With the COVID-19 pandemic creating unprecedented challenges in the child welfare system, it is essential that we understand the urgent needs facing young people in foster care today and shift our resources to address these needs. From understanding food and housing instability to providing the technology that allows youth to communicate virtually, our partners are working around the clock to support transition age youth in New York City and Los Angeles County.

While many organizations have the benefit of comprehensive work-from-home and social distancing policies, the essential work being done to support youth in foster care often requires in-person engagement with many of our partners continuing to report to work each day. During National Foster Care Month, we would like to salute the foster and relative caregivers, volunteers, mentors, policymakers, child welfare professionals, and other members of the community who provide youth in foster care with the connections, stability and support they need to lead healthy, meaningful and self-sufficient lives.

Addressing Urgent Basic Needs

According to a national study by The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research, 43 percent of young people currently or formerly in foster care report COVID-19 having a negative impact on their living situation. Food insecurity is another pressing issue, as 55 percent reported having low access to food as a direct result of the pandemic.

In many ways, New York City has been ground zero for this crisis. Our partners at The Children’s Village are working on the frontlines by providing care to over 11,000 children involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, including 24-hour support to over 400 children in their residential facilities, while serving youth and families through community-based services. During COVID-19, staff are taking great personal risk to continue working on the frontlines and identifying new ways to maintain connection with youth and their families, including financial support and resources for those struggling to find food or facing unemployment. As a provider community, they go out of their way to ensure that children age out of foster care with a home and a community of support.

On another New York City block, The Door serves young people from across the city with a wide range of services – all for free to youth and under one roof. Since the pandemic, physical spaces at The Door are mostly closed, but they are virtually open and working hard to stay connected. As a result, The Door has transitioned much of their programming to remote platforms, including through mailed prescription medications, telehealth and counseling services, digital support groups, and remote career and education classes. Their rapid and innovative pivot to address the immediate needs of the most vulnerable youth makes The Door a leading model on how to support youth in foster care during this challenging time.

In partnership with StoryCorps, this conversation features Serenity speaking with her mentor, Victoria, about how her own health struggles inspired her to pursue an EMT certificate. The two met at The Door, a youth empowerment organization in New York City.

Supporting mental and physical health is also vitally important to ensuring young people thrive long after COVID-19. Particularly for youth in foster care who are survivors of trauma, the pandemic and social isolation can create a variety of triggers that threaten their mental well-being. Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of Children’s Village, has spoken out on how the organization is supporting the mental health of young people. Kohomban shares that the anxiety that youth often feel surrounds the possibility of family members getting sick or dying.

As our partner Michelle Francois, director of the FosterEd Initiative at National Center for Youth Law, explains:

“Youth who have experienced trauma have an impeccably-tuned Spidey sense for danger, and they are worried. Very worried. Not about missing out on learning or getting a bad grade. Right now, for so many in the general public, this shelter in place moment feels like the eye of the storm. But for youth who have grown with abuse and neglect, or who are living in families without reliable shelter and food; for them, what is happening right now is the calm BEFORE the storm. Those who have grown up experiencing physical and psychological abuse understand all too well the unique skill of spotting danger before it arrives.”

Staying connected with friends and family plays a significant role in preserving the mental health of foster youth during COVID-19. We need more people walking alongside youth, providing support and tangible comfort during this unprecedented and challenging time. The need will only grow in the future and our fear is that there will be even more young people entering the system as families are stressed.

Staying Connected in the Era of COVID-19

According to Serita Cox, CEO and co-founder of iFoster, a vital need reported by foster youth during COVID-19 is the technology to communicate. Right now, youth in foster care need to communicate virtually with their parents, social workers, teachers and siblings. However, many do not have access to the hardware, software or internet connection to make this possible. iFoster is doing important work to deliver devices to young people, ensuring they stay connected.

As schools have shifted to online learning, many foster youth are struggling with limited access to the technology and resources they need to thrive. We know that when foster youth disconnect from school, the rates of reconnection are very low. It is likely these rates will be even lower in response to COVID-19, due to the high prevalence of financial disruption and unemployment.

Gamalier shares what the support of Toussaint, his education coach at HeartShare St. Vincent’s Services, meant to him as a youth in foster care. When he was in school, Toussaint similarly had a teacher who gave him the extra support he needed to thrive.

In Los Angeles, John Burton Advocates for Youth is working with iFoster to distribute laptops to youth, campus programs and organizations working with foster youth impacted by classes going online. To date, they have distributed over 5,000 devices so youth can stay connected with their families, mentors, therapists and friends.

That said, Francois of the National Center for Youth Law adds this profound reminder:

“What matters most now to our youth is that someone who cares about them is checking in to see how they are doing, listening, and engaging with them with integrity and empathy.”

Mentors, Coaches and Caregivers

Throughout COVID-19, the urgent needs of transition age youth in foster care have reinforced what we know about the importance of mentors, coaches and caregivers to walk alongside youth in foster care. Despite this, the Fair Futures campaign, which is working to ensure every foster youth in New York City has a dedicated coach and tutor through age 26, is at risk of losing funding from the city. On May 5, over 1,000 young people sent a letter to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council on the importance of the Fair Futures model during this critical time.

Youth in foster care are facing unprecedented challenges and this is the time to increase support, not decrease it. We need to look at ways to support caregivers, increase access to mentors and coaches, and identify supplemental ways to keep foster youth connected with professionals and other care adults through this crisis.

Sheniqua speaks to her friend, Gabbie, about how she met her adoptive mother and the unique bond they share. These two friends are both transition age youth in New York City who connected through our partner Graham Windham.

Now is the time to recognize that we each can play a part in enhancing the lives of children and youth in foster care. Those interested in becoming a foster parent can learn more by connecting with some of our partners, including Raise A Child and FosterMore.

How Philanthropy is Responding

In response to this crisis, foundations and nonprofits are stepping up and pooling our resources to offer COVID-19 rapid response funds to support transition age youth and service providers.  

In Los Angeles, several California College Pathways funding partners have collaborated with Together We Rise and our partner John Burton Advocates for Youth to create a COVID-19 Safety Net Fund. This fund ensures that youth and the programs that support them have immediate access to flexible resources to quickly address a wide range of challenges that threaten the ability of foster youth to stay connected to college.

In New York City, funding partners are working in collaboration with the New York Community Trust’s Foster Care Excellence Fund to ensure that youth and their caregivers continue to receive coaching, tutoring and remote learning support during COVID-19. This effort also supports child welfare and foster care providers who are struggling with the health and economic effects of the virus.

National Foster Care Month is both a celebration and a time for action. It is a reminder of the caregivers, social workers and service providers who protect our most vulnerable youth during a national and global crisis. It is also a chance to examine the many ways you can advocate for and walk alongside transition age youth in foster care, whether supporting a service provider or learning more about being a mentor, coach or foster parent. As we continue to support foster youth through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, we are grateful for our partners doing incredible work on the frontlines in New York City and Los Angeles County.