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‘There’s No Magic in Turning 21:’ New York Legislators Are the Last Hope for Young Adults in Foster Care

by Megan Conn

After earlier pleas to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) went unanswered, advocates for young adults in foster care are urging support for legislation that would extend housing and financial support beyond the current age limit of 21 during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The trauma and impact of the last few months have been extraordinary,” Assemblywoman Didi Barrett (D) said Thursday during a virtual news conference organized by a coalition of youth advocates, calling the idea of entering the adult world right now with no family support “unimaginable.” New York needs to “make sure children are not being denied support because of an arbitrary policy that didn’t consider what the state, the country and the world have gone through,” she said.

In May, Barrett introduced a bill that would allow young adults to continue receiving support for six months after the current state of emergency ends. The legislation would also make it easier for former foster youth ages 18 through 20 to re-enter the system if they had previously chosen to leave. Currently, those petitions must be approved by a judge. Another bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright (D), would also ease the re-entry process by permanently amending the Family Court Act to give social service administrators the power to approve requests from young people to re-enter care.

“The single message we’ve heard for 16 weeks was to stay home, yet we are not ensuring our foster youth have stable housing,” said Wright, who noted that on top of the public health crisis, many foster youth are also impacted by homelessness, unemployment and racial discrimination. “There’s no magic in turning 21, and especially now that we’re struggling through uncharted waters, youth need the stability and support of home.”

New York lawmakers remain in session through the end of the year and are expected to meet in Albany several more times. Assemblywoman Barrett said she hopes both houses pass her bill at the earliest opportunity, which could come as soon as this month. If that were to happen, the change would take effect as soon as the governor signed the bill into law.

The coalition of lawyers, youth advocates and foster agencies had originally appealed to Cuomo to issue an executive order extending eligibility for services and easing re-entry, but the group has shifted its strategy since the state maintained the position that it would not intervene.

In the absence of statewide action, whether foster youth can count on continued support depends largely on their county social services agency, said Betsy Kramer, policy director at Lawyers for Children. The five boroughs of New York City and a handful of other counties have extended support for youth who have nowhere else to turn after their 21st birthday. Recently, that policy allowed one of Kramer’s clients to remain in her housing and complete a bartending course from home.

But across the state in Buffalo, another client is nearing his birthday with no prospect of support once the check that allows him to pay for food and housing stops arriving.

“When this young man turns 21, he will likely be homeless, unemployed and without any of the services he needs to succeed,” Kramer said. “Because of the pandemic, access to housing is limited and finding employment is nearly impossible.”

Advocates said they worry the counties that have continued services for youth over age 21 so far will not be able to sustain that policy without additional funding from the state – which, in turn, has repeatedly said it is waiting for federal relief funds before finalizing its own budget.

Other supportive lawmakers joined in to emphasize that having any young person reach adulthood without a family is far from ideal.

“Aging out is the worst-case scenario for any child, because it means that the child was not reunited with their family and was not connected to any permanent familial support,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D), who chairs the Committee on Children and Families. “When that scenario collides with a worldwide pandemic, the results become overwhelming.”