JBAY to Back Governor Newsom’s Vision for Foster Care

Governor Newsom released his proposed budget last week and it included two important proposals for older youth in foster care.

First, he included a $20 million investment in higher education for foster youth that will allow all foster youth enrolled in post-secondary education to receive a Cal Grant of $6,000. Currently, foster youth enrolled in community college are eligible for a grant of $1,646, and while extremely helpful, it leaves them without adequate funding for housing and food. Costs such as these are commonly paid by parents, either directly or indirectly because the student lives at home.

“With this proposal, Governor Newsom is putting into place a critical piece of the puzzle to make college affordable and accessible for every foster youth,” according to Amy Lemley, JBAY Executive Director.

The second key investment proposed by Governor Newsom is to allow youth who turn age 21 to voluntarily remain in foster care until December 31, 2021. Currently, youth who turn 21 can remain in foster care until June 30, 2021. JBAY worked closely with the Newsom Administration on this policy.

“We are delighted that the Governor is proposing additional time to protect and assist foster youth in California,” said Lemley. “It shows the Administration understands the unique circumstances foster youth are facing during the pandemic.”

While both proposals are exciting, they are far from a done deal. With the Governor’s budget proposal released, the California State Legislature will now begin its budget deliberations and the process will culminate in a budget adopted and signed by July 1.

JBAY will be involved each step of the way, working with policy makers, public officials and young people to make sure the needs of youth who have been in foster care or homeless are front and center.

A Decade of Success

“California used to give up on kids in foster care, but we changed that by extending care from 18 to 21,” says John Burton, the former state senator who chairs John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY). “That one piece of legislation has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of young people.”

JBAY was a leader in the advocacy for the passage of this historic legislation, which went into effect on January 1, 2011. In the decade since then, more than 40,000 youth have participated in extended foster care in California. In addition, 22 other states have followed California’s lead by adopting this policy.

“When foster youth had to leave care at 18, they usually had little preparation or support for life after high school,” says Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY. “As a consequence, former foster youth had low levels of college enrollment and high levels of homelessness. But over the past decade we have seen major improvements in college enrollment and completion by foster youth, as well as a significant reduction in homelessness among transition age foster youth.”

Extending foster care to 21 was just the beginning though. Since then, JBAY has sponsored more than 30 new laws aimed at helping foster youth after the age of 18, including increased access to college aid and new programs to prevent homelessness. 

“Before 2010, the foster care system had little experience or guidance on how to help young people who were navigating living independently, working full-time or attending post-secondary education,“ Lemley notes. “JBAY has spent the last decade working to build those systems in concert with state agencies, policy makers, and direct service providers.”

Extensive research over the past decade has shown that young people who remain in foster care to age 21 are faring far better than they would have without extended care. Yet they are still not doing as well as their peers who were never in foster care, and COVID has only deepened their challenges.

But on this anniversary, Amy Lemley is focusing on the positive: “As advocates we tend to focus on the urgent problems we face now and the steep path we still have to climb. But looking back over the past decade, we can see that we made substantial, long-term improvements to the foster care system. And those advances have helped tens of thousands of young people, the youth entrusted to the care of our state, to transform their own prospects and outcomes. It’s been, quite literally, life changing.”

Resilience: Helping Young People Survive 2020

Resiliency has been the buzz word for 2020. It has been a year of challenges and adversity for everyone. There is confusion. There is fear. Yet, we do our best to overcome the hardships.

As difficult as the pandemic has been for all of us, children and youth who are homeless or in foster care face these same fears, confusion, and more every dayeven before 2020. This year it was even more difficult:

  • Mass layoffsespecially in retail jobs these young people rely onhave left them without any income.
  • College closures left them with nowhere to live. Even after colleges reopened online, campus housing often remained closed.
  • Schools that were also a source of food and support closed. When they opened virtually, most foster and homeless youths had no access to the internet, let alone the technology needed to succeed.

They try to stay resilient in a world that has almost forgotten them. But it’s been so hard.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) did not forget them. Instead of slowing down or even closing temporarily, we swiftly pivoted to help at-risk youth face the challenges in these uncertain times. And we continued our usual busy schedule of advocacy, training, and support.

Here are some of the ways we supported homeless and foster youth in 2020:

Emergency Support from JBAY

As soon as the pandemic hit in March, JBAY mobilized to raise more than $400,000 to purchase around 3,000 laptops for foster youth, who would have otherwise dropped out of college when distance learning was the only option. JBAY’s response was praised by Governor Newsom in a press conference about helping foster youth during the pandemic.

Then in May, we established an emergency response fund providing critically needed assistance to more than 500 foster youth attending college to support them with essential housing, food, and transportation needs.

