More than 1,000 young Mississippians in the state’s foster-care system, as well as recent graduates, are currently eligible for significant financial assistance from the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services. The Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act, which Congress passed in late 2020, made $3.3 million available to individuals aged 14-26 currently in foster care, as well as those who graduated from foster care within the last year.
Kimberly Wheaton, deputy commissioner of child welfare at MDCPS, told the Mississippi Free Press that the funds were available for eligible young people for a vast array of potential needs. “This funding is specifically provided for youth expenses—including education, transportation, housing, groceries, utility payments, (and) other emergency needs,” she said.
Of the $3.3 million, just under half has been disbursed by direct deposits to young people between the ages of 14 and 19, with some additional funds currently being processed. That leaves more than $1 million available for young Mississippians who apply for the remaining funds through MDCPS.
Mississippians eligible for the funds or their foster-care guardians can contact MDCPS at 601-576-1634 or by emailing [email protected]. Wheaton explained that, of the roughly 2,000 young adults and children eligible for financial support, only 500 have been in contact with MDCPS, leaving more than 1,500 young Mississippians still eligible for extensive monetary aid.
‘Pretty Much Limitless’
The funding comes at a critical time for a categorically disadvantaged group. “A lot of our older youth, when they exit custody, sometimes find themselves experiencing challenges related to housing, related to (purchasing) their first transportation, owning their own vehicle,” Wheaton explained.
Those challenges often multiply when a young person is out of foster care and starting an independent life, Wheaton added. “Sometimes they’re able to establish independence through some of our transitional living program, able to live in apartment placements and things like that,” she said. “But (here) they experience challenges with food, household expenses, utilities.”
The money appropriated to MDCPS even provides resources for academic or labor opportunities. “(It covers) technology that they may need for school or work. It’s pretty much limitless,” she said. “We’re able to help them without a lot of restrictions around distribution of the funds to them.”
That freedom—to disburse funds without complicated restrictions—is a unique rarity, thanks to the circumstances of the pandemic and the social vulnerability of foster children. Elsewhere, growing restrictions have starved public welfare in other areas, like in food stamps for impoverished families.
In Mississippi, foster care ends at age 19. But the federal funds are available to individuals who spent as little as a day in foster care who are up to 26 years of age. “We don’t have extended foster care here in Mississippi,” Wheaton explained. “The age of these relief funds were set by the federal government, but we don’t have a lot of youth exiting care beyond the age of 21.”
Still, young Mississippians who have spent time in foster care may be able to temporarily re-enter the program to make use of the funds. “There is language in the federal program instruction that would allow older youth to re-enter foster care if they choose to receive these funds,” Wheaton said. She also admitted that she had no idea how the youth-court system would handle the request.
Despite what MDCPS has already done to identify eligible young Mississippians, Wheaton said many more were “absolutely” still out there and unaware of the federal assistance available to them today.
The Most Vulnerable
Nationally, roughly 420,000 children are in foster care, day-to-day. That number ebbs and flows throughout the year, with the majority of foster children near or past adolescence. The average age of youths in the U.S. foster care system is 8.
Foster-care graduates experience a broad spectrum of challenges in early adulthood and beyond. Studies have found that emancipated youth are significantly more vulnerable to incarceration, lack of access to health care, and a variety of other significant problems with physical and mental health. A University of Chicago study from 2005 found that fully one-third of children who spent time in foster care experience mental-health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse.
The transitional period that these pandemic-era funds target is incredibly precarious for emancipated young people. More than 20% of all foster graduates experience homelessness within a year of leaving the program. Indeed, it is difficult to find a dimension of social vulnerability that time in foster care does not inflict on youth.
With such distinctly negative outcomes for children who come up through the foster-care system, such unrestricted support may be a rare if temporary reprieve for Mississippi’s thousands of older foster-care young people and graduates.
Wheaton says the funds already disbursed to foster-care graduates have merely been the “starting point,” with the agency hoping to fully distribute the $3.3 million allotted to Mississippi through the program.
“We were so excited to receive these funds and (get them) to youth … we want to get funds to as many youths as possible as soon as is possible,” Wheaton said.