Foster care grads needed lawmakers’ help during COVID. That didn’t come until the last minute.

By: - September 24, 2021 3:15 am

Michael Davis-Thomas

Michael Davis-Thomas has big plans. 

The 24-year-old from Bay City wants to run for office — at first, for the state House or Senate and, ultimately, for president.

But before he can fully dedicate himself to a life in politics, Davis-Thomas has to figure out how he’s going to afford the $2,000 he needs to fix his car in order to get to school. 

In addition to working at a nonprofit that provides transitional housing for foster care youth, among other jobs, he’s also double-majoring in political science and law and society and minoring in public administration at Mott Community College in Flint. 

On top of all of that, he may also have to soon find housing because the nonprofit that currently provides him with a place to live, River Jordan in Bay City, may have to close its doors next spring after the pandemic left it unable to fundraise the way it normally does.

There are daunting challenges, but Davis-Thomas is certain he’ll make it past them. After all, he’s done it before. 

Born in Detroit, Davis-Thomas spent much of his childhood in Michigan’s foster care system after facing years of physical and verbal abuse. While in foster care, he lived in 20 different residential facilities across the state and ultimately aged out of the foster care system when he turned 18. Like many foster care graduates, Davis-Thomas then found himself navigating a world that can be, at best, naive about the challenges young adults from the foster care system face and, at worst, outright hostile.

“I tried my hardest to make it through school and work, pay bills and make money, but because I didn’t have that family support I failed numerous times,” he said. “I ended up homeless twice. I got scammed as a young adult, and that has significantly messed up my credit. I have an eviction on my record.”

These are challenges that individuals who’ve been in the foster care system know all too well, both during the pandemic and before.

At the darkest point of this pandemic, they didn’t have an option other foster care alumni in the majority of states across this country had access to because their legislatures approved those funds

– Patrick Brown, Michigan's Children outreach associate

FosterClub, an Oregon-based organization that works with youth in foster care and individuals who have recently aged out of the foster care system nationwide, published a survey on how COVID-19 was impacting foster care youth aged 18 and 24. According to the results, 65% of respondents who were working before the pandemic lost their jobs, 23% were experiencing housing insecurity, and 37% reported having no adult who they could turn to for help.

Nationwide, about one-quarter of those who have aged out of the foster care system, like Davis-Thomas, experience homelessness within four years of leaving the system, according to the National Foster Youth Institute (NFYI). Less than 3% of individuals who grew up in foster care graduate from a four-year college, and half of those who have left the foster care system have no income within four years of aging out, according to the NFYI. Those who are earning money are making an average of $7,500 annually.

To address some of these challenges, federal lawmakers allocated stimulus dollars for foster care youth in every state. Michigan received about $10.2 million in federal stimulus funding for the state’s foster care youth programs in January 2021. 

Included in that money was about $1.4 million dedicated for young adults ages 23 to 26 who have aged out of the foster care system but weren’t able to access the federal stimulus checks that were previously sent out. While the bulk of that $10.2 million can be used through 2022, the federal government mandated that the $1.4 million for the older foster care graduates had to be appropriated by Thursday — which happens to be the deadline for state lawmakers to wrap the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 budget.

About three-quarters of states allocated their funding for the older foster care alumni over this past year to help them deal with the fallout from the pandemic. But the Michigan Legislature did not appropriate the funding until this week, when they included it in the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget that just passed both chambers this week. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she will sign it.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

“At the darkest point of this pandemic, they didn’t have an option other foster care alumni in the majority of states across this country had access to because their legislatures approved those funds,” said Patrick Brown, an outreach associate for Michigan’s Children, a Lansing-based nonprofit that has for months been pushing for state lawmakers to spend these funds.

Advocates for foster care youth said that while they are pleased the federal funding ultimately passed, the fact that it could have been done much earlier is emblematic of a legislative landscape that needs to be more responsive to the needs of foster care youth. 

“This is a high-risk population that really needed these funds; even before the pandemic, they were facing homelessness, job insecurity, food insecurity, mental health challenges, problems with education,” said Karie Ward, the executive director of Fostering Success Michigan, a statewide initiative that supports students who have been in the foster care system. 

“It’s frustrating for our youth to see how other states have been able to handle funding and be responsive to their needs, and our legislators have dragged their feet when it comes to passing this appropriation,” Ward said.

Davis-Thomas said “there’s no excuse” legislators have for defending passing the funding at the very last minute. 

“It’s disheartening and sad and frustrating because all it is is voting on something that would prevent people from becoming homeless,” he said.

Because foster care alumni have faced such dire circumstances during the pandemic, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) used existing department funding to send $1,000 stimulus checks to people flagged as being in the greatest need for support. Davis-Thomas, for example, received one of these checks. 

Michigan has done a great job by taking the funds they did have and cutting those $1,000 one-time stimulus checks. But, at the end of the day, $1,000 is not going to cut it if you’ve been pushing off eviction.

– Michael Davis-Thomas

The department began sending the $1,000 checks on Sept. 8, and, as of Sept. 22, 170 checks have been issued. DHHS has identified a total of 429 youth who are eligible for these stimulus payments. A department spokesman said plans will soon “be completed to expend funds to eligible youth who have not yet received the $1,000 stimulus payment.”

Davis-Thomas said he’s “grateful for the $1,000, but it doesn’t solve the problem and it seems like we’re not really looking for a solution.”

“Michigan has done a great job by taking the funds they did have and cutting those $1,000 one-time stimulus checks,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, $1,000 is not going to cut it if you’ve been pushing off eviction.”

Once the individuals have spent their $1,000 stimulus payments, and the state has used its $10.2 million in federal stimulus funds, there will still remain deeply rooted challenges for foster care youth — and those need to be addressed, Brown said.

“We need to think about long-term strategies and solutions beyond just COVID relief dollars,” Brown said. “This is a population that faces many challenges and transitions that are difficult. We as a state need to think about ways to support them, whether it’s through regular funding in our stage budget or a grant type system. We need to think about what happens to our foster care children once they age out of the system.” 

“How do we support this population after these funds have been spent?” Brown continued. “The problems this population faces are not going away.”

Davis-Thomas, who is extensively involved in local, state and national politics and sits on a long list of national and state boards, including the DHHS’ child welfare advisory board, said legislators need to do far more outreach to foster care youth than currently happens.

“People still see foster care students as delinquents; there’s a lot of misinformation,” Davis-Thomas said. “I’d like to see lawmakers in the House and Senate actually meet with the young people and take the time to talk to them. This is a population that isn’t going anywhere.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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