In Racial Justice Issue, Black and Native Children 3 Times More Likely to Be in Foster Care
At the beginning of March, Monse Gonzalez had her entire year planned. She would graduate from community college, save part of her paychecks as a childcare worker, and start school at the University of Santa Barbara.
Then came the pandemic.
Suddenly, everything Gonzalez, 18, had worked for was in jeopardy: her job, her housing, her associates degree. While many young adults have families to lean on during these uncertain times, as a young adult in California’s foster care system, Gonzalez’s main support is herself.
“I want to make sure that I’ll be able to have a roof over my head,” said Gonzalez, who has bounced between multiple foster families and housing arrangements since age 15 when her mother died. “I want to know what’s going to happen in the next year.”
Gonzalez, who lives in Daly City, is among more than 7,000 young people ages 18 to 21 in California’s foster care system. They either live in transitional housing or receive approximately $1,000 a month from the government to help pay for living expenses. Most subsidize this with academic scholarships and part-time jobs. Now, these young people, and others who recently aged out of foster care, are struggling under the weight of the pandemic and its economic fallout. Most have no family to rely on and are at high risk of losing employment since they tend to work entry-level jobs in the service sector.
In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that allows young people in foster care who are turning 21 to remain in the system through June 30. But some advocates and legislators worry that won’t be long enough and want the governor to continue allowing young adults on the brink of aging out to stay in foster care until the pandemic is over.
Meeting the needs of foster youth is also a racial justice issue. A disproportionate percentage of foster youth are Black or Native American, largely due to structural inequality and racism. Black and Native children are more than three times as likely as white and Latinx children to be in foster care in California.
Although foster care benefits for young adults are relatively limited compared to the range of support families often offer, they still help cover basic needs, as in Gonzalez’s case, said Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth, an organization that provides technical assistance to agencies that work with young adults in foster care.
“If at least their minimum needs can be covered, maybe they can keep a leg up in higher education, maybe they can hold on until the economy returns,” Lemley said.
“All the odds are already stacked against them to graduate from high school and higher education, and yet they’re doing it. We need to keep that (aging out) pause button hit.”
‘Fearful of Being on the Streets’
State Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) has proposed legislation that would extend the moratorium on aging out until six months after California officially lifts its state of emergency. The move would cost an estimated $32 million in the upcoming fiscal year—an amount advocates say pales in comparison to the potential long-term cost if thousands of young people lose housing and forfeit educational opportunities due to the pandemic. It would also prevent these young people, who have already survived abuse and neglect, from suffering even more trauma, Lemley said.
Beall has urged the governor to extend the moratorium on aging out as part of the state budget, rather than wait for the legislature to pass his bill.
“This pandemic threatens to upend the lives of many youth in (extended foster care),” Beall wrote in a letter to Newsom. “We are hearing directly from foster youth who are fearful of being on the streets at the end of month.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The precarious situation facing young adults in foster care is taking a toll on many aspects of their lives. In a survey of 34 transitional housing providers for young people in the foster system in California, three quarters said youth in their care had stopped participating in high school or college classes as of the end of April, and a majority needed educational support for online learning, such as a laptop, internet connection or tutoring. Another three quarters reported that young adults in their housing facilities had been laid off or had their hours severely reduced, and about half knew of residents with only a week or less of money available.
Housing insecurity was another problem. Many providers had taken in young people that were homeless or in danger of losing housing due to COVID-19. And more than 80 percent reported an increase in mental health issues such as depression and anxiety among the young adults they served.
“The normative thing to do during this pandemic is for young adults to move back with their family of origin,” said Lemley. “For these young people, through absolutely no fault of their own, that isn’t possible.”
Even before COVID-19, young people in foster care and transitioning out of the system faced significant difficulties. Often because of trauma experienced before and after entering foster care, they were at heightened risk for dropping out of school, becoming homeless and being incarcerated. Foster youth are also about four times more likely than the general population to suffer from significant mental health issues.
Emmerald Evans, 22, a student at Sacramento State University, went through years of therapy after entering foster care at age 5. This helped her overcome depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that she suffered because of abuse she experienced as a child. But when the university closed because of COVID-19 and all her roommates went home to their families, Evans started feeling depressed again. Suddenly, she was alone, with nothing to distract her from negative thoughts. She had to remind herself of coping techniques she’d learned as a child, such as journaling, prayer, and reaching out to supportive adults such as her pastor and a previous counselor.
“When you have nothing to do and you’re by yourself, you have to deal with the emotions that you’ve had bottled up,” she said. “I’ve caught myself going back down, finding myself a little lower than I normally would be.”
Let Them Know They’re Not Alone
Pivotal, a nonprofit educational services provider for more than 500 current and former foster youth in the Silicon Valley, has been trying to address the isolation and other pandemic-related problems that young adults like Evans are facing. CEO Elise Cutini said coaches with the organization have been reaching out to the young people they serve through text messages, phone calls and online messages to find out if they need help and to let them know they’re not alone.
Many young people they talk to are distressed, Cutini said. One high school senior lost a part-time job and was overcome with anxiety because she couldn’t pay her rent and buy groceries, her coach found. Another on the cusp of completing community college contracted COVID-19 and moved into her car because she had nowhere else to quarantine. Many others had lost jobs or housing, couldn’t pay rent and buy food, or lacked a computer, cell-phone plan or internet for online learning. Pivotal quickly launched a campaign to raise emergency funds to help the students.
“The needs continue to grow,” Cutini said.
Diana Pham, 26, was grateful when Pivotal stepped in to help her secure a laptop and internet access when her classes switched online weeks before she was due to graduate from San Jose State University. Pham had been sharing a laptop with her boyfriend, and didn’t have reliable internet in the home she lives in with him, her two children and his extended family.
But her biggest challenges were overcoming her own doubts about whether she could still finish her degree amid the pandemic, and trying to juggle her final projects while caring for two young children at home. Her life had been full of challenges—entering foster care at age 9, getting pregnant at 17 and not completing traditional high school.
“It put me in a negative head space. I was just thinking about everything that happened to me in the past,” Pham said. “I didn’t think I was going to graduate.”
Thankfully, with her coach’s encouragement, Pham stuck it out. She graduated in May with a major in sociology. Her friends held a ceremony for her outside her house, complete with certificate, cap and gown.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, is staying in the Bay Area for the foreseeable future, taking introductory classes at UCSB online, where she plans to transfer once on-campus classes resume. She has so far kept her job and been able to pay for the bedroom she rents in a shared house. She tries not to think too far ahead. Above all, she wants to complete a four-year-degree, a goal her mother always supported.
“That was her main message at all times,” Gonzalez said. “‘Keep going to school, don’t give up.’”