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$7.4M pandemic relief fund helps thousands of Kentucky foster youth

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The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services building in Lexington, KY.

State officials say they’ve provided thousands of current and former foster youth with cash payments and other assistance through a COVID-19 relief program after early struggles to connect with young people eligible for the help.

Kentucky was allotted nearly $7.4 million in aid to distribute as part of a federal stimulus package passed in 2020. The package provided financial relief to people aged between 18 and 26 who were currently in the foster system or had aged out of it.

As the program comes to an end, officials from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services report that almost all that funding has been obligated, reaching over 2,300 eligible youth through direct payments up to $2,000, educational assistance or other support like help with obtaining a driver’s license or GED. That’s about 40% of the people who officials estimated would qualify for the help.

In February, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reported that the state had struggled to get the word out and reach eligible youth during the original application period, from March to September 2021. Less than 30% of the funding had been distributed to about 1,000 Kentucky youth. Officials extended the deadline to Sept. 17 of this year, so agencies had more time to get the money to people who need it.

“The challenge is making sure people understand that these funds are available,” said Cabinet Secretary Eric Friedlander. “There’s mistrust of the system. The honest truth is some have not had good experiences within the system. And when they get ready to leave, they just want to go and don’t want to be involved anymore.”

The cabinet marketed the pandemic relief primarily through social media and email blasts in 2021 and relied heavily on contract providers who work directly with foster youth. They redoubled efforts in 2022, allocating close to $150,000 to a local ad agency to support a targeted social media campaign.

Kentucky isn’t the only state that struggled to distribute the funding. More than 500,000 youth qualified for the funding nationwide, but only about 16,000 were signed up by August last year, according to the child welfare research lab Think of Us.

Like many other states, Kentucky doesn’t have a system to keep track of youth as they age out of foster care. The lack of a tracking system can make it difficult for former foster youth to receive the benefits or even know they exist.

Unless they’re involved in a program or stay in contact with their social worker, it’s likely that many foster youths aren’t aware of what they qualify for. Foster youth are also at higher risk for homelessness and housing instability, making them harder to find.

“It’s really a concern of barriers,” said Eltuan Dawson, a former foster youth and member of Kentucky’s Journey to Success Campaign. “We’re seeing mental health as a barrier, homelessness as a barrier, and just the lack of being informed by these organizations as a barrier.”

Not all the funding went directly into the hands of youth. The cabinet contracted with the Community Action Council, the University of Kentucky and NECCO to provide support and services to current and former foster youth. Each of these contracts had some overhead costs, according to data obtained by KyCIR.

The University of Kentucky, for example, used some of its funding to employ four pandemic relief navigators, develop an app and pay speaker fees for educational seminars. The data did not specify the exact amount of these costs.

Doing better by foster youth

The current and former foster youth who received relief funding had to specify why they needed the help in their applications. Their responses offer a window in the challenges many of them face.

Over 1,400 applicants said they needed the money for emergency rental or utility assistance, according to state data. Another 800 applicants said they needed it for food. And about 100 applicants said they were homeless and needed immediate shelter.

The state originally estimated that nearly 6,000 people could potentially qualify for the federal assistance.

Of the 2,300 eligible youth who received help, about 77% got a direct stimulus payment. Others received support in other areas, including getting a driver’s license, earning their diploma or GED, getting a job or signing up for healthcare.

“Cash that goes to support folks for what they feel is needed the most in their lives really makes a tremendous difference,” Secretary Friedlander said. “For one person, rent might be the most important thing. For somebody else, it could be the MacBook they need to attend school.”

Dawson, 27, is all too familiar with the challenges foster youth face on the journey to adulthood. He first entered the foster system when he was 6 years old. He said he lived in foster homes, group homes and psychiatric facilities, moving at least 16 times before aging out.

He said he helped a younger youth apply for a $2,000 stipend through the federal relief program, which she used to “escape the challenging environment she had been living in during the pandemic.”

But Dawson emphasized that the pandemic aid isn’t a panacea to the problems faced by youth who have transitioned out of foster services. The one federal program dedicated to supporting transition-age young people only reaches about one-third of the youth it should each year, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Dawson said he joined Kentucky’s Journey to Success campaign, which is part of a federal policy advocacy program that seeks to improve the lives of current and former foster youth, to help address some of the gaps in the current system. He’s in a working group with other Kentucky foster youth, child welfare professionals and advocates.

“We are focused on ensuring that young people with lived foster expertise have mechanisms available to them to help hold systems accountable and that each young person is supported in their transition to adulthood,” Dawson said.

The workgroup will meet with members of the legislature to share their experiences in the foster system and facilitate conversations about how the system can better serve youth. They are asking state leaders to enact policies that ensure youth are plugged into health, education and housing services as they transition out of care and create pathways to their economic security.

Jasmine Demers is an investigative reporter for LPM. She covers youth and social services. Email Jasmine at jdemers@lpm.org.