The Annie E. Casey Foundation released its 2020 Kids Count Data Book this summer, in which it detailed the well-being of children throughout the United States. Overall, the data showed positive trends with more parents economically secure, more teens graduating from college and more children of all ages covered by insurance. In Pennsylvania which ranked 20th in the country for child well-being, the data showed fewer children in poverty and fewer households with a high cost of living burden, for example.
However, it is important to note that this data was pulled from 2018, and even if it had been true for 2020 prior to the pandemic, the trends likely aren’t as positive now. COVID-19 has impacted all facets of life but particularly (outside of physical health) employment and income. In Pennsylvania alone, nearly 2 million new unemployment claims have been filed since March 15. Without steady employment, other aspects of well-being are affected as well, such as insurance coverage, the cost of living burden and education. Even with safety nets, such as CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), the process of applying and obtaining coverage after losing private insurance could result in a gap - a potentially costly gap during a pandemic.
With that in mind, what should the takeaways be from the Kids Count Data Book? The data is still relevant. It shows that as a state and a country we are making progress in promoting and maintaining children’s well-being, while also highlighting areas that need to be worked on. And it demonstrates the holistic nature of well-being. It’s not just physical health but rather a host of different parts of life that make up the well-being of one person.
Thinking, then, of COVID-19, we can look at the data book as a guide to what we need to focus on and help rebuild during and after the pandemic. Like all of us, children have been affected by COVID-19, and it is a part of our job - as community members and adults - to help mitigate the impact.
For most of us, the past four months have been laced with frustration, stress and maybe even panic. These emotions are reasonable and justified; our daily routines have been upended, and it does not seem like the world will be returning to normal anytime soon. But this COVID-19 world won’t last forever, either.
With the mindset that this state is temporary, it is important to try to think about what quarantine gives to us. We suddenly have the unique opportunity to develop habits and attitudes that can ultimately make our post-pandemic lives better. Typically, we live in a stimulation-heavy world and often find ourselves searching for somewhere better to be. Many establishments, however, are still closed or not safe yet, so going somewhere else in search of summer fun is not an option. Learning to be more present with friends, family or just yourself is an invaluable tool that leads to greater satisfaction and happiness in the long run.
One way to do this is to look to your own yard for entertainment. Maybe learn how to plant a garden by yourself or with your kids. Nature will always be around us despite whatever stressors are thrown our way, and engaging with the outdoors can be grounding and calming. Another way is to get creative in the kitchen. Cooking can be a uniting activity, and everyone in the household can get involved or just appreciate the end product.
Now is the time to pick up projects and activities we normally wouldn’t think of doing or have time to do in our normal past routines. Take advantage of this change-up, and discover the gift that is finding joy where you are.
This year, many of us are mourning the loss of our summer vacations, as they are cancelled out of caution, due to state closures or because of travel bans. In doing so, we are finding out just how valuable those trips were to us. They introduced us to new places and people while allowing us time to recharge.
Our lack of vacationing may seem unique to 2020, but for many - particularly for youth in foster care - going on vacation is the actual rarity. Few, if any, youth in foster care get to experience a vacation in their childhood. Their foster families either don’t take trips or send the youth to respite homes for the duration of their travel. Those in group homes can expect to see the weekend or backup house parents in place of their primary guardians.
Once youth age out of care, vacations may be equally as rare. Only an estimated 3% of foster care youth earn college degrees. Without a bachelor’s degree, employment options are limited and wages even more so. Vacations and even staycations become an unattainable luxury.
The RJ Leonard Foundation aims to change that, by helping youth transitioning out of care earn their degrees and start toward a career of success, and by making the needed luxury of vacations a reality when possible.
RJLF helped its Fellows take trips to Thailand, California and across the country in 2018 after its Dare to Dream initiative highlighted Enriching Experiences. We look forward to doing so again once travel is safe. Click here to find out more about Dare to Dream, RJLF and how you can help.
