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'A life and death issue.' Missouri about to let young man with autism become homeless

Kansas City Star - 2/21/2021

Feb. 21—The young man living in Missouri foster care soon will turn 21.

And when his birthday comes around in days, unless circumstances change, he will become homeless. Left to live without any adult supervision, to get by on his own without the structure and protection a group home in the Kansas City area has provided him for the past four years.

But this young man, whose mother brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was a kid, isn't your typical foster care child about to age out of the system. He has severe autism, doesn't speak and needs help to eat and put on his clothes.

"He's functioning at an infant level of development," said Lori Ross, a long-time child advocate and founder of FosterAdopt Connect. "It's cold outside and he's not a person who has any capacity to care for himself. ... It's actually a life and death issue."

That's why, for the past two weeks, Ross has been working the phones and talking to state and federal officials trying to make sure the young man — whose name and all identifying information are private because he's in the custody of the state — doesn't end up on the streets.

But she said she's yet to break through the bureaucracy of it all — despite a new federal law passed in late December that instructed states not to release any child during the pandemic just because they've reached a certain age.

Ross said the issue, aside from the failure to immediately implement the new law in Missouri, is that the young man wasn't born in the United States. Because of that, officials have told Ross that he can not continue to receive state services.

"He has an immigration lawyer working on his case but he still doesn't have legal residency," Ross said. "This means that state agencies who normally serve people with his issues are saying he can't get services until he has legal status."

But Ross and other advocates struggle to understand that, saying that where the young man was born shouldn't have anything to do with him getting critical services to survive.

Advocates also say they can not fathom how Missouri could cut off his services as a foster child after the federal law passed late last year basically put a moratorium on kids aging out during the pandemic. That law stipulates that a state may not require a youth in foster care to leave the system before Oct. 1 based solely on that child's age.

A spokeswoman with the Missouri Department of Social Services said the federal government told states to seek further guidance on the new legislation if needed. Officials in the Show-Me state sought that guidance "shortly after passage of the law," said Rebecca Woelfel, a DSS spokeswoman, who said she could not discuss details of a specific case.

"The State of Missouri has asked questions as to the ability to implement the provisions of the Act and is awaiting further guidance and program instructions," Woelfel said. Missouri law limits the state's ability to "maintain jurisdiction" over a child's care once custody ends, she said.

Celeste Bodner, executive director of FosterClub, a national network of young people in foster care, said all children nearing the end of their time in state custody should be protected as the nation fights the coronavirus. Advocates and foster care children across the country fought for that, she said.

Some states have moved ahead and made plans to support aging out kids through the pandemic while others are waiting on clarity from the federal government.

Kathy Rodgers, director of the Jackson County Office of the Guardian ad Litem, which represents the interests of children in court, said in general that she doesn't understand the need for that. The law is clear, she said.

"My concern is this was implemented on Dec. 27, 2020," Rodgers said. "Why has the state (of Missouri) still not come up with any regulations about what this means for the youth? Because I'm sure there are dozens of kids across the state that turned 21 in the fall of last year or are about ready to turn 21, are we going to wait for the regulations to be put in place until after it's going to be meaningless?"

Also, Rodgers said, the Children's Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent out an overview of the law on Jan. 13 giving states guidance on what to do.

"So I'm thinking if I'm the Children's Bureau I would say, 'Well, we gave you guidance. We issued this six-page memo on Jan. 13.'"

States like Missouri should not have to wait for any additional information or assistance on this specific provision, Bodner said.

"The new law specifically states that a child may not be ineligible for foster care maintenance payments solely due to the age of the child during this pandemic period," she said.

And it shouldn't matter where the child was born, Bodner said.

"Frankly, our child welfare system serves all children who are in this country," Bodner said. "So this law makes no distinction about whether or not a child's legal immigration status should impact their ability to stay in care."

At some point, the young man's mother lost custody of him after allegations of abuse or neglect. For the past four years, he's been living in a group home licensed by the Missouri Department of Mental Health. His mother is still unable to care for him.

The youth who will turn 21 in just days is exactly the kind of child the new law should protect, advocates said.

"The idea that now the slow mechanics of the child welfare system would not be delivering the support and resources needed to exactly who that law was passed for, is more than disappointing," Bodner said. "... I think it's unethical and immoral that that is being allowed to happen."

Typically, when a child with severe disabilities gets close to aging out of the foster care system, he or she is referred for an adult guardianship, said Renae Adamson, managing attorney with the Jackson County Office of the Guardian ad Litem.

"That way they can stay within their placement," she said. "That is supposed to be the continuum of services for children with severe disabilities. Basically it's a kind of custody change.

"For most of those kids, there is not a real change in their day-to-day life. Their change is in paperwork and who is paying what."

When a child is in the custody of the Children's Division, DSS pays for his or her care. Once the child with severe disabilities ages out of foster care, services typically are picked up and provided by the Department of Mental Health, area child welfare experts say.

But when the child is not a documented U.S. citizen, what happens after a youth ages out isn't that easy, people in and around the child welfare system say.

In an email response to questions from The Star, a spokeswoman with the mental health department said she could not discuss a specific case. But she did describe general practice.

"The Department of Mental Health (DMH) does provide services to individuals who age out of foster care if they meet the eligibility requirements of Medicaid waiver funding," said Debra Walker, DMH's director of public and legislative affairs, without elaborating. "The services provided are determined by the specific needs of each individual according to the unique circumstances of their status."

When asked to address concerns that this young man, who wasn't born in the U.S. and is about to age out of care, may become homeless, Walker said: "DMH is collaborating with DSS on available state resources."

Ross set up a fund for the young man and the community has helped raise enough money to pay for one month of his care. What she hopes now is that state officials and others can figure out how to help him and provide the services that it has to other children with severe disabilities.

Then, Ross said, money raised by the community can go into a fund for him and his future.

"If a kid in this circumstance was an American kid, none of this would be an issue," Ross said. "Unless people will step up and do what they need to do, this kid is probably going to be dropped off at City Union Mission."


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