Care in crisis

Field Center research shows that youth who are aging out of the foster care system are severely impacted by the unemployment, education disruption, homelessness, and food insecurity brought on by the pandemic.

Masked young woman staring out of window
Youth aging out of foster care are among those bearing the burden of COVID-19’s economic and social consequences, according to a Field Center study.

Youth aging out of foster care are among those bearing the burden of COVID-19’s economic and social consequences, according to the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research. The researchers surveyed 281 people ages 18 to 23 in foster care populations in 32 states and the District of Columbia to gain a clearer understanding of the challenges facing this marginalized group transitioning into adulthood with limited resources. Study authors Johanna Greeson of the School of Social Policy & Practice, Sara Jaffee of the School of Arts & Sciences, and Sarah Wasch of the Field Center found that many of those aging out of the foster care system experienced negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including under or unemployment, education disruption, homelessness, and food insecurity.

As schools shut down their physical locations and moved online, Greeson began hearing stories of negatively impacted youth. This is when she had what she calls a lightbulb moment. “It just occurred to me that it would be important to find out what was happening with young people either in care or who have aged out of care, knowing that they are already vulnerable. And knowing that the disruption I was feeling myself was nothing compared to the disruption they were feeling,” Greeson says. At the “Field Center, we’re in a position to look at this beyond just anecdotal stories and try and provide data.”

The national foster care organization Foster Club had already launched a poll for this population from an advocacy perspective, so the Field Center team worked with the Club’s director to model similar questions for a research study. Both teams worked together to obtain information as quickly as possible because the need was acute, Wasch says. “Young people who are in foster care, or who have recently exited foster care, are experiencing a crisis right now. And so while one of our goals as researchers is to contribute to the body of literature on this topic and to inform and improve the child welfare system that won’t help the young people suffering from the impacts of the coronavirus today.” 

The greatest impact on youth aging out of foster care was to their personal finances, with 72% reporting that they had only one month’s worth of expenses covered. Forty-eight percent reported that they had been laid off or had unreliable hours or income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 21% said they were in financial crisis. This had a ripple effect through other topics, including food and housing insecurity. Fifty-five percent of respondents reported increased food insecurity, while 43% reported that they had to leave their living situation or were afraid of being forced to leave. Seven percent said they were either homeless or couch surfing as a result of the pandemic. 

Secondary education serves as a haven for many youth aging out of the foster care system, with “the college or university campus as a protective space,” Greeson says. “When students are asked to leave campus, they may lose access to housing, meals, health care, and mental health care access.” Sixty-seven percent of respondents reported that COVID-19 is having a major impact on their educational progress or attainment. Thirty-one percent lost access to educational support, and 21% did not have access to personal support to ensure their educational goals would not be disrupted, the study shows.

Jaffee says that Penn went to “great lengths” to ameliorate these circumstances for their students who were economically vulnerable and/or experiencing food insecurity. She says the University provided “debit cards, laptops, and broadband access to students who wouldn’t have that when they get home.” 

Fifty-two percent of respondents noted that COVID-19 has a negative effect on their health and mental health, including 15% having trouble getting medical care and 10% having trouble accessing their medication. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed reported clinically-significant levels of depression and/or anxiety. National studies on the general population (not specific to those aging out of foster care) have shown that pandemic mental health status is directly correlated to income, with those earning less than $25,000 per year being four times more likely to experience depression and/or anxiety than those making $150,000 or more per year.

“Our findings are specific examples of a more general problem, which is that there’s not enough of a safety net for our general population. It just doesn’t take very much to tip them into genuine crisis mode,” says Jaffee. “I think that the only way that we’re going to prevent that from happening is structural reform.”

The foster care system needs an emergency response plan to address issues on a national level, Greeson says. “One thing this has done for me is to show how inflexible our child welfare system is in many ways. It’s not nimble enough to pivot easily and respond,” she says. “This is a watershed moment in terms of thinking about system reform. It just brings to light how many holes are in the safety net for vulnerable populations.” 

Healthy relationships with caring adults can help to fill these holes, Greeson’s research shows. “It becomes incumbent on our child welfare system to figure out how to connect young people in care to the caring adults that exist in their networks,” she says, “and then figure out how to use them as a resource in times of need.” 

One of the recommendations emerging from the study “is that it is essential for child welfare systems to promote relationships,” especially for those aging out of the system, Wasch says. “We don’t want to teach young people to be independent. We want to teach them to be interdependent.” 

These suggested measures would not just benefit individual young adults but also society at large, Jaffee says. “The fact of the matter is that young adults who are homeless and young adults who are suffering from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse problems are not young adults who are economically productive and contributing to the financial health of our country. If you don’t like the argument that we have a moral obligation to support vulnerable youth, then perhaps you are more persuaded by the argument that there are significant costs to society in not addressing these issues,” she says. “Prevention would go a long way towards minimizing those costs in the long run.”

Johanna Greeson is associate professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice and the Graduate School of Education. She is also managing faculty director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, & Research and director of Child Well-Being & Child Welfare Specialization. 

Sara Jaffee is professor of psychology and director of graduate studies in the School of Arts & Sciences and co-faculty director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, & Research.

Sara Wasch is program manager for the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, & Research.