Q&A: Foster Care and Homelessness

Roxana Torrico Meruvia is an NASW senior practice associate with several years’ experience working with diverse, low-income youth and families in the nonprofit and public systems. NASW News talked with her about the intersection of foster care and homelessness.

Q: There seems to be a link between poverty and homelessness and children being placed in out-of-home care. Are you seeing more children in the foster care system as a result of the economic recession?

A: Despite the recession, the recent National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System report did not indicate an increase in substantiated maltreatment. However, some organizations have seen an increased demand for services including child welfare.

Q: What are the benefits to the child, family and society in keeping families intact?

A: Inadequate housing can be a contributing factor to the placement of children in foster care. In many cases, simply addressing a family’s housing needs through services such as case management, rental or utility assistance can help prevent the need for foster care. Separating children from their families is very traumatic and puts them at risk for poor behavioral and medical outcomes, poor educational outcomes, poverty and homelessness. It can be more cost effective to provide families with services than to place a child in foster care.

Q: Last year, you presented at the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare’s Keeping Families Together and Safe conference, which was co-sponsored by NASW. What is the significance of the conference with respect to its timing? What new federal assistance is there for ensuring families have housing?

A: The conference gave social service and housing providers a unique opportunity to come together to gain a fuller understanding of the critical role that housing can play in family preservation and reunification efforts and a successful transition to adulthood for youth exiting the foster care system. Some participants received training on the Family Unification Program, or FUP, a federal program that provides housing vouchers to communities to prevent the placement of children in foster care and provides housing assistance so that families can be reunified. FUP also provides up to 18 months of housing assistance for youth aging out of care. In August 2010, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $20 million to support partnerships between public housing authorities and local child welfare agencies nationwide in an effort to reunite more than 5,000 homeless children with their parents and provide affordable housing and supports to 750 young people leaving foster care. According to the NCHCW, returning these children home from foster care will save an average of $142 million in federal child welfare expenditures.

Q: Why do you think so many young people face critical housing needs after exiting the foster care system? What could help ease a young person’s transition out of foster care?

A: Approximately 29,500 young people leave the system with limited, if any, supports. Too often, they leave with inadequate education, limited access to employment, unstable finances, lack of health insurance benefits, limited life skills and support networks, and narrow housing options. They also leave the system without solid transition plans, discharged into unstable housing situations without the tools to live independently.

Fortunately, the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act mandates that workers develop personal transition plans in partnership with the young person during the 90-day period immediately before they exit foster care or stop receiving transition services. For the first time, the law also gives states the option to continue providing federal financial support to young people up to 21. If states opt to extend care to meet the needs of older youth, they will be eligible to receive supportive services longer to prepare them to successfully transition into adulthood, potentially avoiding homelessness upon discharge. The estimated odds of former foster youth experiencing homelessness are 1 in 6.

Q: Why do you think it is important for child protection and family service workers and homeless services workers to be crosstrained and collaborate more?

A: The National Alliance to End Homelessness indicates that the number of homeless families has increased by 4 percent. Housing instability can bring families to the attention of child welfare and in some instances, serves as a barrier to family reunification. The well-being of families should not be the responsibility of one primary agency; therefore, collaboration across agencies, such as child welfare and housing service providers, is needed to expedite family reunification or avoid family separations altogether. By working together, social workers and housing and homeless service providers can help to address families’ critical housing needs. Through cross-system trainings, programs can be effectively integrated to improve the services available to families. These types of trainings also allow for important discussions related to agency values, policies, legal mandates and practices.

These types of trainings also provide unique opportunities for collaborations that can help to avoid duplication of services and ensure the well-being of children, youth and families. Collaboration across agencies can also help to address income supports, employment, health care and parenting. By addressing these needs families are better positioned to care for their children. Cross-system collaborations are particularly important for young people with special needs to ensure they do not fall through the cracks as they transition into adult services.

Q: What resources for helping families stay together are available to social workers?

A: While each community looks different in terms of resources available, there are a range of resources available to social workers to help keep families together. Social workers who are working with families at risk of becoming homeless can tap into The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which aims to prevent homelessness and rapidly re-house at-risk families. This program can be used for things such as emergency cash for rental subsidies, payment of overdue utility bills or security deposits. In addition, social workers should find out if their communities are implementing the FUP.

Even if a community does not have an FUP, they may still have a formalized partnership between child welfare and the public housing authority. Social workers can also connect with community resources such as landlords, faith-based organizations, schools or universities and/or volunteers to help address the housing needs of families. Lastly, social workers can tap into community-based organizations to access other local funding sources available to assist families.