Strings Attached: Young Adults Fight to Stay In Foster Care

Karen de Sá, The Chronicle of Social Change •

On a recent weeknight on the suburban streets of Silicon Valley, a 20-year-old former foster youth offered a weary and frank assessment of his latest struggles to survive.

Peter had recently scrounged up $600 to buy a barely functional “classic old hippie van” he planned to live in — that was until he got pulled over at midnight for driving without a registration. He begged the officers to let him keep the vehicle, and to trail him to somewhere he could just park it to hunker down for the night.

“I have no family, I have no home,” he implored them. “If you do this you are taking my lifeline, you’re taking away my home.” 

But it was no use. He lost the van — his home and his sanctuary from coronavirus — all in one late May traffic stop.

Months earlier, in January 2019, Peter had been kicked out of extended foster care, which provides housing and other critical benefits for 18-to-21-year-olds. He had failed to comply with rules that he work or study, or prove to a social worker and the juvenile court why he couldn’t. His plunge was almost immediate, and all too predictable for former foster youth. Since last year, he’s often slept in a broken-down Honda Pilot he used before getting his van, or in bushes at public parks. 

“Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I feel like I don’t even exist,” Peter said in one of several interviews over the past two years. “It’s the feeling of not even existing as a human, feeling like I was lost and forgotten.”

A safety net that must be earned

Extended foster care was designed as a safety net for young adults like Peter and 20,000 others nationwide who turn 18 in the system each year. Following a 2008 federal law, six Indian tribes and 49 states now provide some form of housing, financial assistance and case management for those who choose to stay in foster care as adults, according to the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. 

In California, as in most other states, the arrangement is conditional, designed to nudge foster youth toward independence. During normal times, they must meet at least one of four standards: be completing high school or an equivalent program, enrolled at least half-time in college or vocational education or work at least 80 hours a month. If those requirements can’t be met, there is a fourth category that provides some leeway – “an activity designed to remove barriers to employment.”

Amid the school closures and record-breaking unemployment numbers that seem to just keep getting worse during the coronavirus pandemic, the requirements have been temporarily loosened. In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that extended foster care payments will continue through June 30, even when a young person turns 21 or can’t meet the educational or employment requirements. A bill moving through the California Legislature would extend this waiver on the requirements for a year.

Like their younger peers in the child welfare system, adults in foster care must meet monthly with a social worker, or probation officer, and participate in juvenile court hearings every six months — though these services, too, have largely been placed on hold during the pandemic.  

There are exemptions from the rules for those who can prove they have a serious physical or mental disability. And extended foster care in California and 37 other states allows young adults to leave the system and return as many times as they like. This concept of “re-entry” is intended to provide youth in the child welfare system the opportunity that most youth in families take for granted: returning home after a crisis.

Yet interviews with more than a dozen attorneys working in counties statewide show that although extended foster care was created to prevent former foster youth from ending up destitute, too often, those being pushed out are the young people most in danger of ending up on the streets. These advocates say the system can have little patience with the fragility of young adult lives, and the hurdles early childhood trauma erects at each and every turn, with benefits cut off when plans to work or study change, or simply don’t work out. 

“We have to fight about eligibility on a regular basis,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, whose firm represents 33,000 foster youth in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Placer counties. “It’s a real problem.” 

Once the temporary moratorium on employment and education requirements expires, the future of extended foster care eligibility remains even more uncertain. Between a burgeoning economic crisis, questions about resuming college classes and the mental health impact after months of social distancing, challenges to meet the program’s pre-coronavirus standards will be harder than ever. 

Grounds for dismissal

Well before the pandemic upended the world as we once knew it, lawyers battled to maintain benefits for young people – even those meeting the requirements of extended foster care – including participants cut off over summer break, or while on maternity leave. Still others fell off simply because they didn’t have phones to check in regularly with social workers, or had no stable address. Some couldn’t get to the courthouse on public transit, or they were just too stressed out and too overwhelmed to show up to appointments – even when it may have been in their best interests to do so.

The stakes are high for those getting pushed out. Extended foster care benefits in California can total up to $2,500 per month, with $1,000 going directly to the young people. The program covers housing costs to live with relatives, foster parents, in individual apartments or in transitional housing programs. They also receive caseworker support, clothing allowances and, for new parents, a $200 monthly stipend.

Attorneys for foster youth have had to file arguments with appeals courts to keep their clients enrolled. Reviewing a 2017 juvenile court ruling from San Diego County, the 4th District Court of Appeal found that the lower court had wrongfully ended a young woman’s extended foster care status – for the sole reason that she had married her baby’s father after finding out she was pregnant. The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency had argued “a married person would be impossible to supervise,” creating “enormous barriers” for the child welfare agency. 

In late 2016, H.C., as she is referred to in court documents, had social worker-approved housing, she was seeking a job and had enrolled in school. By the agency’s own admission, “H.C. was doing well” in meeting the criteria. But the county set a termination hearing as soon it learned H.C. was living with her husband, Alonzo.

