COVID-19 adds stress for teens leaving foster care

By Robyn Stanicki | May 23, 2020

May is Foster Care Month, and while we are all adapting to new ways of living in a pandemic, this is a time when we should all remember that many children in the foster care system are dealing with disruption of epic proportions. As a former ward of the state, I am keenly focused on the well-being of Maine children, and I am especially concerned about the kids who are about to age out of the system in the middle of a pandemic that is turning our economy and our society upside down.

High school seniors in the foster care system already face uncertain times — now, they’re facing their final school year without traditional guidance. As teens "age out," they need to make decisions about where they will live, and if they should go to college, all amid increased financial pressures. Many foster parents, in addition to all of the same stressors every Maine parent is managing, are also confused about what help is available, or who can answer their questions.

When I completed high school, I had no idea what was coming next. I hadn’t met a college recruiter, and my job at the local supermarket was just enough to help me pay for my cap and gown. My guidance counselor didn’t know me well enough to tell me about my options, and resources to help foster youth move on were new. I struggled in those early years, without many opportunities that I could see. In the midst of a public health crisis, I am certain I would have been invisible.

Decades after my own graduation, I struggled to work and raise my kids on minimum wage. I couldn’t know that there were programs to help me succeed in school, because I never told anyone I was a foster kid. Over the years I worked hard to earn a dual degree from the University of Maine and enrolled in graduate school, intent on finding solutions for foster kids in care, and as they move on to adulthood.

Children in foster care are often affected by complex trauma. Research shows that these traumas impact the decision-making capabilities of these potential college graduates. Statistics show that only 3% of foster youth graduate from college, and even with the most intensive support and intervention, this increases to just 9%. Kids in care need consistent mental health and social services.

Waldo County can no longer rely on many critical services provided by some nonprofit agencies that abruptly closed one year ago. Funding deficits also create years-long waiting lists for mental health and behavioral services, which makes matters worse. And alarmingly, we’ve seen a twofold increase in the number of child welfare case reports referred for investigation in the Midcoast. As these protective factors dissolve just when we need them most, and our community is dealing with problems like poverty and substance use, Maine's foster care caseload is already overburdened, and that means kids are especially in danger of falling through the cracks.

Whether you’re a teen in foster care, or you’ve been worrying about your mom who is in a nursing home, the disruption of this public health emergency is relatable. There aren’t enough families who have stepped up to care for the 2,200 children in state custody, and those who have express concerns about how their cases are being handled in the courts, who can staff supervised visits, and how they can consistently be reimbursed for childcare and medical service expenses. And our teenagers need the added support, too. Navigating the pathways to college is challenging at any age, but particularly for young students in foster care. This is punctuated by an elevated sense of insecurity that these kids simply cannot articulate: We cannot predict what will happen next.

Robyn Stanicki is seeking the Democratic nomination for Senate District 11, the seat now held by Erin Herbig, who is not running for reelection. Like many other foster youth, she endured the crippling effects of deep poverty, chronic homelessness and underemployment in early adulthood. Her career now includes research and policy to find ways to interrupt these trends.

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