Thanks, in part, to the romanticized versions of summer camp found in TV and movies, many view it as a luxury - a fun experience that parents enroll their children in to help facilitate a magical childhood and soon-to-be nostalgic memories. But the truth of the matter is summer camp - whether sleep-away or day - is a necessity for most parents. Very few jobs have the summers off and even fewer professionals can afford to take them off if they do. (An estimated 1 in 6 teachers have second jobs year round.)
Summer camp/care is a much needed childcare service, keeping children of all ages not just entertained but safe from June through August. This year it feels particularly necessary. Children have been home since March with limited, if any, access to their friends. Parents - unless deemed essential - have been home, as well, trying to work, and educate/care for their children at the same time. Camp is a haven for both - time out of the house for the kids and time to work for the parents.
However, it also seems risky. After months closed off to the world, is it safe to send children to camp even if it’s outdoors? Will temperature checks, hand washing, smaller cohorts and masks on staff be enough to keep kids healthy? And is it affordable? Many have lost their jobs or seen reduced hours and pay since the pandemic started. Summer camps range from $100 to $500+ a week. That means a few thousand dollars per summer, per child (more than the stimulus checks sent out in April).
This decision, particularly this year, will weigh heavily on parents, including many of our Fellows. How do you choose when the wellbeing of the child, the parent, the family and the community don’t necessarily align?
If you Google the word “resilience”, article upon article of research and commentary will pop up. Lots of “How to’s” emerge on the screen displaying strategies to build resilience. These articles seem to provide access to wisdom at the click of a button, theoretically equipping people with the necessary tools to be resilient in the face of adversity.
This wealth of information, however, can be misleading. It is unrealistic to assume that young adults, particularly those transitioning out of foster care, can successfully cope with adversity on their own simply by throwing the word resilience on a screen in front of them and/or attaching the word to them as a population. Resilience involves managing trauma by truly acknowledging and experiencing the trauma without crumbling underneath it. Guidance and support is necessary to adopt better thoughts and behaviors and learn how to be resilient. Relying on the concept of resiliency does not equal a life free from struggle.
Youth aging out of the foster care system constantly deal with unimaginable stressors, and they often face these circumstances alone. The pandemic further introduces intense challenges and adversity for them, as it does for many of us. Now is the time to help youth learn about and cultivate resilience. As a potential guiding force, you can help to convert these negative situations into opportunities.
Click here to learn more about Mentorship and ways you can play an active role in making a resilient foundation possible for others.
It is estimated that 4 to 10% of individuals in the United States identify as LGBTQ+. However, nearly 20% of youth in foster care do, indicating that the LGBTQ+ population is significantly overrepresented within child welfare. For many of these youth, their birth families are unable or unwilling to provide safe homes for them. Some are kicked out of the house while others face abuse in all forms from their family members. In fact, it has been found that “an estimated 43% of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness are forced from their homes because of conflicts with their families about their sexual orientation or gender identity; 32% of homeless LGBTQ youth have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at home over their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Unfortunately, the traumas these youth face at home typically do not end when they enter foster care. Youth who are LGBTQ+ report facing verbal and physical abuse because of their gender or sexual identity. Additionally, according to the Human Rights Campaign, 78% of LGBTQ+ youth have been removed or left their foster care placement because of hostility toward their identity.
This Pride Month (and every month after), we must put more intentional effort into being and doing better for youth who are LGBTQ+. Whether with their birth family or in a foster home, safety and stability should be considered the foundation of wellbeing, not an unattainable goal.
Humans have evolved to crave human contact through social interaction, but the COVID-19 world makes it hard to satisfy this need. Unable to see each other face to face, we turn to online platforms instead, like Zoom. And while Zoom may be satisfying our need to keep in touch, it's hardly satisfying our need for human touch.