The appeals court reversed that order, arguing that cutting H.C. off her benefits “would impede, rather than support, the purpose of the program.” (Two years later, state officials directed counties to allow “otherwise eligible married youth” into extended foster care.) 

In a 2015 decision, the 1st District Court of Appeal also reversed a juvenile court order to terminate benefits. The Contra Costa County juvenile court had ruled that a teenager, identified as R.G., did not qualify for benefits. The teen had stayed in touch with his social worker and worked with an independent living skills program on his résumé and a job hunt. His attorney argued R.G. “was to be applauded for hustling to find a job in a tough market for anybody, especially an 18-year-old.”

But a juvenile court judge disagreed, ruling that R.G. had not met extended foster care rules simply by “doing a bunch of online applications.” 

That judge’s ruling was overturned on appeal, and R.G.’s right to benefits was reinstated.

Fighting to stay in the system

Although lawyers are discouraged by how often they have to fight to keep young adults in foster care, Jennifer Pokempner of the Juvenile Law Center said in contrast with much of the nation, California has relatively “flexible and innovative” laws and policies. As a result, attorneys have a greater basis for legal arguments when young people are threatened with being pushed out of care.

The state’s Department of Social Services has issued 70 clarifying “all-county” letters and notices related to the program since extended foster care became law, guidance documents meant to ensure local governments abide by its intent. Those eligible can be serving in the military Reserves or National Guard, living in other states or emerging from failed adoptions, and California is one of two states that permits young people who are in the juvenile justice system to participate in extended foster care. Young adults can receive payments to live with their biological parents, even those who’ve previously had custodial rights terminated. Guidance directs counties to respond quickly when young people request re-entry – sending forms by fax, scan or email “the same day.” 

Still, for adults in foster care to draw on matching federal funds, advocates argue, California’s rules can sometimes place an unfair burden on a population that has been repeatedly failed, often by their own families, and later by the government systems that raised them. 

People who worked on the 2008 federal law say those rules are there for a reason – lawmakers concluded the goal should be more than handing out money.

“It was to take three years to connect youth to education and employment opportunities in the hopes that the cliff they would face at age 21 wouldn’t be as bad as the cliff they were facing at age 18, which was immediate homelessness and unemployment,” said Sean Hughes, a former legislative staffer.

A series of abuse and failures

As a child of the state, Peter has had a life filled with one injustice after another. He was taken from his mother as a toddler due to drugs and abuse. Two Bay Area foster families took him in, but at age 7 – an age now considered unacceptably young to be in congregate care – Peter was placed in a group home. 

He stayed there for a year. Stubborn and frustrated, he often erupted, kicking doors and breaking things. That behavior, not uncommon among traumatized youth, got him passed off again and again, to yet another set of professional caregivers. 

Compounding his difficult childhood, Peter said he was taken screaming and protesting to a San Jose pediatrician who has been under criminal investigation repeatedly since 2001, following allegations he sexually abused more than a dozen foster youth in his home and office, according to court records made public after a 2011 Mercury News investigation. That year, Dr. Patrick Clyne was fired by his Santa Clara County employer because of repeated allegations of abuse in his home and office, and was later stripped of his foster parent license. 

Last year, the California Medical Board and Watsonville police began a new investigation of Clyne that is still ongoing. And he is currently the subject of a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of a Bay Area man he adopted as a child, who alleges the doctor sexually abused him for years at his home, beginning when he was 8 years old. This is the first lawsuit filed against Clyne after decades of accusations of abuse from multiple victims. 

Peter has long contended, in multiple interviews with this reporter, and to his caregivers, social worker and a private attorney, that he was sexually abused by Clyne in office visits as well. Clyne did not respond to a request for comment.

The physician, 58, denies all the abuse claims and has said he believes the dozen young people who have reported him to police are either lying or misunderstood their exams. He has never been arrested and continues to practice pediatrics in a low-income community south of Santa Cruz. Clyne and his attorney also did not respond to requests to comment on the lawsuit filed in May. 

 
Peter often sleeps under a large tree in a park, with the belongings he carries in a large camping backpack. Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

With extended foster care offering support for adults with troubled trajectories similar to his own, when Peter turned 18, he could live in a housing program, receive cash benefits, have the ongoing support of a dedicated social worker and be represented by an attorney.

But still, a series of broken-down vehicles became his home and comfort zone. His skateboard got him where he needed to go. 

“I would switch up locations, because being homeless is technically illegal, but I didn’t let it stop me from living in my car,” Peter said. “That’s where I feel comfortable because I would bike around there as a young kid.”

With his van now impounded, Peter doesn’t know where he’ll go. Sleeping on a park bench recently, he was awoken by three cops standing over him in the dark, their faces obscured by masks — a chilling image of the times and the new dangers of living unsheltered.

“I’m going to get this virus if I’m outside,” he said on a recent evening.

