Youth Bear Heavy Pandemic Burden as National Foster Care Month Kicks Off

By Dawn Rains, Chief Policy & Strategy Officer

May is National Foster Care Month, a time to shine a spotlight on the youth who inspire us every day and the incredible challenges being overcome. This year, the obstacles continue to compound daily because of the pandemic.

Do you remember what life was like before COVID-19? It was March 11 when the first restrictions about public gatherings were put into place and schools were shuttered two days later. As I write this, it is only Day 49—but so many things have changed as we enter National Foster Care Month in May. Youth in care have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic, and I am concerned that they will continue to bear a disproportionate burden of that impact as this health crisis continues into summer and the fall.

Many of the routines in our lives have been disrupted. As much as we love the people with whom we live, the close quarters can be challenging in the best of circumstances. This is especially true for our youth in foster care. They may be living in placements with foster parents or relative caregivers that are not great fits for them. School often serves as a stabilizing force. Youth develop important relationships with teachers, school counselors and friends, and their days are filled with structure. Both the youth and caregivers get a needed break from one another, which is especially important if the youth is struggling with challenging behaviors. Add to that the cancellation of both visits with their families and extracurricular activities, and youth are facing isolation and a lack of productive ways to spend time. As tensions rise, our team is worried about a wave of placement disruptions and youth going on the run.

A number of our youth do not have a caregiver at home with the capacity to support and monitor their active engagement in school. Forty percent of our youth have disabilities that qualify them for special education services that many districts are unable to provide remotely. Due to significant histories of family instability, trauma and transitions, youth in foster care sometimes have tenuous connections to school. Teachers and our Treehouse education staff do what they can to make school relevant and engaging, but it is hard for youth to focus on their math test if they are worried about whether they are going to see their mom this week.

School building closures, grading policies and confusing communication from schools have had a serious impact on the motivation and engagement for some of our youth. We are significantly concerned that many of our students who are already behind will only fall further behind during this crisis. With the disproportionate representation of youth and families of color in the child welfare system and similar racial disparities with COVID-19 complications, there is a significant likelihood of deepening the racial inequities already present in our child welfare system.

We completed surveys for 1,307 youth in 124 schools districts in 31 counties. We are especially concerned about our older youth. As many of them work in the retail and service industries, they were among the first to lose their jobs. Those in Extended Foster Care (available up to age 21) must be working or going to school in order to qualify, and there are a group of about 250 youth who will turn 21 and lose eligibility in the next year. We are supporting them as they apply for unemployment and struggle to maintain their housing.

As physical distancing continues, we will have to adapt to other more difficult challenges. Child abuse and neglect reports are down 50% during the past few weeks. We are deeply concerned that abuse and neglect are actually on the rise with the stressors on families. The Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) expects a significant wave of new reports when children and youth return to school and are regularly seen by teachers and child care providers. For youth who are on a path to be reunified with their families or to be placed in an adoptive home, those plans have been delayed as family visits, critical services and court proceedings have been delayed. Youth in group homes or juvenile justice facilities are at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Finally, our state is facing a budget crisis like we have never seen in modern memory. As nearly 80% of Washington state’s revenue comes from sales tax, and business and occupation tax, legislators are expecting budget shortfalls in the billions. Nearly 50% of our state budget is tied to specific entitlement expenditures that cannot be cut, which means human services such as foster care are at significant risk of being drastically reduced. Treehouse is advocating for the needs of our youth day in and day out, and you can expect that we will be a leading voice for their needs in a special session of the Washington State Legislature that is likely ahead.

There are so many uncertainties for our youth in the days and months ahead. Here are two things you can do to stand with Treehouse and youth in foster care:

Give generously: Thanks to GiveBIG, your donation will be matched, stretching even further to provide essentials and tools youth need to succeed. The early donation period is open. Give now through May 6 at givebigwa.org/treehouse.

Raise your voice: Join our online Advocacy Action Center to stay up-to-date and for a quick and easy way to take action.

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About the Author

As Chief Policy & Strategy Officer, Dawn Rains leads long-term strategy and policy advocacy for Treehouse. She has more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit management and fund development.

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