Some foster children, like Llewelyn, might count down their time in the system until they turn 18. Eighteen signifies freedom, independence, a chance to start over and be in control. The pandemic, which is entirely out of anyone’s control, took that opportunity away. For those who were near that life-changing age, it closed the door just as it was opening; it turned what was into what could have been. Mourning the loss of a chance you feel you should have had but didn’t is a grief of its own kind.
Approximately 20,000 young people age out of foster care each year in the United States. Even before the coronavirus began to spread, they were likely to experience significant — and significantly increased — life challenges compared with their peers.
“Children do not get proper preparation for leaving the system — we know this for a fact,” says Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of A Better Childhood, a national advocacy organization. “They often don’t have any stable housing, vocational skills, job skills, or parenting skills because they didn’t see those skills in action. Many times, children just get referred to an adult shelter when they leave.”
With the pandemic upending the daily routines of entire countries, foster youth are facing an increased level of precarity. Many are entering a world turned upside down with minimal or nonexistent support systems, and promises of new beginnings are muffled by the raging alarm of fear.
Early this spring, just after stay-at-home orders became a norm for most of the country, a national poll by FosterClub, a national network for foster youth, found that one in four 18- to 24-year-olds who are or were in foster care were experiencing heightened food insecurity. In addition, about 40% were forced to move or feared having to move; nearly 33% said they only had enough money for a week or less of living costs; and 27% of transition-age foster care youth lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
“These problems are not new problems,” Lowry says. “They’re old problems, getting worse.”
Llewelyn was born in Glendale, Arizona, in 2002. His childhood was “relatively normal,” until it wasn’t. At 12, he was moved from his mother’s home to his grandmother’s home, eventually ending up in a group home where he stayed for two years, living with five to 10 other teenagers at any given time. He had come out as gay about a year earlier, and the home was designated for LGBTQ youth.
“I’ll never forget that feeling, feeling betrayed by your own family,” Llewelyn says. “It was like I was gasping for air, yet couldn’t take a breath.”
Prioritizing school was a physical and mental challenge. He had to get up at 4 a.m. every weekday, and then walk about 20 minutes along a busy street to reach a city bus stop by 5 a.m. to make it to school for choir rehearsal by 7 a.m. The exhaustion and lack of stability took a toll on his grades. As a sophomore living with his grandmother, Llewelyn was expected to graduate with a 3.5 GPA; two years later, he graduated with a 2.7 GPA.
According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, around 70% of young people who have spent time in foster care aspire to pursue postsecondary education, but the significant barriers they face transitioning to college can often be insurmountable. And that was before the pandemic. “With the enrollment process during COVID, you couldn’t sit down with an advisor and scribble out numbers, or, you know, actually make a plan,” Llewelyn says. “I’m someone who likes to plan, who needs physical, tangible things that I can actually sit there and hold and read like pamphlets, so it was really hard to accept that someone sharing [a] screen with me was all we could do.”