Emergency Action with the Governor

Working with Governor Newsom, we helped foster youth who would age out of foster care at 21 and lose their housing and support during the pandemic. An Emergency Order and $32 million investment protected these youth, allowing them to remain in foster care until June 30, 2021. California was the first state in the nation to take this action and the federal government followed suit shortly after, issuing policy guidance to states.

New Legislation

When the legislature in Sacramento sharply reduced the number of bills it would consider this year, JBAY continued to successfully fight for better laws to protect foster and homeless youth.

In September, Governor Newsom signed two JBAY sponsored bills into law:

  • Senate Bill 860: Improving college access for foster youthincreases participation in college among foster youth by requiring state-funded agencies to assist foster youth in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This builds on JBAY’s California FAFSA Campaign, which increased college aid applications by foster youth from 45% in 2017 to 64% in 2020.
  • Assembly Bill 2416: Maintaining financial aid for foster youth and other vulnerable college students who become homelessrequires colleges to consider homelessness as an extenuating circumstance when students appeal the loss of financial aid.

While the California legislature was working to make deep cuts to its 2020-21 budget, we advocated to keep these at-risk youth safe. Not only were there no budget cuts to any essential programs, but we secured an increase in support to foster youth totaling $60 million this year.  

“It’s been a trying year for everyone,” says Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY. “But it’s so much harder without a family and no resources to draw upon in an emergency. We are proud that JBAY has made such a difference in thousands of lives, despite the hardest year I’ve ever known. With the support of donors, legislators and front-line workers, we will ensure that at-risk youth will not only survive 2020 but thrive in 2021 and beyond. That’s what resilience should mean.”

JBAY Gears Up for Ambitious and Challenging Year of Policy Change

It’s Thanksgiving week, but at John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), we are already busy thinking about the New Year, when the California State Legislature will return and we can get back to the important work of improving policies for youth who have been homeless or in foster care. In 2021, we’ll be focusing on our three main issues: housing, education and health.

In housing, we’ll be fighting to maintain funding for youth who become homeless after exiting foster care by sustaining the Transitional Housing Program. The program is currently scheduled to end in December 2021, despite its effectiveness and the tremendous need for it: a recent study of former foster youth in California found that over a thousand youth are homeless and waiting for housing.

In education, JBAY will be focused on ensuring the most vulnerable young adults succeed in higher education, which is a critical path to long-term economic security. First, we are proposing to expand access to NextUp, a student support program at 45 community colleges. The program is highly effective, but its reach is limited to a narrow subset of foster youth. We’ll work to modify the eligibility to make an estimated 1,000 additional young people able to receive the support they need.

Also in education, JBAY will assist the tens of thousands of college students struggling with homelessness and food insecurity by advocating for the creation of basic needs centers across the state. These “one-stop-shops” offer students food, housing referrals, help with financial aid and more. The data show that helping students with these traditionally non-academic needs is critical if we want them to maintain enrollment and graduate.

Finally, in health, we will work to ensure youth in foster care have access to reproductive and sexual health services.

Pressing for these kinds of changes is never easy and it certainly won’t be in 2021, with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the related economic impact on the state budget. But we know that young people need us more than ever. Unlike most youth and young adults, those who have been homeless or in foster care don’t have the benefit of parents or an extended family to assist them during this challenging time. Thank you to JBAY supporters who make this work possible. Next stop: Sacramento!

Documentary Highlights the Importance of JBAY’s Work to Protect Older Youth in Foster Care

“Why wasn’t I adopted?” That is the question that Noel Anaya explores in his newly released documentary “Unadopted”, which aired on Monday, November 16th followed by a question and answer session with Noel and John Burton Advocates for Youth Executive Director Amy Lemley.

The film follows Noel’s life, starting with his entrance into foster care at age one, through his separation from his siblings, a near-adoption and then back to his long-term foster parents, with whom he lives for most of his 20 years in foster care.

Noel’s experience, together with those of two young people featured in the documentary, highlights the complexity of adoption and the special challenges that “older” youth in foster care face.

JBAY Executive Director Amy Lemley was interviewed in the film and discussed the plight of the over 20,000 youth who “age out” of foster care annually, “While foster care for older youth has improved in the last decade, it is no replacement for a family.”

In the Q&A following the film’s screening, Noel and Amy explored the implications of the pandemic on youth and young adults in foster care. “During the pandemic, most young adults are turning to their families for financial and emotional support. Youth in foster care don’t have that option. California can’t turn its back on these young people when they need us most.”

JBAY has protected foster youth during the pandemic by advocating for a policy to allow them to remain in foster care until June 30, 2021, providing emergency grants for food and housing and providing laptops for distance learning.

