Prenatal Care for Foster Youth Moves A Step Closer

“I went to 13 high schools and never received the health classes and information I needed to make informed choices around birth control,” says Elizabeth Clews, a JBAY Youth Advocate. “I became pregnant when I was in extended foster care. If my case manager or high schools had made sure I received sexual health education then I don’t believe I would have had children at the time I did.”

Stories like Elizabeth’s illustrate why JBAY is sponsoring Assembly Bill 366, “Healthy Futures for Foster Youth”, which would ensure access to better sexual health education and care for California foster youth. AB 366, introduced by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, passed out of the Assembly Human Services Committee today, April 7, with unanimous bipartisan support, along with AB 413: “Addressing Foster Youth Homelessness”.

Young people in foster care in California have a history of unfair barriers to accessing the sexual health education and services available to other youth. A 2016 study of youth in California’s foster care system found that, by age 19, about half the women reported having been pregnant at least once, more than twice the rate in the general population; yet, only a third described these pregnancies as planned. Of young women in care at age 17, one in five reported never having received prenatal care. In addition, 47% of female foster youth experienced a stillbirth or miscarriage, compared to 35% who experienced a live birth. Foster youth also reported disproportionately higher rates of sexually transmitted infection and are at heightened risk for intimate partner violence and sexual exploitation.

In response to these alarming findings, California has taken significant strides toward providing comprehensive sexual health education and access to care for foster youth. The new support includes an infant supplement paid to foster youth once they have a child.

Although these efforts were a tremendous first step, their implementation has shown a need for further changes. AB 366 improvements include extending the infant supplement three months prior to the expected delivery date of the child. This would provide expectant mothers with the support they need to prepare for their new baby.

“I didn’t find out I was pregnant until I was 32 weeks pregnant,” recalls Elizabeth Clews. “That meant that in just a few weeks I had to change my whole life plans. I was focusing on my education and didn’t yet have a job. I didn’t have the money and income to take care of myself and a child. It was only after I brought him home that I started to acquire basic purchases like a crib and bottles and diapers. If they had provided some extra support before birth, I would have been so much better prepared.”

For more information on Assembly Bill 366 and how to support it, visit: https://www.jbaforyouth.org/ab-366/

JBAY Helps High School Seniors Overcome A Year of Closed Schools

“Over the past year, students have been disconnected, demoralized, and deprived of a full education”, says Amy Lemley, JBAY executive director. “High school seniors may be the worst affected. They not only lost out on their final year of school but also missed the traditional transition points to post-secondary education. This is especially hard for foster youth who can’t learn about applying to college from family. That’s why JBAY is working to ensure that we take what could be the worst year for college enrollment and make it into the best year.”

Foster youth face many obstacles to their education. Children only enter foster care after being abused or neglected. The foster care system often compounds their trauma through multiple placement changes, resulting in frequent transitions to new schools. By age 26, just 8% of foster youth achieve a bachelor’s degree, compared with 46% of the general population.

The lack of support in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has been a key factor holding foster youth back. High school seniors who complete FAFSA are twice as likely to enroll in college within 12 months as those who do not.

JBAY started to address low rates of FAFSA completion among foster youth in 2017 by launching the California Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge. Since then, the rate of FAFSA completion for high school seniors in foster care in California has increased from 45% to 65% for 2019-2020, exceeding the 57% rate for all California high school seniors.

COVID is threatening that hard-won progress.

The start of the 2020-21 school year saw a 13.1% decline in first-time student enrollment at community colleges nationwide. This year, California’s rate of FAFSA completion by March 1, 2021, was down to 31% compared to 42% at the same point last year.

JBAY’s own tracking shows a similar decline for foster youth state-wide but with huge differences between counties. While some California counties have actually improved their FAFSA completion rates for foster youth this year, others have seen declines of 50% or more.

JBAY is therefore adding a new incentive in the worst affected counties: a $50 gift card for foster youth who complete their FAFSA. A San Diego County pilot program using gift cards saw the FAFSA completion rates more than double.