‘They sort of guard the doors’

Peter is far from alone in his struggles. Yet young people often meet resistance when they try to re-enter extended foster care.

“When they want to return I think it becomes a little harder, depending on who a youth calls to ask to return, or what county they’re calling – it may not be a ‘Please come back,’ with open arms kind of feeling,” said Erin Palacios, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. “It isn’t always malicious on the part of the individual worker. Sometimes the young person recently left and was very difficult to work with, so they don’t welcome them back as easily, or some county workers know they don’t have [housing] placements available, so they sort of guard the doors.”

Often, pushback centers on whether young people qualify for the disability exemption – and in some cases, counties have gone to extreme lengths to push back on eligibility.

In an appeals court case from Alameda County, a young woman was poised to lose her extended foster care benefits if her psychotherapist of six years did not testify in court and agree to be cross-examined on the stand, testifying to confidential patient communications. 

N.S., as she is referred to in the 1st Appellate District Court of Appeal case, had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depressive disorder. She took medications for those diagnoses as well as for her mood swings and violent outbursts. She struggled with “mental health and cognitive challenges that made it difficult for her to attend school or obtain employment,” according to court records. Although her attorneys argued N.S.’s vulnerability could not have been more pronounced, the juvenile court insisted she prove she was truly unwell.

N.S. had been picked up at a homeless encampment in 2016 to meet with her social work support team. “When N.S. arrived, she was not wearing shoes, she had lost a great deal of weight, her clothing was dirty, and it appeared she had not showered for some time,” court reports show. “At the meeting N.S. was unable to focus, displayed moods ranging from angry to confused, had to be removed from the room several times to calm her anger and agitation, and fell asleep throughout the meeting because she had been using methamphetamines and had not slept in the past five days.” She said her job search was hampered by lack of identification and no eyeglasses to enable her to fill out applications.

Alameda County argued it could not help N.S., and to make its case insisted on the extreme measure of calling her psychotherapist to the stand. But the appeals court rejected the legal maneuver, ordering N.S.’s benefits reinstated.  

One step forward, two steps back

Peter turns 21 in June, so will soon lose any chance at help from the foster care system. Given his history, he’s approaching this milestone more frustrated and mistrustful of the world than ever. He battles the sense that he’s in his current situation because somehow he deserved it, that it’s his fault. 

Some nights he’s slept in a public park, recording the sounds of coyotes howling nearby and tamping down his hunger with Funyuns and Dr Pepper. Other times he’s crashed on a grease-stained strip of cardboard in a small enclosure behind a gas station. He said having the van to sleep in had felt “a million times better” – while it lasted. 

Peter is gregarious and personable, and in dozens of conversations over a two-year span showed how he can be deeply caring and compassionate. He’s a handsome fellow, with soft curls he now wears in a ponytail, and quirky clothing ensembles topped off with Star Wars garb. 

Though he once had dedicated people in his life — including former foster parents and their family members, a social worker trying to get him into a housing program, and an attorney working to investigate his claims of childhood sexual abuse — one by one, they’ve dropped out of his life. 

“They want me to feel like the past is the past,” Peter said. “Their expectation of me is that I can put the past behind me, and it’s not something I can do.” 

They all care about Peter. But they’re worried too, especially when he fails to show up for job interviews or appointments with housing providers. They are sad to see that too often, he seems to creep forward and then plunge back on progress in his life – a self-sabotaging pattern not uncommon among those who’ve suffered childhood trauma.

“If he has a place to lay his head down at night he can get a job and get mental health resources, which he desperately needs,” said Peter’s former foster father Tom McGrane, who has known Peter since he was 4 years old. “He can do it with the right resources. I’ve seen him do it.”

The Santa Clara County juvenile court “exited” Peter from extended foster care on Jan. 24, 2019. One year later, on Jan. 28 of this year, his request to re-enter was submitted to the court — but since then, he’s given up on even wanting to enter some type of rule-based county-funded housing program. 

“I’m tired of people judging me and not understanding me right off the bat,” Peter said.

So as his birthday draws nearer, instead of making a plan for next steps with the help of a caseworker, safely ensconced in a supervised housing program, he’ll work toward his next goal — saving up to buy an RV to live in — alone. 

Karen de Sá is the Safety Net Reporting Fellow for The Chronicle, and a former investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Mercury News. She can be reached at kdesa@chronicleofsocialchange.org

Sara Tiano contributed to this article. 

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This four-part series by The Chronicle of Social Change was reported and written by Karen de Sá, Sara Tiano and Katarina Sayally, with editing by John Kelly. Christine Ongjoco created the illustrations and Max Whittaker provided photography. The project was mostly reported before the coronavirus pandemic struck, and included months of ongoing communication with current and former foster youth, observations in two confidential courtrooms and interviews with more than 60 child welfare experts. The stories were originally reported before the coronavirus pandemic descended on the United States and the world, but facts have been updated to better reflect current circumstances.