Opinion

New York State Must Pause Aging Out From Foster System During COVID-19

aging out: Group of people wearing face mask protesting

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

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As a young adult formerly in foster care, I know that people my age are confronted with a tough reality when their time in foster care comes to an end. They see significant barriers between themselves and the next part of their lives. Many must go through this new chapter without family support, safe and stable housing, access to education or a job. Young people my age face food insecurity, often reliving the life of trauma they left behind. 

aging out: Justin Mercado (headshot), youth advocate at Children’s Defense Fund-NY, man with short dark hair, beard, mustache, dark suit, open white shirt

Justin Mercado

With COVID-19, these risks are amplified. That’s why New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should let young people stay in foster care a little longer during the pandemic by instituting a moratorium on aging out at 21. Staying in foster care means a safe place to live, a caseworker and access to a doctor or a counselor if you need one.

COVID-19 has separated youth aging out of care from the people and services they need most. It has stretched our child welfare system, separated young people from their schools, interrupted their education and housing, and limited their access to the family courts to have their needs met.

When kids like me are pushed out of care, it’s much more likely that they come into contact with police. By protecting them during the pandemic, we keep more foster youth away from police systems that continuously cause us harm. 

The pandemic has caused a complete disruption to young people who are already living disrupted lives, showing us all that more must be done to support these youth.

Nationally, nine states have already paused aging out, including California, Illinois, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., allowing young people to keep some of the stability they have during these troubled times. New York should do the same. The state must also streamline reentry into foster care for youth between the ages of 18 to 21 and waive educational or training/employment requirements that just aren’t workable right now. 

Young people like me need the leaders of New York state to invest in policies that reflect their commitment to our well-being, our communities and our mental health. We cannot continue to say we don’t have money for kids like me. We are not saving money by pushing kids out of foster care into shelters, emergency rooms, prisons and the streets.

Over the last few weeks, it has become clear that black and brown youth like me are continuously having to lead the charge for equity, transparency and funding for programs and services that drastically impact our lives. We have been at the forefront of the fight against policies that cause harm to our communities. When we advocate for George Floyd, we are truly advocating for ourselves. 

I want to live in a city where our existence is valued just as much as those of our white counterparts. This is why I am calling for the leaders of New York to invest in youth by letting vulnerable kids stay in care a little longer during the pandemic. 

Marian Wright Edelman once said, “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” What the governor chooses to do for young people like me defines his leadership serving New Yorkers during this challenging time. That’s why I am calling on him to commit to supporting young people’s lives during the COVID-19 crisis. The moratorium on aging out of foster care is necessary now.

Justin Mercado is 19 and a youth advocate at Children’s Defense Fund-NY, a member of the CHAMPS-NY Campaign. He graduates from Wingate High School this month, was recently awarded the Meringoff Scholarship for his writing and will be attending Niagara Community College in the fall, with plans to transfer into the Buffalo State College transfer promise program in the fall of 2021 to study psychology.

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