It used to be that when children in foster care turned 18, their surrogate parent — the county — would wash its figurative hands, wish the youth well and hope to never see them again. But the county too often does see them again, in court, in jail, living on the street, in substance-abuse treatment, in mental healthcare or in other programs for the traumatized and the have-nots. Even 18-year-olds with loving, functional families and the best care and support are seldom ready for independence and self-sufficiency, so it would be foolish to believe that foster youth aging out of the system without traditional family help will find jobs, get apartments and otherwise get on with the business of living without transitional assistance.
Several years ago California became one of a number of states that offered to help former foster youth navigate their way to age 21 if they could show they could keep a job or go to college. Much of that assistance has been dropped or delayed because of the poor economy and resulting budget crises. But Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas wants Los Angeles County to at least do its part to make certain that young people moving out of foster care don’t go hungry. His motion on Tuesday’s agenda calls on the county to make sure that ex-foster youth who need help between the ages of 18 and 21 are directed to CalFresh, the federally funded nutrition program more popularly referred to as “food stamps.”
It’s a good idea, and the supervisors should adopt it. Other counties make sure that most or all of their former wards apply if they need to, but in Los Angeles County the number is a dismal 8%. Ridley-Thomas’ motion would deliver county departments the swift kick they need to ensure that the federal program actually gets some use here. As part of the exit process from foster care, 18-year-olds would be informed of their already existing right to get food assistance. The program would not create a new class of recipient.
Foster youth too often get sucked into a virtual pipeline that dumps them right back into the county’s lap after they’re emancipated and perpetuates the same dysfunction that affected their families in the first place. It’s certainly in the public interest, and the young adults’ interests as well, for them to become independent rather than move immediately to welfare. The county has a youth self-sufficiency policy with just that in mind.
But transition assistance, including connecting youth in need to CalFresh, is not welfare. In fact it’s the opposite; it helps youth get on their feet in the important years from 18 to 21 precisely so they don’t become a permanent part of the county system. It picks up the pieces of the policy already adopted by the state and the county to help move former foster children to independence.