That’s why JBAY is doubling down on the FAFSA Challenge. Last year, 65% of graduating seniors in foster care completed their FAFSA, exceeding the rates for their non-foster peers for the first time. This year the goal is 70%.

“We know that college is one of the surest pathways to successful careers and financially secure lives,” Ms. Lemley noted. “By strengthening our efforts now, JBAY can make sure that a lost year of education doesn’t become a lifelong loss.”

JBAY Helps Build a Bridge to Stable Housing

“I was starting college at Sacramento State and needed help identifying a safe, reasonable housing placement option that wasn’t going to fall apart. Housing navigation could have helped me with this. While I waited for transitional housing to become available for two months, I was homeless. I failed my summer courses, and my mental health was bad.” 

Ajanique Dunlap was sharing her story of homelessness while in foster care with the Assembly Committee on Housing & Community Development on March 15. A Youth Advocate for John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), Ajanique was speaking in support of Assembly Bill 413: “Addressing Foster Youth Homelessness”. 

AB 413, introduced by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-District 19), would establish permanent funding for programs helping current and former foster youth to secure stable housing, while also providing training for social workers to help foster youth navigate the housing system. The proposed law would also provide a housing supplement for foster youth in counties with the highest rental costs. AB 413 is sponsored by JBAY and supported by 120 other organizations.

“California has taken great strides to address the alarming rates of homelessness experienced by foster youth,” Simone Tureck Lee, JBAY’s director of housing and health, told the hearing. “However, there is still work to do. Nearly one in five youth experience homelessness while in foster care between ages 19 and 21, and one in four experience homelessness after transitioning out of care between 21 and 23.”

COVID-19 has only worsened the problem for foster youth, highlighting the need for long-term housing solutions. According to a survey last July, 79% of current foster youth age 18-21 who were working at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis either lost their jobs or experienced a reduction in hours. 

Ajanique was fortunate to get into a transitional housing program right when COVID hit. “When I was laid off due to COVID from my campus job, the program was really supportive—they waived my portion of the rent, and they also helped me apply for unemployment insurance.”

As she told the committee, passing AB 413 into law would help provide foster youth with a safe route to a more stable future: “I’m not going to need help forever, but right now the assistance I receive is a very important and critical bridge to me becoming independent.”

The Assembly committee was very receptive to Ajanique’s message. AB413 was passed out of committee unanimously with a bipartisan vote of 8-0. 

For more information on Assembly Bill 413 and how to support it, visit: https://www.jbaforyouth.org/ab413.

From Trauma to Triumph

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of organizations like JBAY,” says Luz Hernandez, a former foster youth who has worked with John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) as an intern and youth advocate. “JBAY helped me to see my value, my potential, and inspired me through so many of the steps that brought me to where I am now.”

Luz just completed another major step toward her goals, when she was accepted by UC Berkeley to pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Welfare.

“I have a strong vision of combining my personal experience and education to work with young people of color who have faced abuse and trauma,” says Luz. “I know firsthand that the social is personal and the personal is social.”  

Luz was brought to the U.S. from Honduras by her father when she was just 14. Rather than attending school, she worked 12-hour shifts and gave every penny she earned to her father. After two years, Luz’s father returned to Honduras but left her behind. She was alone at 16, barely able to speak English. Luz entered foster care after someone reported that a child was living in a San Francisco park. 

“My foster parents enrolled me into school, and that day I felt that I had achieved one of the most important goals in life,” said Luz. “Going to high school without knowing English was a challenge, to say the least. My determination to pursue a college degree is largely due to the inspiring examples and unwavering support of my foster parents and my social worker.”

After aging out of care, Luz’s challenges returned. She became homeless and lived for a time in a garage without heat or running water. There wasn’t even a lock to secure the few belongings she had or keep her safe at night.

Luz never forgot her goals and was able to enroll in City College of San Francisco, and then transferred to San Francisco State University, graduating in May 2018. She also became a U.S. citizen. Luz interned at JBAY, bringing her experiences to advocate for improved comprehensive sexual health education for those in foster care, and for safe, affordable housing for former foster youth. She is now working at First Place for Youth as a Rising Up Housing Case Manager.