Worse, our brains are actually having to work harder on Zoom, as natural body language clues for interpretation are missing. It is causing us to be impatient, cranky, and brain-tired. Add in the lack of deep connection offered by Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and we are all just craving human interaction, touch, and authentic connections.
Life in quarantine deprives us of the human connection we crave, but certain communities constantly struggle with an absent support system, before, after and during COVID-19. Youth aging out of foster care, for example, often live in a state of loneliness with limited connection to community, friends and family. When their lives are upended by neglect or abuse as children, they are taken into foster care and their primary contacts become social workers, lawyers and case workers. Their friends come into their lives and leave their lives more frequently than we can ever imagine.
Our mental health is suffering as a result of this pandemic, but the mental health of a young adult in foster care will suffer long after we are back to work and back to life in the post COVID-19 world. click here to learn more about Mentorship and ways you can stay connected with all members of your community.
The pandemic has skyrocketed unemployment rates, with more than 42 million Americans newly out of work or underemployed as a result. While all industries have been affected and employees at even the highest levels face layoffs or reduced pay/hours, certain sectors and groups of individuals have been affected disproportionately. This is particularly true for young adults (ages 18-24) without postsecondary degrees.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than 6.5 million young adults in low-wage jobs did not have and were not pursuing a post-secondary degree prior to the pandemic. Nearly half of them were working in industries heavily impacted by the statewide lockdowns. Think restaurants, hotels, retailers.
This means that millions of young adults are currently out of work, likely without savings. It’s hard to put anything away when you’re making the average of $10.22 per hour, or worse Pennsylvania’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. And there is no guarantee that those jobs will come back. Many restaurants and retailers, including the big chains, won’t reopen. Those that do may be forced to restructure how they deliver services. That could mean fewer employees.
Now more than ever it is apparent that we must - as a society - examine the opportunities available to young people. We must address not only the inadequacy of pay in many employment sectors but also the accessibility of postsecondary degrees. While young adults with postsecondary degrees also face unemployment right now, their chances of recovery are greater.
The coronavirus has given us the opportunity to examine the structure of our society and the inequities and disparities within it. Now, we must take the next steps to find and create the solutions to help repair it.
Though it may feel like it, the coronavirus has not stopped everything, including time. The clock still ticks toward new days and, more importantly, new birthdays. While some may welcome a celebratory distraction, many transition-age youth in foster care and related programs view their birthdays with a heightened sense of anxiety. They face aging out of their safety nets at a time when little is available to them, from jobs to education.
Such is the case for one of RJLF’s newest Fellows. Ana is currently in an aftercare program through Tabor Children Services that subsidizes her rent. When she turns 21 in June, Ana will no longer receive financial assistance and will be on her own for all of her bills. Though she has been working diligently to prepare for this transition, the COVID-19 lockdowns set her back.
We asked Ana to share with us what it’s been like as a transition-age youth through the coronavirus pandemic. See below.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but how exactly does that work when the village is at least 6 feet away or, even more likely, online only?
The lockdowns put in place over the last few months have closed schools, daycares, playgrounds and just about anywhere else a child might go outside of their home. While this could lead to more, often coveted together time for families, it also means parents are taking on new challenges. Many continue to work full and part-time jobs from home while also helping to facilitate online learning for school-age kids and/or wrangling young children throughout the day.
Then, you add in emotional well-being. Cut off from grandparents, teachers and friends, kids are trying to comprehend what’s going on and how to get by without a significant portion of their support system. Depending on their age, they might understand too little or too much. And yes, there are resources aplenty to help talk to kids about COVID-19, but it is still difficult for parents to do so, particularly as they attempt to take care of themselves. Remember, no matter the age, we are all struggling.
To top it all off, there’s coronavirus. But, enough about that.
All this to say, pandemic-era parenting is a new kind of balancing act with unprecedented responsibilities and waves of emotion from guilt to exhaustion to contentment to gratitude.
If you are a parent - as many of us at the R. J. Leonard Foundation are - you’re not alone.
This is hard.