While the film doesn’t provide a single, simple answer to why Noel wasn’t adopted, it provides a powerful testament to why organizations like JBAY must keep fighting to support and protect older youth in foster care.

To learn more about Noel’s journey through foster care, watch the full, 30-minute film.

JBAY Tackles Surge in Homeless Students

At the age of 16, Luz Hernandez was living in a park in San Francisco after being abandoned by her father. She was eventually placed into foster care, but after aging out, she became homeless again and lived in a garage with no heat, running water or even a lock. She recalls her periods of homelessness as the darkest times in her young life. “I was moving from place to place every month. Being homeless not only affected my education but also me emotionally. I was alone.”

Hundreds of thousands of California students share Luz’s experience with homelessness, according to a new report released by researchers at UCLA. The report, titled “State of Crisis: Dismantling Student Homelessness in California”, reveals that almost 270,000 students in California’s K-12 schools were homeless in 2019. That’s an increase of 48 percent in a decade.

In addition, the report notes, one in every five students at a California Community College, one in every 10 at a California State University, and one in every 20 at the University of California are experiencing homelessness.

According to Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), figures like these show why the organization is prioritizing homeless students. “JBAY continues to address homelessness among college students with a wide range of new policies and practices. But we are also increasing our focus on homelessness among K-to-12 students. As this report shows, there is a lot of work ahead.”

Luz showed what is possible with the right support and lots of determination. She enrolled in the City College of San Francisco and qualified for permanent, affordable housing. “I was receiving a lot of support: money for my books, tutors and priority registration,” recalls Luz. “I went from having a 1.5 GPA to having a 3.5 GPA. Programs such as the Burton Book Fund make a big difference in the performance of students.”

Luz’s progress continued as she transferred to San Francisco State University and, after graduating, worked as an intern for JBAY. She credits JBAY for the important role it played in her journey to stability, both through the reforms it made to the foster care system and youth homelessness programs, as well as the hands-on support it provided. “As a child I dreamed of being a different person than my family members. I wanted to be a person with goals. Through all my struggles and sacrifices, I have taught myself the value of a good education so I can pursue my dreams. Despite all my struggles and challenges, I am an unstoppable person. I hope to transform the foster care system into a better place, for people like myself.”

Foster Care Extension Saves Youth During COVID

“I was in panic mode,” says Mariah about the prospect of aging out of foster care during the COVID-19 pandemic and recession. “I was about to turn 21, with a one-and-a-half-year-old son in a new home, and I was barely getting on my feet and then COVID hit and I was unemployed.”

About 300 foster youth turn 21 every month in California. It can be a hard transition at the best of times, as they stop receiving housing aid and other support services. During COVID, with college dorms closing, unemployment surging, and no family to turn to, it could be overwhelming and even dangerous for many foster youth

By the time Mariah turned 21 on June 18, she had found a new job but it was in a toxic workplace. It also meant she could not continue in college while looking after her son, Dylan. 

“Then two weeks after my birthday, my social worker told me I hadn’t aged out because they had extended care until next year because of COVID,” she recalls. “I was in tears.”

John Burton Advocates for Youth pressed for a suspension of ‘aging out’ of foster care as soon as shelter-in-place orders were issued in California. Governor Newsom quickly responded by suspending aging out through June 30, 2021. But it took more advocacy to get an additional $29 million in the state’s 2020-21 budget agreement to ensure that no foster youth would age out of foster care before July 1, 2021.

“The money that I get for Dylan and me is a huge help,” says Mariah.” But on top of that I also have my social worker, who I have had since turning 18. She has been more than amazing; she’s really like a rock for me. She helped me get into school and get college aid. And she connected me with mental health and other services after I moved from Santa Clara to Modesto.” 

Mariah is putting the extended support to good use. “I’ve started law school so that I can be a paralegal,” she says. “Because the classes are all online, I can stay in school while looking after Dylan. Now I will be in a much better position when I age out next year.”

JBAY Works to Expand Mental Health Services

“When I aged out of the system, I wasn’t able to access services anymore, so I ended up homeless,” says Cody, a former foster youth. “At that time, I wasn’t getting mental health services and was suicidal. I didn’t have help or assistance.”

Cody is not alone. Nine out of ten children in foster care have experienced a traumatic event, with nearly half reporting exposure to four or more types of traumatic event. Many of these youth are able to receive mental health services at their school but then lose this vital support when they go on to college. 

In response, JBAY is developing a new program to help foster youth receive the mental health services they need in community college. In collaboration with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health (DMH), JBAY is working to expand school-based mental health services, currently available only in K-12 settings, to community college students who have been in the foster care system. 