“As a first-generation, low-income foster youth from Honduras, the first battle I overcame was the lack of resources for young women who experienced trauma in childhood,” Luz recalls. “It took me a couple of years to find a support system that I could trust, to find adequate healing resources to overcome my trauma. I want to continue fighting against child abuse and supporting foster youth; I want to show our disadvantaged communities that there are people out there that care about their physical, social, and emotional wellbeing. I believe we can imagine a new future for each generation; we can create our own narratives, forge our own paths; we can cultivate community support to heal from trauma.”

To read more about Luz Hernadez’s story, and those of others who have experienced foster care and homelessness, visit JBAY’s Youth Profiles page.

JBAY Featured on KQED to Discuss Universal Basic Income for Foster Youth

Youth aging out of the foster care system in California would receive a universal basic income, UBI, of  $1,000 a month for three years, under legislation proposed by newly-elected state Senator David Cortese (D). John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) executive director Amy Lemley and Senator Cortese discussed the proposal, SB 739, and the challenges facing foster youth during COVID recently, on KQED’s Forum.

UBI is an unconditional, periodic cash payment that a government makes to everyone with no strings attached. It gained national attention in 2019, when Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs piloted it by providing 125 randomly selected people $500 per month for three years.

Now Senator Cortese is proposing the approach for former foster youth. He is basing his proposal on a UBI program for former foster youth in Santa Clara County, which he initiated in 2020 while serving as a county supervisor before his election to the state Senate last November. 

“The idea is not to be too prescriptive,” said Cortese. “It’s not Big Brother saying we know what’s best for you. It’s about here’s some basic, fundamental support, since you don’t have family support. Your family is the county, get out there and do your best with it.” 

JBAY executive director Amy Lemley agreed with the Senator. “At times we’ve spent too much time talking about how foster youth are different and not enough time talking about how they need the same types of support that all young people need when they become adults,” Lemley told KQED. 

“We know most families are providing some kind of support to their adult children, more adult children are living with their families, and they’re getting regular economic support. So foster youth are really no different; we want to give them the same kind of support to have a healthy young adulthood.”  

“Foster youth have always faced a steep climb and the climb got a lot steeper with COVID,” added Lemley. “They’re being disproportionately impacted in terms of housing, employment, their connection with school. So we really need to step back and think about this next phase of their development and give them the same kinds of support that other young adults receive from their extended family.”

JBAY is working with Senator Cortese to help move this proposal through the legislature into law. The KQED Forum interviews with Amy Lemley and Senator Cortese are now available online.

JBAY’s Outreach Efforts Link Youth to Newly Available Pandemic Relief

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) was recognized in a recent article about California’s $600 per household pandemic relief payment, which was approved by Governor Newsom and legislative leaders on February 17th.

The pandemic relief payment will be distributed to all families who receive the California Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC), which provides a tax credit to low-income workers.

JBAY is doing its part by conducting outreach to the 3.8 million 18- to 24-year-old youth who became newly eligible for the CalETIC in the 2019 tax year.  Outreach activities include the development of a publication, public trainings, a social media toolkit and the creation of a tax preparation checklist for transition age youth.

Senior Project Manager Anna Johnson leads the CalEITC work at JBAY, “The CalEITC, Young Child Tax Credit, and Golden State Stimulus will provide hundreds or thousands of dollars in refundable credits and payments to youth that can be used to cover immediate needs related to housing, food, bills, and school. It is critical that young adults are directed to file for free and with support from VITA or Free File.”

This is the second year JBAY has worked to expand access to this essential anti-poverty strategy.  In 2020, JBAY launched the Cash Back for Transition-Age Youth Pledge which reached 2,326 across California. Collectively, these young people claimed approximately $4 million. JBAY’s work helping foster youth access the CalEITC in 2020 was recognized with a “One in a Million Award” from Multiplying Good.

In 2021, JBAY is continuing this important work and expanding it by deepening its focus on the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area and adding an innovative pilot project with Santa Clara County.

