Jackson County: On August 13, 2021, Jackson County Circuit Judge Jalilah Otto ordered the state of Missouri to allow a young woman who aged out of foster care during the pandemic to re-enter foster care, as required by the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act signed by former President Trump last December. The ACLU of Missouri and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri sued on behalf of one eligible youth to enforce Missouri’s obligations to her and other youth in her position, but the court’s decision neither provides relief for the estimated hundreds of youth unlawfully expelled from care by the Children’s Division nor requires Missouri to meet its obligations to facilitate re-entry by other eligible youth.

In January of 2021, an attorney assisting the client requested information from the Department of Social Services and its Children's Division on how the client could re-enter foster care. The Children’s Division responded that it was awaiting federal guidance. On January 13, 2021, the United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children, Youth, and Families issued guidance on state implementation.  After multiple attempts, the client was not re-entered into foster care, and the state terminated its assistance.  Even now -- more than seven months after the awaited guidance, no Missouri state agency or department has even taken the initial step of making youth discharged from foster care after April 1, 2020, aware of their right to return to foster care.

The COVID-19 public health emergency has been incredibly stressful for families involved with child welfare, particularly youth and young adults transitioning out of the foster care system. The Delta variant is ravaging the state, and Governor Parson has declared Missouri under a state of emergency. Unfortunately, despite Missouri having received over 10 million dollars in federal money to assist in implementing the program, the state has ignored its obligations. This failure not only defies the Trump-signed law designed to protect vulnerable youth, it leaves hundreds of Missouri’s most unprotected without the support they need to survive during a global pandemic and economic downturn.

The Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act provides state, tribal, and county child welfare agencies with time-limited resources to respond to the needs of youth and young adults under the age of 27 who spent time in foster care after the age of 14.

 Under this provision, states are to:

1.  Permit any youth who left foster care due to age during the COVID-19 public health emergency to re-enter foster care voluntarily.

 2. Provide to each such youth who was formally discharged from foster care during the COVID-19 public health emergency a notice designed to make the youth aware of the option to return to foster care.  

 3. Facilitate the voluntary return of any such youth to foster care.

4. Conduct a public awareness campaign about the option to voluntarily re-enter foster care for youth who have not attained 22 years of age, who aged out of foster care in fiscal year 2020 or fiscal year 2021, and who are otherwise eligible to return to foster care.

Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri: Former President Trump signed the bipartisan Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act, recognizing that young people aging out of foster care during a pandemic will face true hardship. Unfortunately, the former President’s compassion is more than any Missouri official can muster. Instead, Missouri continues to break its obligation to provide assistance to Missouri’s most vulnerable despite taking federal funds for that purpose. They provide no real excuse or justification -- just hubris. Missouri is eight months late in providing youth in need with the relief they are entitled to while wasting no time spending pandemic funds on pet projects designed to promote their political ambitions. No one in the Missouri government is doing anything for hundreds of youth entitled to this assistance.  

Amanda Schneider, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri: Our client’s situation underscores how important it is to get this relief -- which has been available for months -- actually into the hands of others in similar positions. While we are grateful that Judge Otto recognized Missouri's obligation to provide for our client. Youth should not need to have an attorney to receive the benefits to which they are entitled under federal law.

We have learned that the Department of Social Services now claims that it is complying with the federal law and has provided assistance to foster children and former foster children that have applied. The Department is not complying with federal law and the assistance it has provided falls woefully short of what the federal law requires.

Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri: There is no disputing Missouri has refused to allow re-entry to foster care, continued to push out of foster care those youth eligible to continue, and failed to tell anyone of their right to remain in foster care. While some eligible youth have been provided a small, one-time payment, none are offered what the federal law mandates, including a monthly stipend and other benefits— all paid for by federal funds. Nobody other than those looking to be fooled is falling for the Department's dishonest bait-and-switch.