Mira Costa College Guardian Scholars Program distributing phones and laptops to their foster youth students through the iFoster program.

For foster youth across California, the coronavirus pandemic has only made their situations worse.

Some have found it challenging to transition to online classes. Others don’t have access to technology, and many have been unable to reconnect with their families. Advocates say the pandemic exacerbated the problems foster youth faced even before the coronavirus upended everyone’s lives.

“A lot of foster youth are having trouble reaching out to biological parents or whoever they trust because the courts are down and social workers are hard to reach,” said Amal Amoora, 19, a foster youth advocate and Humboldt State University student. “The whole concept of making sure that youth don’t have their educational and technological rights overlooked, either innocently or not, is not happening because of the pandemic.”

But there are some bright spots. Amoora said she and other foster youth use the university’s food pantry, and she can afford housing through the state’s independent-living program for current and foster youth aged 16 to 21.

In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that invested $42 million in resources to help foster youth. The money was targeted to help caregivers affected by the coronavirus and give extra resources to social workers who were forced to work remotely or longer hours to help children. While many foster youth advocates welcome the funds, they also say that it isn’t enough to help improve the lives of these young people who number 59,156 statewide from infancy through 21.

“We are very grateful for the investment the governor has made for this population and think it will go a long way toward meeting certain elements of the foster youth population needs,” she said. “But there continue to be areas of unmet need, and we’re continuing to advocate for additional resources.”

One challenge for advocates is collecting data on what foster students need.

In one survey from the John Burton Advocates for Youth, a San Francisco-based nonprofit for homeless and foster youth, information was gleaned from providers who work with foster youth.

The organizations surveyed 60 social service agencies to learn how youth aged 18 to 21 were fairing during the pandemic. Thirty-four agencies, serving 1,728 youth, responded, and 74% of them said they served foster youth who stopped participating in high school or college classes because of the pandemic. Sixty-five percent of agencies said they served youth who needed technology support, such as a laptop, tutoring or the internet.

The picture is even less clear for youth under age 18.

“What’s happening for youth under 18 in foster care is that we don’t know and that’s really a problem,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, which advocates improving foster care and juvenile justice systems nationally. “We haven’t managed to harness the technology or utilize any of the tools we have now to hear directly from people to find out what children, youth and families are experiencing.”

The bulk of Newsom’s funding, nearly $28 million of it, went to provide an additional $200 a month supplement to families whose children are at risk of neglect or abuse. An additional $1.7 million went to foster families supporting children with complex needs that require additional costs, if for example they get sick or are at-risk of being moved into a shelter.

Rodriguez said it’s hard to say if that money has been effective.

“Every family has different needs right now, and we don’t know what those needs are,” she said. “We can’t fix this with a check. We can meet some financial needs, but families and children will need a level of support, connection and information that you can’t buy.”

Newsom’s order also gave:

  • $6.9 million to support overtime for social workers.
  • $3 million to Family Resource Centers that work to prevent child abuse.
  • $1.8 million to assist about 200 young adults who are at risk of aging out of the foster care system through June 30.

Foster youth, advocates and caregivers are alerting the state to their problems by contacting the California Foster Care Ombudsman hotline. The ombudsman office receives complaints and works with counties and agencies to resolve the issues. Most complaints have been about delays in court hearings because of pandemic-related closures and canceled visitations between youth, caregivers and biological parents.

The court closures mean that families who were close to reuniting were delayed and haven’t been able to, said Rochelle Trochtenberg, the state’s foster care ombudsperson in the California Department of Social Services.

“If people can figure out how to get consumers in and out of a grocery store, I find it disheartening and concerning that our justice system hasn’t figured out how to do the same,” she said.

The foster care system has relied on in-person visitations between children, youth and their families, but that has been disrupted because of the “huge gap in technology access for foster youth,” Trochtenberg said, referring to the inability of some courts to use Zoom technology to connect youth with their families.

To help connect young people to their families, Newsom’s executive order gave $313,128 to iFoster, a national nonprofit organization that provides smartphones, laptops and hotspots to foster and homeless youth. It also allowed the ombudsman’s office to better direct resources to young people, like smartphones for 5- to 12-year-olds in foster care, if the office learned they had problems accessing technology. From May 3-9, for example, the office helped connect 46 youth to iFoster.

Trochtenberg said the smartphones would help those children, and their caregivers, virtually visit with their biological families, access attorneys, social workers and other service providers.

Getting electronic devices in the hands of young people so they can communicate is vital, she said.

“There has been a lot of information about decreases in child abuse reports during the stay-home order because teachers are one of the primary resources for child abuse reports,” Trochtenberg said. “In a virtual environment, now more than ever, we need to make sure foster children are safe and technology helps.”

Besides the ombudsman’s office, 686 different organizations have helped identify more than 6,630 former and current foster youth in California colleges and schools to receive smartphones and Chromebooks from March 16 to May 29, according to iFoster. (This program serves former foster youth, too, who may not be counted in the state system.)

“We’re looking towards the fall and expanding our reach since we see distance learning and virtual visitations continuing for our youth through the end of the year,” said Serita Cox, chief executive officer of iFoster. “We’re currently working on ensuring every foster youth in high school has a Chromebook and a smartphone with unlimited data and hotspot capability.’

Kristina Tanner, 19 and a rising second-year student at Sacramento State University, said the shift to online classes was hard for her. Initially, she had to rely on parking near campus to access Wi-Fi.

“We could go there without a parking permit and that was really helpful for foster youth,” she said. “But for youth who don’t have cars, there isn’t a lot of resources out there besides iFoster.”

Tanner said she eventually received a Wi-Fi hotspot through iFoster to complete her classes, but she still struggled with online learning.

“I’m just not an online learner,” she said. “I signed up to go to school and be on campus. I’d been trying to avoid online classes all year.”

Overall, the ombudsman’s office has seen an increase in complaints and, most notably, Covid-19 related complaints. They include the reunification issues, court closures, lack of services and concerns from young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 about exiting foster care amid the pandemic.

In January and February, the office received four Covid-related complaints each month, then in March there were 34 new coronavirus-related cases. As of the week of April 26, the office received an additional 45 such cases.

Trochtenberg said one way to improve the lives of foster youth would be removing them from housing that could increase their exposure to the virus.

“We really have to figure out how to continue to keep foster youth in homes that are safe, healthy and loving and out of institutional settings like shelters and group homes … especially during a pandemic,” Trochtenberg said, referring to news stories of Covid-19 outbreaks in group homes.

Rodriguez said some issues don’t require youth alerting adults to what they need, but just “common sense.” For example, foster children in group homes could see a higher risk of contracting the virus because of their exposure to staff and other adults who come and go every day from those facilities. A coronavirus outbreak in Torrance-based Star View Adolescent Health Center, a behavioral health treatment facility, infected at least five foster youth in April.

She said ending that type of care was urgent before the pandemic, but “now it’s basically a crisis to move youth out of institutional setting and into families.”

Advocates also are pushing for more policy changes at the state. State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, is pushing legislation that would extend foster care during any declared state of emergency, and six months after the emergency for youth who turn 21 and no longer meet the requirements to participate in foster care.

Debbie Raucher, director of education at John Burton Advocates for Youth, said her organization also advocates extending foster care during emergencies, dedicating a minimum 10% of what the state allots to homeless services reserved for foster.

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