JBAY’s pilot with Santa Clara County will increase the rates of CalEITC receipt among foster youth. Specifically, JBAY will help the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency implement strategies to ensure all youth in foster care receive assistance preparing to file and scheduling a tax appointment from their county child welfare worker. JBAY will evaluate the impact of the pilot and determine if a similar approach should be taken statewide in 2022 by adding the requirement to state law.

For more information about JBAY’s work helping young people access this important anti-poverty strategy, follow this link.

JBAY Testifies at Assembly Hearing to Ensure Student Basic Needs Are Met

Here’s a quick student quiz. Answer A or B:

A. Go to the food bank so that your family can eat tonight.

B. Take the classes that mean by 2025 you will no longer need to go to food banks.

You can only choose one and you have to decide now.

That’s the kind of choice that tens of thousands of California college students make every day. John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) believes there is a clear answer to that painful dilemma: stop asking students to choose between their education and their basic needs.

That’s why JBAY testified at a California State Assembly Budget Subcommittee meeting on February 1, advocating for long-term funding for student basic needs centers. These centers are centralized service centers on campus where students can receive assistance with their “basic needs” such as food, housing, clothing, assistance with child care and transportation.

Students who have spent time in foster care are twice as likely as other students to experience homelessness and food insecurity. For them, campus basic needs centers provide a lifeline. This point was made by JBAY Youth Advocate Christina Torrez.

“I spent my childhood in and out of the foster care system and don’t have the same access to family support that many other students have to fall back on when challenges arise,” Christina told the hearing.

“During my time in college, I have struggled with not only homelessness but having enough money for food, buying diapers, and paying for my children’s medication. To get food, I would have to go to food pantries and would take several buses to get there. As a student, I believe that having a dedicated source of on-going funding to ensure that every campus can support students like me with accessing basic things like food, housing, diapers, and transportation is necessary to make sure that all students have an equal chance to go to college.”

Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, Chair of Budget Subcommittee, ended the hearing by saying: “We hear you loud and clear, and many of these issues related to basic needs will be addressed in the coming weeks and months.”

JBAY will be working to ensure that students who have experienced foster care or homelessness continue to be heard by our legislators in Sacramento.

JBAY’s Newest Youth Advocate Uses Her Hardships to Help Others

“I know COVID is a big thing for everyone in the world but it’s one of the smaller things I’ve faced in my life,” says Rose Johnasen, reflecting on a young life filled with turmoil and tragedy but also with remarkable perseverance and progress. It’s a depth of experience that 20-year-old Rose is now bringing to her newest role as a JBAY Youth Advocate, working to ensure that other young people get more support than she did.

Rose’s parents had substance abuse problems and were in and out of prison. Rose was also abused emotionally and physically. She spent a lot of time in foster care, frequently moving to new homes with her sister who was five years younger. Several times Rose went back to her mother. Other times she was homeless.

“I was separated from everything and everyone I had become familiar with, on numerous occasions, so the only thing that was certain in my life was that everything was temporary,” recalls Rose. “I never knew what to expect. Living out of a bag and getting dropped off at different houses, starting at new schools, or not being able to go to school for weeks. I was constantly behind at school and felt unintelligent because of that. When I did go to school I was unfocused because I was more worried about things that kids shouldn’t have to worry about. I was pulled out of class numerous times by authorities and social workers. I lost confidence in myself and was confused and embarrassed. It was hard for me to relate to other kids my age.”

Rose became fiercely self-reliant, taking care of herself and her younger sister. When Rose’s older sister turned 18, she stepped in to become the legal guardian for ten-year-old Rose and her little sister. But when her sister started her own family, Rose was back out on her own at the age of 15, with no wish to go back into foster care.

Along with her self-reliance, Rose also did well academically, despite all the interruptions and what she describes as being “an angry kid” at school. She graduated high school at 15 and started college at 16. She recalls that “I had no-one to help and to show me how to do things and had no idea what I was doing.” At one point she was doing six college classes and four jobs at the same time. She faced new traumas: two of her brothers killed themselves, one on Christmas Day, and she lost her home and belongings in the Paradise Camp Fire.