JBAY will start by establishing at least three Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between local community colleges and mental health agencies. Through this process, JBAY will collaborate with DMH to help their contracted mental health providers link up with community colleges interested in offering additional campus-based mental health services for foster youth. Then, JBAY will summarize lessons learned and best practices that can be replicated across other community colleges throughout the state. 

“Youth want to go to college, they want to better themselves. It is difficult for us to navigate through trauma and the policymakers are the ones who can give us that extended chance to keep going to college to get the resources that we need to do well,” said Cody,

Cody is now a JBAY Youth Advocate, sharing her experiences of the foster care system with the public, practitioners and policymakers. She is also on the road to becoming a therapist herself.

“I would not be here if it wasn’t for my therapists. Like school, my therapists were the most consistent people I had in my life. I want to be the same for others when they don’t have that consistency,” said Cody. “Even just seeing a therapist once a week, that can be enough consistency. And it makes a difference. I don’t think people realize how much of a difference it really can make. But for me, it is why I’m here.”

Governor Signs Law To Improve Foster Youth Access to College Aid

Emmerald EvansGovernor Gavin Newsom signed new legislation late Monday to increase participation in college by foster youth by requiring state-funded agencies to assist foster youth in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A pilot project by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) showed that this type of assistance raised foster youth FAFSA completion rates from just 45% in 2017 to 64% in 2020.

“For too long, far too many foster youth have been denied their dream of a college education because they were unable to obtain the financial aid available to them,” said Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY, which sponsored the bill. “By following the model of JBAY’s FAFSA Challenge program, this new law will help foster youth access tens of millions of dollars of additional aid.” 

While 85 percent of foster youth say they aspire to go to college, just eight percent achieve a bachelor’s degree by age 26 compared with 46 percent of the general population. Only 46 percent of foster youth entering community college receive the Pell Grant and just 12 percent receive the CalGrant, despite the vast majority meeting the income eligibility criteria for this financial aid. The primary reason for this gap is that these youth are not successfully completing the complex and often daunting FAFSA process.

Testifying in support of SB860, Emmerald Evans, a Youth Advocate for John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), told the Senate Education Committee that the new law “will allow foster youth to have a reliable support system to help them prepare for college despite the disadvantages that they may face. Having financial aid literacy as well as support to get through all of the necessary steps in the process is vital. As a foster youth, not having the typical family background, I don’t have access to the types of resources that families typically provide like being able to live at home, having access to reliable transportation and of course getting financial support from family for educational costs like books, supplies, a computer and living expenses. This lack becomes even more challenging when a crisis like COVID-19 happens.”

The new law goes into effect on January 1, 2021.

JBAY Helps Youth Get Back on Track with Employment Assistance

Before the pandemic hit, Christina was on-track, attending Bakersfield College and working part-time as an aide to Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason. While she was busy working and studying during the day, her small children were safely in childcare.

As a former foster youth, her journey to adulthood had been a challenging one. She was placed into foster care as a small child, reunified with her father at age 13 and the placed into foster care yet again after becoming pregnant at age 16.

These moves meant multiple placements and multiple schools, including three different high schools. Despite these challenges, Christina was forging a path forward for herself and her young family.

Today, Christina’s future is much less certain. Following the pandemic, the first thing to go was her job. Kern County made budget cuts, which meant she no longer has a way to earn the money that pays for her rent, her food or the many other necessities required by herself and her children.

Christina is not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, young workers are the demographic of employees most negatively impacted by the pandemic. Nationally, one-quarter of workers under age 24 have lost their job in the COVID-19 economic downturn.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) is stepping in to help young people like Christina rejoin the workforce. Together with the California Opportunity Youth Network, JBAY is launching a new project that will increase access to employment services for youth who were formerly in foster care, the juvenile probation system or who have experienced homeless.

Historically, these categories of young people have been underserved by the federal workforce training system. In 2018, just 4 percent of the 161,288 youth served by the federal workforce training system were current and former foster youth.

The low level of assistance provided to foster youth is due to policies that exclude them. Specifically, the federal workforce training system requires 75 percent of youth funding to be directed to “out-of-school youth” who have experienced education system disconnection. While well intended, this policy excludes young people like Christina, who face tremendous challenges as former foster youth, but are attending school part-time.

JBAY is advocating to change this policy by seeking a state waiver that will allow local workforce development boards in California to serve youth who were formerly in foster care, the juvenile probation system or who have experienced homeless. As part of the implementation of the federal waiver, JBAY will work with local workforce development boards to implement evidence-based youth employment practices.

These are the kinds of services that will help Christina return to work and restart the progress she has fought so hard to achieve.