Many young adults aging out of foster care navigate life without a proper safety net. And the coronavirus pandemic made transitioning to independent adulthood much harder.
Phoenix Ramirez entered foster care in Oregon when he was 6 years old and aged out of the system at 20 in March of 2020. He says the judge signed the papers a week before everything shut down.
At the time, he says his world turned upside down because there were no resources available to him. Foster care, the Department of Homeland Security and Child Protective Services couldn’t help him since he had just closed his case, Ramirez says.
“I was living at the dorms at my college and they decided to shut down the dorms so I was about to be homeless,” Ramirez says. “All my job opportunities just went flat too so I lost my income as well.”
The COVID-19 relief package passed late last year included support for teenagers and young adults who have spent time in the foster care system. Ramirez says he was approved for the package, which provides funds up to $2,000 for former foster care youth.
Twenty-four-year-old Hillary — we're not using her last name to protect her privacy — also received the COVID-19 relief funds. The process to get approved for funds was difficult because she lives in a different state than she did when she was in foster care
“I was able to use some of that emergency funding to buy a bed and dishes,” she says. “Basically I had nothing but suitcases and an apartment.”
The pandemic helped in a way, she says, because she realized growing up in the foster care system — dealing with so much uncertainty — made her resilient.
“I’m very happy and grateful because now I have somewhere to live,” she says. “This is the first time that I’ve ever had a safe, welcoming place to call home.”
Vivek Sankaran, director of the child advocacy law clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, says it’s always hard for a child aging out of foster care because they lose all the support they have in the system — such as a lawyer, a social worker and a place to live. The pandemic compounded the hardships.
“Many of these supports fell away quickly and these youth were asked to navigate the world on their own,'' Sankaran says, “but it was a world where everything became more difficult by getting a job, getting a house, being connected with those who could support them.”
The pandemic exposed many flaws of the foster care system, Sankaran says. One of the real strategies of the system, he says, is how it deals with children who are aging out of foster care.
“We need to surround them with much more than we’re doing right now to have a much smoother transition,” he says. “The real solution is preventing this from happening in the first instance which is probably where we should be investing more of our time.”
The Associated Press recently reported that family reunifications and adoptions dropped dramatically during the pandemic. Sankaran says every aspect of the system was affected — from parents not being able to visit their children to children not being able to get sent home.
Hundreds of children were prevented from going home because courts were closed, he says, and without a court order, children had to stay in foster care. Luckily, an innovative pilot program was launched to get these orders generated outside the court, he says.
“It really revealed that so much of what we do in foster care involves going to a physical space and talking to a judge,” Sankaran says. “It’s got a lot of us to think about different ways that we should be moving forward to make this system far more efficient so we get better outcomes for families.”
Courts still haven’t fully returned back to normal, he says, so courts across the country are still holding virtual hearings while others’ have been delayed. Many of these trials involve key questions about whether a child was abused or neglected, Sankaran says.
Children's sense of time doesn’t stop during the pandemic, he says, so many of these children are forming relationships and attachments.
“You’re seeing a lot of really difficult situations where kids have been out of [the] home for quite some time but parents haven’t been afforded a fair opportunity to do what they need to do to reunify with their children,'' Sankaran says. “It’s a real challenge right now all across the country.”
Due to the pandemic, he says, there has been a reimagining of how the country can help families. There are more conversations happening around giving families the type of support they need — income, access to housing and employment.
“So I’m an optimist,” he says, “and I think that there is a space that has emerged in this pandemic driven by empathy: This idea that life is fragile for so many of us.”
Editor’s note: This segment incorrectly states that Phoenix Ramirez aged out of foster care at age 18. He was 20. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on July 16, 2021.
This segment aired on July 16, 2021.