This article was originally published in UKNow.
For more than 9,000 foster youth in Kentucky, finding a stable home has never been more challenging.
In recent years, social services have struggled with rising caseloads, shrinking staff and budget cuts. Meanwhile, rates of child abuse and neglect remain high.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on vulnerable populations, including the child welfare sector.
Holding true to their mission to improve the lives of all Kentuckians, the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky is launching the Pandemic Support Response Initiative (PSRI). Funded by $3.9 million in federal pandemic relief dollars, PSRI will serve as a resource connector for foster youth across the Commonwealth.
“Without question, the pandemic has significantly impacted social services and those receiving services,” Jay Miller, dean of the CoSW, said. “This programmatic initiative will allow us to alleviate the impact for young people in and from foster care in a way that is efficient and effective.”
The Challenges Facing Foster Youth
From financial hardships and employment issues to access to mental health and wellness resources, the pandemic has been particularly difficult for foster youth transitioning into adulthood.
Many rely on multiple jobs to ensure financial stability, including Tamara Vest.
The Lexington native earned a bachelor’s degree from the CoSW in 2020 and is currently pursuing a master’s in social work. As a former foster youth who left the system at 17, Vest knows what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet.
“I relied on my income to support myself. However, my job closed during the first months of the pandemic and unemployment resources were hardly enough to cover food — let alone my rent,” she said. “I still fear that everything I’ve worked for could be taken away from me in a matter of seconds.”
There is an array of services and resources designed to assist youth in foster care as they work toward self-sufficiency. But the ability to access support is extremely limited, at best.
Vest is just one of many young adults who “aged out” of foster care with limited connections and without the support of positive, caring adults — until she became a member of the UK family.
“Regardless of age, you never outgrow the need for someone to care about you.”
UK Social Work Continues to Be Part of the Solution
Now, help will be just a phone call away.
PRSI will support current and former foster youth by connecting them with resources to develop and attain employment skills, sustainable housing and mental and behavioral health services.
One aspect of the program is a peer-run call center that offers callers a real-time, one-on-one consultation for young people seeking to access needed resources.
Dean Miller says this is just one way the college hopes to alleviate some of the burden the pandemic has put on foster youth across Kentucky. “Veritably, COVID-19 has negatively impacted us all. But foster youth and alumni have been particularly affected,” he explained. “This initiative will connect young people with the resources and information they so desperately need.”
To learn more about the Foster Care Pandemic Support Initiative, please call 859-562-0182 or email COVIDrelief@uky.edu.