirus, the job prospects for former foster youth may look even bleaker than they have in the past. National jobs numbers paint a picture of what they’ll be up against: By late April, the Labor Department revealed that as many as 26 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits — a number in contention to surpass the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Foster youth are likelier to experience homelessness
In the FosterClub poll from March, nearly four in 10 former foster youth said they “had been forced to move, or fear being forced to move” in the near future. That’s even higher than the roughly one in four foster youth who are homeless within four years of going out on their own, data shows.
Finding housing has always been an issue in the foster care community, but “housing” can denote different things for different people. For kids who are actively in foster care, housing means there are foster parents willing to take them in. For youth aging out of the system, housing means there are homes available for them to occupy.
Trey Rabun, the social worker from Amara, says his organization has seen a drop in the number of new kids entering the foster system, as well as the number of parents who are willing to take those kids into their homes. Why? For one, students aren’t in schools seeing their teachers in person, and teachers are major sources of the calls that come into government agencies, reporting potential cases of child neglect and abuse. In the case of parents, many (especially those who may be immunocompromised) are reluctant to have new kids coming into their homes given the coronavirus’ contagious spread.
“I need to help”
The coronavirus pandemic has deprived families of incomes and upended normal life for millions of Americans, but foster parents like Amber and Jeff Whitney of Seattle say they’re determined to help nonetheless.
They estimated they’ve incurred an extra $6,000 in expenses since they first opened their home to foster kids four years ago — but it’s all been worth it. “Having kids of my own makes me feel like I need to help,” Amber says. So she has a message for kids without a place to go right now.
“I want these kids to know that, in my three-bedroom house, I leave a third bedroom empty most of the time for the foster kids who come through here, needing a home,” she says. “They’ll always have a place to stay in our house.”
Even as the coronavirus forces Americans to shut their doors, the Whitneys are proof that there will always be at least one door open.