Child welfare advocates say the Fair Futures program, which funds coaches and tutors for kids in foster care, is more vital than ever in the face of the pandemic’s impact on young people.

John McCarten/NYC Council

Lawmakers, advocates and ACS staff at the launch of Fair Futures in 2019.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused many to feel more isolated, stressed, and anxious. For children and teenagers, who rely on routines and predictability to feel a sense of stability, the mental health impact of the pandemic has been sizable. At the same time, the disruption to daily life over the past year has made existing challenges even harder for foster care youth, who already have to grapple with the stress and trauma of being separated from their families and attending family court proceedings.

In 2019, New York City allocated $10 million in funding toward Fair Futures, then a new initiative recognizing the additional burdens kids in the foster care system face and offering long-term support for foster youth from middle school through age 26. Fair Futures received some funding in the following fiscal year budget, but far less than initially anticipated — $2.7 million instead of $10 million — as the city was already facing a budget crisis due to the pandemic. Advocates for children and foster care youth are now pushing to ensure sufficient funding in the city’s next fiscal budget for Fair Futures, which could otherwise expire in July.

Dawn Saffayeh, executive director of Heartshare St. Vincent Services, an organization that receives Fair Futures funding, says the program needs $20 million in the new budget to keep existing staff and resources at the current baseline. The program funds individual coaches for young people in foster care, who work and offer support to young mentees, and it also pays for tutors to help participants with their schoolwork.

“The thing that Fair Futures offers is consistency in relationships, so young people who have had so many broken relationships in their lives now have a coach who is their person. We promised them that they’re going to have this consistent relationship for as long as they need it, for years,” says Saffayeh, who is also on the steering committee for Fair Futures. “If the dollars aren’t there, and we have to rip away this relationship from them, it will be absolutely horrible.”

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Marisa Kaufman, communications director for NYC Administration for Children’s Services, said in a statement to City Limits that Fair Futures is a “top priority” for ACS and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“We look forward to discussing it with the City Council as part of the budget process,” she said. “We are committed to providing youth with the services and support they need to become successful adults.”

Daniel,* a 15-year-old high school student in the Bronx, has a coach through the Fair Futures program, Jeremiah Nunez of Good Shepherd Services. Daniel says his coach has been in constant communication with him throughout the pandemic, and that he was able to lean on Nunez for support last year when deciding whether to get adopted or live with his grandmother.

“Basically, I had to make the choice and I’m not good at making choices because I never got to make choices in my life,” Daniel says. “And everything was always decided for me.”

He says that Nunez reminded him that “not everything is set in stone” and that he could try out staying at his grandmother’s house before making a final decision.

“Being in the foster system was kind of rocky,” Daniel says. “Everybody just kept asking me, ‘How do you feel? What can we do?’ … But meeting Jeremiah, he just asks me, ‘Hey, what’s going on? What [are] you up to?’”

He adds that Nunez sends him motivational messages on Mondays and frequently offers to help him with homework, saying, “Text me, call me, I’ll make time.”

In January, a group of more than 200 individuals, current and former youth in foster care along with child welfare advocates, held a virtual rally calling on the city to provide enough funding for Fair Futures in the next budget. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams spoke at the event in support of funding Fair Futures, along with Councilmembers Stephen Levin, Adrienne Adams, and Antonio Reynoso.

Fair Futures Youth Coordinator Ericka Francois has been heavily involved in advocating for the program’s funding and enlisting former and current foster youth in bringing attention to the importance of Fair Futures. Francois is 24, and first got a coach when she was 19, before the city formally launched the Fair Futures program and included it in the city budget. Francois’ coach has been helping her most recently with her taxes, those things “you just don’t have a parent in your life to help you with,” Francois says.

She says that while growing up and then going to college, “I didn’t have many people that I could really relate to other than the youth at my agency.” She adds, “And it was really difficult to watch people have relationships with their parents and take that for granted, when that’s something that you wish you could have just had in your life.”

It’s something that seems so simple and normalized, but not everyone has parents at their side to guide them, says Francois. “So I really looked up to her as like a big sister,” she says, referencing her coach.

“Young people in foster care are incredibly resilient, and they just face and overcome more challenges than many adults even do in their entire lives,” she says, adding that they shouldn’t have had to be so resilient. “They deserve that chance, you know, like everyone else to succeed in school and in adulthood.”

Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, says much will depend upon the level of funding the federal government allocates to New York, which will determine how much room might exist at the city level to “restore essential things for kids and families.”

There has been movement in the federal government toward passing a massive relief package. Last week, the House passed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, which includes $350 billion for state and local governments. The bill still needs to pass the Senate.

“We really don’t know until like, the ink is dry,” March says. But she explains that enough direct federal aid would allow “the state to think differently about what it does with state general fund monies or what the city does with city tax levy.”

The city, too, is waiting to see what the relief package will provide.

“ACS remains hopeful that the next federal stimulus package will include additional funding for child welfare and child care, which could help both the state and city address budget shortfalls,” Kaufman said in a statement provided to City Limits.

The budget crisis could result in less state funding for city youth in foster care overall, including money for Fair Futures. State law has historically allocated a child welfare funding stream of matching 65 percent to counties’ 35 percent contribution. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the state has allocated funding for a 62 percent match to the counties’ 38 percent contribution. As New York grapples with the economic impact of the pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed lowering the state’s share to 59 percent.

Saffayeh explains that the city relies on the 62 percent reimbursement from the state, and uses those funds for a variety of purposes, including supporting transitions from foster care. She says that a cut to the state match “would be disastrous for the city and the child welfare system, including Fair Futures.”

In response to an inquiry from City Limits, Kaufman said that ACS is also “very concerned” about the proposal to “once again” cut the state’s match for prevention services. “We will be working with the Mayor’s Office, our colleagues, advocates and the legislature to do all we can do [to] fight it.”

Advocates are also worried about potential funding for other city services for young people this year. Summer youth programs faced significant cuts last year, and organizations that administer many of these programs didn’t know if and how much funding they’d receive until summer programs were about to start. If the state does in fact end up reducing the match for counties’ child welfare services, vital resources beyond just Fair Futures would be impacted.

“We know that kids are experiencing multiple traumas at this time. They’re disconnected from school and friends. In certain households, they’ve not only lost income, but lost loved ones,” says March. For the state to now cut funding to child welfare services, she says, is “counterintuitive at a time when kids and families are struggling. You want to actually protect flexible funding that allows people to strengthen families and keep kids out of foster care.”

*Editor’s note: City Limits is withholding Daniel’s full name to protect his privacy.

This article is part of a series on youth behavioral health, supported by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.