There’s $10.5 million sitting at the state Department of Child Safety to provide cash assistance to older and former foster youth as they cope with pandemic-induced stresses.

But only a fraction of it has reached the young people it’s intended for, slowed by what foster advocates call an overly cumbersome process.

To speed things up, they have been pressing for $500 direct payments to foster youth who meet the requirements of the federal pandemic relief act Congress passed in late December.

“There should be a direct stimulus payment from this money for the people who qualify,” said Rebecca Masterson, general counsel for the nonprofit Gen Justice and the mother of a youth adopted out of foster care.

After all, that’s what happened with the three rounds of stimulus checks sent to Americans nationwide, she said.

However, DCS has rejected the proposal for a standard direct payment and is opting for a case-by-case approach to provide $2.8 million in assistance for housing, education support, driver’s-ed courses and tutoring based on individual foster youths’ applications.

Support through age 26

The money is intended for anyone ages 14 through 26 who was in foster care at age 14 or older. But these older and former foster youth must make their claim by Sept. 30, and DCS has not yet begun the required marketing campaign to publicize the program to an often transient population.

Current and former foster youth who want to apply for aid should contact DCS via email at [email protected].

As of late April, DCS had handed out $270,000 in federal aid to 155 young adults. The grants, assigned after the youth completed an online application and an interview with a DCS specialist, have ranged from $45 to $5,500.

TJ Fowler was one of those applicants and was approved for a $1,420 payment in mid-April. But Fowler was told it could take three to six weeks for the payment to arrive.

“Three to six weeks, that’s a huge time gap where I will be accruing late fees,” they said, adding bills are due now.

Although employed full-time as a teacher, Fowler, 23, said there are still costs not covered by the regular paycheck, and the situation has been exacerbated by the strains of the pandemic.

A direct payment makes sense, Fowler said, “just like these stimulus checks everyone else is getting.”

Foster youth, like most other Americans, are eligible for the stimulus payments. The federal program is intended to be additional aid, considering the challenges and trauma that are common in foster care.

Masterson’s son went through the same application process, but before he could do his interview, DCS shut down the program and said it was working on a new approach.

Where to send the check?

That new approach hands over the distribution of the relief aid to the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, a nonprofit that has an established process for getting assistance to foster youth.

DCS scrapped the application and interview process, which allocated money through the agency’s new computer system, called Guardian. However, that system has had a slow start getting payments to other participants in Arizona’s child-welfare system, so the move to a nonprofit was seen as a faster, more transparent process.

Kris Jacober, the foundation’s executive director, said the plan is to give foster youth the aid they seek, as long they meet the age criteria.

“If you ask for rent, we’re not going to ask you for a budget,” she said. “We’re not evaluating whether or not you need this money. We just want to know where to send the check.”

The foster advocates say the new approach should get aid to foster youth more efficiently. But they continue to push for direct payments, something that is allowed in federal law and has already been done in New Jersey and Minneapolis.

“Direct payments are the most equitable, effective, and efficient way to provide relief to young people in and from foster care,” the coalition of six nonprofit groups argued in a letter last month to DCS.

Additionally, a no-strings-attached payment could be an effective way to get former foster youth, wary of state oversight, involved again with the community services that could help them with their daily needs.

Molly Dunn, director of child welfare and juvenile justice with the Children’s Action Alliance, said her organization is pleased DCS is pivoting to a faster distribution process. But she added she’s “extremely disappointed” that DCS isn’t using at least some portion of the $10.5 million for direct payments.

“These are emergency funds for COVID relief,” Dunn said. “And young people have been waiting for it for a year.”

Housing, education aid

Ryan Young was anxious as his 18th birthday approached. At 18, foster youth “age out” of the system, and Young was worried about what lay ahead.

“I felt like everything in my life would halt,” he said. But he entered the state’s extended foster care program, which provides support for education, housing and other responsibilities of adult life.

Now 19 and a student at Phoenix College, Young has been working with local and national groups to spread the word about extra aid available to foster youth through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. He also helped advocate for the federal legislation, bringing his experience as a foster youth to inform congressional members about the need for pandemic relief.

Congress added $400 million to the program to help older foster youth as they deal with the downsides of the coronavirus pandemic, from job loss to reduced education opportunities. It was part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed in late December and signed by former President Donald Trump. Arizona’s share is $10.5 million.

“A lot of these youth don’t have savings they can tap into,” Young said. “Or they don’t have a mom or dad they can rely on.”

Among the benefits available, Young said, are:

  • Up to $1,000 a month in aid to maintain housing.
  • Additional funds to help cover the cost of moving, such as money to pay for a deposit on a rental.
  • Up to $1,000 to help with the costs of a job search, such as creating a resume or prepping for a job interview.
  • Up to $12,000 in education and job training support.

Young applied for some of the aid, but has yet to hear how much assistance he will receive. The pandemic-related relief gives him extra supports to stay in the system, Young said.

Like other advocates, he believes that a standard direct payment to all qualified foster youth would entice more young people to re-engage with the system.

The federal program also extends the time young people can spend in foster care in two circumstances:

  • Any foster youth who turned 18 between Jan. 27, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, can return to the system if they are under age 22. DCS has identified 160 young people who fit this category, said Barbara Guillen, permanency and youth services manager at DCS. As of late April, 44 had opted to return to the system.
  • Anyone currently in foster care can stay in the system until Sept. 30. This includes foster youth up through age 26 who benefit from the program’s education training vouchers.

Current and former foster youth who want to apply for aid should contact DCS via email at [email protected].

Reach the reporter at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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