Stimulus aid for foster youth failed to reach most who were eligible

Stimulus aid for foster youth failed to reach most who were eligible

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

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Editor’s note: Axios is using the name Stella as an alias to protect her safety from a troubling family situation. 

Stella had just found an apartment that she could barely afford when she heard about a lifeline: a $5,000 stimulus check for aged-out foster youth like her.

She learned about it by chance, from a friend who texted her a few weeks before the Sept. 30 deadline.

Then, the scramble started: She couldn’t find any information online about the program, and she couldn’t get in touch with anyone at Mecklenburg County. She no longer had contact with her social worker, because she had left the system at 21.

  • Finally, she reached out to a staff member at Florence Crittenton Services, the organization that housed her at the end of her time in the foster care system.
  • They put her in touch with her old social worker, who worked with her to get her application in a few days before the deadline.

But it was already too late.

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Context: As part of the December 2020 stimulus package approved by Congress, the federal government provided an additional $400 million to states in aid for current and former foster young adults.

  • $9 million of that was for the direct payments, according to a statement provided by N.C. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Catie Armstrong.
  • North Carolina gave the money to counties, which then distributed it to young adults.

What’s happening: Stella is one of the 813 young adults in Mecklenburg County who were eligible for the program. But just 155 received funding.

Local details: Mecklenburg County, which disbursed $496,552, says the money has run dry. There is a waitlist with 100 people on it, according to the county’s Department of Social Services.

  • Those ages 18 to 20 were eligible for $2,500, and young adults ages 21 to 26 could receive $5,000.

Why it matters: Foster youth already face immense challenges, and when they age out of the system, some have to start their lives with no family support. The pandemic only added to that financial stress.

  • In a survey of more than 27,000 current and former foster youth conducted by Think of Us, a child welfare research organization, 43% of respondents said COVID-19 had a negative impact on their living situation. Over 1 in 5 were in a financial crisis.

Yes, but: Like other pandemic relief, the lack of infrastructure to distribute money prevented it from getting to everyone who needed it. Governments and nonprofits had to figure out how to set up programs and help the most residents in a short timeframe.

  • “We didn’t have a system set up to do it before the federal government said to do it,” says Jamaica Pfister, director of business development and advocacy with Children’s Home Society of North Carolina. “We weren’t giving out massive checks to young people on a regular basis.”

    Stella had hoped to combine that money with her brother’s, who also went through the system, to put a down payment on a home.

    Owning a home is a dream of hers, but the $15.50 per hour she earns in her job is barely enough to cover the more than $1,300 rent she pays for her apartment.

    • “Most of us struggle just to live a normal life,” she said. “And then when they give out all this money, it’s just like, OK we have hope, we’re probably getting a certain amount of money and we can try to live off of it for a minute until we get off of feet.”

    “I was crushed.”

    What they’re saying: Denise Steele-Campbell, division deputy director for Mecklenburg County’s Youth and Family Services, said the state let the county know it would receive money for the program only about two weeks before the end of September deadline.

    In that time, they contacted as many foster youth as they could, she said, through the courts, foster parents, social workers, social media, community partners and whatever contact information they had on file for people.

    • We were working day and night because we wanted our kids to take advantage of this funding,” she said.
    • She said the county also had two independent social workers at each of its locations, so that they could answer questions from people like Stella.

    When Mecklenburg heard that some other counties were not utilizing the funding, Steele-Campbell said they asked the state for any leftover funds to help those who didn’t receive the money. But she said their request was denied without an explanation.

    • I wish the way that the program was rolled out could’ve been done differently,” Steele-Campbell said. “If they had reached out to us to say, ‘OK Mecklenburg, how many kids could you possibly have helped with this funding?’ … It doesn’t mean we would help 800 kids. But had we received funding based on the number of kids that we could potentially assist, I think that that we would have helped more.”

    The other side: North Carolina and other states first worked with federal partners to clarify what the pandemic aid could be spent on, according to the statement from NCDHHS. That didn’t leave much time before the Sept. 30 federal deadline, the agency said.

    • On Sept. 10, the state’s Division of Social Services sent letters to counties instructing them to provide the payments. State officials held a call the same day to answer questions from counties.
    • Each county received an initial sum based on their current annual allocations so that they could quickly start distributing money. NCDHHS told counties to submit data on eligible youth identified before Sept. 30, and worked with them to adjust funding based on that data.

    “It has been brought to the attention of NCDHHS that some of the young people identified and located as eligible for funding in Mecklenburg County before the September 30 deadline were not included in the data submitted to adjust the county’s allocation,” NCDHHS said.

    • Because federal funding has been depleted, NCDHHS says it is working with Mecklenburg County to figure out other options.

    The state of play: Foster youth advocacy organizations have pushed for the federal government to extend the deadline.

    • A bill that would do so and provide additional support was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives but has not yet been approved.

    For the people the program helped, the money was transformational, Steele-Campbell says. Some used it for daily expenses like rent or food, and others were able to purchase a car or put money into their savings for college.

    Meanwhile, Stella is working 10 hour days to try to keep up with rising expenses.

    And though she said foster care helped the transition to being out on her own, there are still aspects of life she wasn’t prepared for. The stimulus check would have given her some financial security.

    • But she believes the government failed people like her.

    “Especially after foster care, you just want to get over and done with it,” she said. “You just want to forget about that time. But it’s just like, whenever you’re out of foster care, you’re on your own.

    “You don’t have anybody else to rely on but yourself. “

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