Stimulus aid for former foster youth isn’t reaching most eligible Kentuckians

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A federal stimulus package was meant to provide financial relief to current and former foster youth during the pandemic. But less than 30% of Kentucky’s $7.3 million allotment has reached young people who may need it. 

Kentuckians 18 to 26 years old who spent time in foster care were eligible for a $2,000 cash payment and help with other needs between March and September last year. The state distributed almost $2.2 million. But only about 1,000 Kentucky youth successfully applied and received relief — leaving more than $5.2 million unclaimed. 

The state recently reopened registration and has until the end of September to distribute the rest of the funds. But federal rules changed, and now it’s only available up to 23 years old. 

With no system in place to track youth who age out of foster care and a slew of obstacles exacerbated by the pandemic, local advocates are concerned that many vulnerable youth will continue to be left without crucial relief. 

“This is a reminder to all of us that the systems that are required for young people to transition successfully to adult life are fractured, broken and really not constructed in a way to help those young people succeed,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Officials from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services said they expected more foster youth to apply in 2021, but acknowledged they needed to do more to get the word out, such as using social media and partnering with more community organizations.

“Given the numbers last time, I think we need to cast a broader net,” said Cabinet Secretary Eric Friedlander. “We have to use every avenue possible to let folks know that there’s assistance available.”

More than 5,000 potentially eligible in Ky.

The federal stimulus package, passed by Congress in December 2020, allocated $400 million to expand relief and benefits for current and former foster youth nationwide. The legislation also placed a temporary moratorium on aging out of the system, allowing young people to stay in the system longer if they chose and allowing those who had recently left the foster care system to re-enter. 

Kentucky received over $7.3 million to distribute as $2,000 direct stimulus payments or for needs such as educational assistance, career exploration, preventative health and transportation.

Out of nearly 1,900 requests in Kentucky, 46% were rejected due to ineligibility, according to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The precise number of people who should be eligible for this money isn’t known, according to state officials. However, data from the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion show that an average of 660 foster youth age-out of the system every year in Kentucky. For most youth, this means leaving the system when they turn 18, but the state also offers extended foster care until they turn 21.

That means there are likely 5,900 former foster youth between 18 and 26 who were eligible for relief, but fewer than 20% of that number have actually received the aid.

And this is a problem nationwide. According to Think of Us, a child welfare research lab, more than 500,000 former foster youth were eligible for the initial pandemic funding, but only about 16,000 signed up by the end of last August.

“I think one of the largest challenges is whether or not young people were even aware that it was available to them,” said Celeste Bodner, executive director at Foster Club, a national nonprofit for foster youth. “There is no magic list of former foster youth in this country. Once a young person has left foster care, the state no longer maintains contact in most cases.”

Why it matters

Cynthia Schepers, a 26-year-old who spent time in foster care, found out about the aid through a mentor. She worked multiple jobs at the start of the pandemic, and lost them over a few months — after she’d bought herself a new car. The $2,000 she received helped pay that bill until she got her current job as a peer coach coordinator for TrueUp in Louisville, she said.

Cynthia Schepers, a 26-year-old who spent time in foster care, is now a peer coach coordinator for TrueUp in Louisville.

“That’s what I used my whole stimulus for was the car payments,” said Schepers. “Once I lost those jobs, that pandemic relief really helped.”

Advocates say many foster youth could use financial support for more immediate needs too, including food and housing. Bodner said the pandemic has exacerbated challenges for young people from foster care, who were already at an increased risk for poverty and homelessness.

A third of all foster youth who aged out of the system in Kentucky experienced homelessness within two years of turning 21, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And this data was before the pandemic started.

A survey published by The Field Center in 2020 shows that the already significant challenges facing foster youth increased in almost every area in just the first six months of the pandemic. Nearly half of the participants reported that the pandemic caused them to be laid off or have their hours reduced.

“What we know about young people from foster care is that they can demonstrate fantastic resilience,” Bodner said. “But these young people will take longer to recover during this pandemic than their peers, because they won’t necessarily have the family support to help them along the way.”

Systemic obstacles

Across the country, state systems already struggle with outreach and communication to young people in foster care. 

“If the system was broken before the pandemic began, money alone won’t fix it,” said Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “It shouldn’t surprise any of us that those systems have certainly not gotten easier to navigate during the pandemic.”

There are also several challenges that may have prevented foster youth from staying in touch with the state and getting information about the available pandemic aid, including insecure housing and access to phones and technology.

But the challenges continue even for those who did hear about the aid. Brooks said many young people who transition out of foster care don’t have a bank account to drop money into and also don’t have stable housing to send a check to, which creates even more delays for youth who are already struggling.

“The pragmatic implications are pretty tough,” Brooks said. “It’s not like they’re moving to a three bedroom, suburban house.”

For Schepers, who works to connect other former foster youth to resources, having a way to keep track of former foster youth is crucial. She said there needs to be more creative solutions to supporting those who age out, because the current system is not working.

“Part of the problem is that these youth feel like they need to fight for these resources,” Schepers said. “We need to make it clear to the youth that there is plenty of money and resources available to them.”

Are you a former Kentucky foster youth who might be eligible to receive pandemic relief? Here’s what you need to do:

Other resources for former foster youth:

Jasmine Demers is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact Jasmine at jdemers@kycir.org.

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