Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) had been working for over a year toward launching an extended foster care program this summer. Traditionally, youth in care who turn 18 have been whisked into the adult world without much financial help or even basic human-needs support. The new program, once implemented, will allow foster youth to receive state services until age 21.
But then the coronavirus outbreak changed everything. In a positive manner, says CYFD cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock.
Though New Mexico is one of the last states to extend foster care eligibility from age 18 to 21 — official program enactment is scheduled for Wednesday when the state’s 2021 fiscal year begins — it was one of the first to freeze kids from aging out of state care during the pandemic.
“Though we don’t have extended foster care until July 1, we said that no youth should be kicked out of our system during the pandemic,” Blalock said. “If they’re 18, we’re treating those youth as if they’re already in … they’re getting housing, case management and mental health services. It has allowed us to get started sooner and try to fix the bumps.”
Pandemic or not, extended foster care, an opt-in service for current youth in care, is a heavy lift for state child protective services departments. Blalock says it not only requires a mind shift for CYFD’s caseworkers and staff, but also a crash course for interconnected bodies such as the court system.
CYFD has worked with youth with lived experience to craft its extended foster care program, which guarantees monthly stipends, housing support, health care services and court review under the legal jurisdiction of the Children’s Court. Blalock said youth can also access free community-based mental health services until age 21.
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“I think extended foster care is one of the single most important innovations in the foster care system over the last 20 years,” Blalock said. “The pandemic accelerated a lot of our work in a really good way.”
State was outlier in adopting extended care
A 1998 research study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago is cited as the watershed moment for extended foster care. Professor and researcher Mark Courtney discovered that a large chunk of the 141 Wisconsin teens who had aged out of foster care at age 18 found themselves in bleak living situations, ranging from chronic unemployment and homelessness to imprisonment and “some kind of serious physical victimization,” according to a summary.
In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which allowed states to use federal dollars to lengthen foster care eligibility to age 21. According to the Juvenile Law Center’s National Extended Foster Care Review database, as of 2018, 45 states had provided extended foster care benefits for transition-aged youth. New Mexico was one of the remaining outliers.
During the 2019 New Mexico Legislature, state lawmakers passed an act that created an extended foster care program. During the 2020 regular session, Sen. Michael Padilla, a Democrat, and Sen. Candace Gould, a Republican, pushed through a Foster Youth Changes bill that allows the state to access approximately $2.3 million in federal dollars for transition-aged youth.
The program will take three years until its fully implemented. Starting Wednesday, youth turning 18 will be eligible for extended foster care benefits. On July 1, 2021, 18- and 19-year-olds can opt in, and the following July, youth aged 18 through 20 can take advantage.
“It gives us a little time to build that up and learn from the youth and have them help us build it,” Blalock said.
Older youth helping to design the program
Blalock, who worked at a San Francisco Bay Area legal nonprofit before landing at CYFD in January 2019, said he learned several lessons while California implemented its version of extended foster care, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2012.
“We found that it took awhile for the culture shift to happen. You had some workers in some places who were treating extended foster care as a privilege and not a legal entitlement and were actively pushing kids out if they weren’t doing all of things,” Blalock said. “I don’t think we’re going to make that mistake.
“There has to be a culture shift because now you have kids that you’ve never had before, kids that you expected to come off your rolls at 18,” he added. “Now we get to take care of those kids longer. That’s a little bit of a mind twitch for our staff … you’re working with adults with all of the rights of adults.”
Blalock also discovered, in the California example, that the courts took quite some time to catch up.
“There’s also a culture shift at the courts. They’re not kids anymore. You still do reunification with the parents, but now the kids get the say,” he said. “If I’m an 18-year-old and I don’t want you to reunify me, then that should drive the court process. The court doesn’t get to override that.”
The internal CYFD Office of Transition Aged Youth, created in July 2019, has gathered input from older youth to craft New Mexico’s extended foster care program, Blalock said. CYFD carved out a couple of full-time positions for former foster youth to work in the office, but the pandemic derailed hiring plans for now. That hasn’t stopped the work from moving forward, he said.
“I have opinions about [extended foster care] and my staff does as well and we’re learning lessons from other states, but a lot of input we’re getting is from the older youth themselves,” Blalock said. “I think New Mexico has a really cool opportunity to co-build extended foster care with youth. It helps us get it somewhat right because older youth have a much better sense of what they want than what we know.”
This story is part of a Youth Today project on foster care in New Mexico. It’s made possible in part by the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust. Youth Today is solely responsible for the content and maintains editorial independence.