For Foster Youths at Calif. Universities, Procedural Snags Delay Crucial Chafee Benefits

by John Kelly

Federal dollars meant to assist California foster youths with college are being held up by an unsigned agreement between two state agencies, leaving financially strapped students with a $2,500 hole as they returned to classes this month.

The federal Educational and Training Vouchers (ETV), a supplement to the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program that is matched with state funds each year, are a critical support for college students who will soon lose the financial supports of the foster care system as they age out into adulthood.

“They use it for basic needs,” said Michael McPartlin, program coordinator for the Guardian Scholars Program at the City College of San Francisco, a program that was established at the University of California-Fullerton in 1998 to assist foster youths and has expanded to 20 colleges in five states.

“Rent in a high rental cost city, child care – we’ve got a number of single moms in our program – and food,” said McPartlin. “It’s not very exotic, it’s just basic needs.”

One of his students faced a rent increase of $600 when he moved from transitional to subsidized housing. The student could not make it without his ETV check, which would have been $2,500 for the fall semester, and was evicted.

The execution of ETV grants is a shared responsibility of two agencies in California: the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC).

DSS receives California’s allotment of the $45 million Educational and Training Vouchers Program (ETV) from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which supplements the $140 million John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. DSS also sets policy on which students are eligible for ETV funds.

CSAC then receives the funds from DSS, and distributes ETV funds of up to $5,000 per year, per youth, for post-secondary education and training for eligible youth.

In the past, the Student Aid Commission and DSS had poor procedures in place to efficiently determine eligibility and get checks into the hands of students who needed help with housing, tuition and textbooks.

“Years ago, it was still a paper driven application process,” McPartlin said. “Youth had to prove they were in foster care, DSS wasn’t even using its own database.”

The two agencies developed an interagency agreement aimed at better facilitating the vouchers. The agreement expired, and a new three-year agreement was written to govern the program through 2015.

Completion of the agreement was delayed until early August because the state had not finalized a realignment of child welfare funding, according to Weston.

“What does anything about [realignment] have to do with an interagency agreement about these grants?” McPartlin said when he was informed of the reason. “Nothing’s changed around that.”

By Aug. 9, a letter from DSS to CSAC said that it planned to approve the agreement as “expeditiously as possible,” according to CSAC spokesman Ed Emerson.

The problem is, neither side has put a signature on the agreement. Emerson told The Chronicle on Thursday that it had approved the agreement, and had announced award amounts based on anticipated funding for ETV.

“We’ve got our foot on the gas,” said CSAC Spokesman Ed Emerson. “We’re just waiting for DSS to send official paperwork on the interagency agreement.”

But, Emerson said, CSAC would not distribute funds to students until the agreement is signed and the money is transferred to them from DSS.

DSS spokesman Michael Weston told The Chronicle on Friday that DSS had that very day approved the agreement. According to Weston, it was then sent to CSAC for a signature; once CSAC signed off, DSS would do the same.

Weston said he expected both signatures to be on the agreement by early next week. Once both agencies have signed the agreement, Weston said, the state Department of General Services had between two and eight business days to approve the agreement.

California has received nearly $72 million in federal funds for Chafee Educational Training Vouchers since 2003.

Typically, McPartlin said, 3,000 youth statewide are deemed eligible but because the funding cannot accommodate all them, about 2,000 will receive vouchers.

The state received about $8.5 million each year in the early years of the program; it received $6.5 million in 2010, $6.3 million in 2011 and $6.2 million in 2012.

-John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change