Again, Rose persevered and prevailed. She is now at Humboldt State working on her BS in environmental science, with plans to pursue a career in ecological restoration. She is also JBAY’s newest Youth Advocate, working alongside five other youth who have experienced foster care or homelessness.

Among the issues that Rose is working on with JBAY is Senate Bill 228, which will expand eligibility for Next Up, a program that provides a wide array of financial and practical benefits to former foster youth enrolled in college. To qualify for NextUp, youth must have been in foster care on or after their 16th birthday. SB 228, introduced by Senator Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino) and sponsored by JBAY, would expand the qualification age to 13 and above. That change would benefit students like Rose, who left the foster care system to live independently just before she turned 16.

“I barely missed the marker and that really sucked because that much support would have helped tremendously,” said Rose. “Having to worry about rent and a place to live and how to make money is a huge issue that really takes away from everything else in your life. I’m really honored to have the opportunity to pave the path for kids who are in a similar situation to me. It feels very gratifying to help others in need, especially those who are facing similar hardships and obstacles. I know what could be done differently and what resources could have benefited me and that is very useful when trying to help others in similar situations.”

ECMC Foundation and JBAY Issue Campus Grants to Reduce Homelessness and Hunger

The housing crisis in California has escalated over the last decade, with homelessness touching groups once considered immune from it.

College students are one of these groups. According to a 2019 study, 1 in 5 community college students in California experience homelessness during the academic year. Hunger is also growing, with 50% of community college students reporting food insecurity within the last 30 days. Many of these vulnerable students are former foster youth.

JBAY is working to address homelessness and hunger on college campuses. With the support of the ECMC Foundation, JBAY issued seven grants in January 2021 to establish or expand “basic needs centers” which are centralized service centers on college campuses that help students meet their basic needs such as food, housing, clothing, and transportation.

The seven grants, ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 will assist approximately 20,000 students facing food and housing insecurity across California, from San Diego City College in Southern California to San Joaquin Delta College in the Central Valley to Lake Tahoe Community College in the Sierras.

JBAY Education Project Manager Melissa Bond is leading the effort and wrote a publication on basic needs released in October 2020, speaking to basic needs leaders across California and identifying best practices.

“The pandemic has made matters even worse,” said Bond. “The seven campuses selected for grants will prevent students from losing their hard-won academic gains.”

In additional to critically needed funding, JBAY will provide hands-on technical assistance to the seven campuses, with a focus on ensuring that students receive and maintain the financial aid they qualify to receive.

Ten Months into the Pandemic, Congress Provides Relief for Older Youth in Foster Care

The new year brought good news for foster youth. On December 27, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriation Act which included important pandemic relief for older youth in foster care.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) advocated for this important funding as part of a large national coalition led by Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

The appropriations bill included $400 million in one-time funding for older youth in foster care. Of that total, California is expected to receive approximately $44 million.

JBAY is developing recommendations for elected officials about how California can best spend the newly available funding, together with fellow advocates from across the state. JBAY’s top priority is that the funding go directly to youth within 45 days, who we know are struggling with employment and housing during the pandemic.

According to JBAY Executive Director Amy Lemley, many foster youth are hanging on by a thread. “We’re in the tenth month of the pandemic. During this time, youth have done everything in their power stay afloat, going into debt and resorting to increasingly desperate measures,” said Lemley. “The effect of the pandemic is cumulative; we need to get this financial relief to young people as soon as possible.”

JBAY is also recommending that the funding is used to help young people who are on the wait list for the Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV), which provides up to $5,000 to current and former foster youth enrolled in post-secondary education, including career and technical education. There are currently over 1,600 foster youth who qualify but do not receive the Chafee ETV due to inadequate funds. The newly available funding would ensure these young people are able to stay enrolled in college.

Finally, JBAY is advocating that the funding helps the approximately 5,000 youth who will exit foster care in January 2021. The California State Legislature authorized youth to remain in foster care after age 21 until June 30, 2021 and Governor Newsom has proposed extending that date to January 2022. With the newly available federal funding, California can ensure these young people make a safe, supported transition during what will likely be a fragile, recovering economy and housing market.