Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Never too old to open your heart to a child

Single mom who became a banker to raise a large brood reaches golden years. But she's not retiring. She's adopting.
Edward Guthmann. San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, Calif.:Aug 17, 2006. p. E.1

When Kit Cole decided to adopt a baby at 64, her children, all in their 30s and 40s, were anything but enthusiastic. "They said, 'You're right at a place where you can enjoy all the fruits of your labor. Why do you want to have an infant in your life? You'll never have any rest; you'll have to be dragging him around.' "

Cole saw their logic: A successful investment adviser and banker, she had built companies, developed real estate projects and broken the mold for community financial institutions by offering her customers children's play areas, Internet access and cozy furniture at Tamalpais Bank in Mill Valley, which she founded. It was time to chill. Travel. Spend time with her 11 grandchildren.

All of those arguments might have held sway if the 1-month-old boy, Nathaniel, wasn't the child of Cole's grandniece. "She called me to see if I could help her," Cole says in her spacious home at Strawberry Point in Mill Valley. "She and her partner, the father, are homeless meth addicts. They live in Sacramento and the county of Sacramento took the child away from them."

Cole testified in court in February 2005, and agreed to take Nathaniel while her grandniece went to rehab -- so he wouldn't be lost to an unreliable foster-care system. "I thought it was going to be temporary," she says. "I was just taking him so he would be protected while she got on her feet. But that never happened. Guess who came to dinner to stay?"

Nathaniel, now called Luke, is taking his morning nap in the nursery. He's 18 months old, has no concept of the huge leap from his parents' reduced lives -- of Dumpster diving, scoring speed, sleeping by the Sacramento River -- to the queenlike home provided by his adoptive mom.

"This was a chance to break the chain," Cole says. "Luke's parents are homeless, his grandparents were homeless -- so he would be third-generation homeless. It's a harsh thing for these children. You see it and you think, 'I want to fix it. I want to help.' "

Outside, Luke's half-brother and sister, Wesley and Valencia, are playing in Cole's tile-lined pool. The children of Luke's mother and another father, they're part of Sacramento County's foster-care system -- they've had three homes in the last year -- and frequently come for weeklong visits with their baby brother.

"They're just darling children," Cole says of Wesley and Valencia. "I've looked at them and I've thought, 'I'll adopt these children.' And that thought tempts me."

If she does, that would make 13 altogether. At 27, Cole was divorced with five children younger than 7. At 31, she remarried and acquired five stepchildren. The second marriage ended, but Cole, whose energy seems boundless and whose outlook is resolutely positive, has kept close contact with most of them.

The 5-foot-tall grandmother, who was raised in Oakland, says she went into banking because it paid the bills better than other professions.

When Luke came to live with Cole, he'd been living in a foster home and had respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a respiratory disease often fatal in infants. "He was so sick he could hardly breathe. The pediatrician told me to put him into Marin General Hospital ICU, which is where he was the next 10 days."

Luke was born with marijuana and methamphetamines in his system, Cole says, but so far is developing normally with no signs of brain impairment. Still, emotional connection came slowly: "For the first year, it was very difficult for Luke to bond. He'd been abandoned and it takes time to get over that trauma. Now, I see he has made that shift ... he's got lots of energy and he's much more expressive than he was when I first got him."

It takes no effort to get Cole talking. Forthright, focused, she makes a point of plugging Lilliput Children's Services, a Sacramento- and San Leandro-based nonprofit that places children with adoptive parents. She also describes a system she devised when Luke was still an infant, of combining work and childrearing.

"He'd been through this horrific experience, so I didn't want to leave him with a caregiver." So she took him to work every day at Epic Bancorp (the holding company for Epic Wealth Management and Tamalpais Bank). "And in my office, I'd put his bed and all his little playthings. I was still meeting with clients then" -- she recently retired as chief executive officer of Epic Bancorp, and now serves as executive chairman -- "so for six or seven months, he was actually raised by a community of my office.

"The men and the women both pitched in and took care of him if I had to be some place. The men would carry him up and down the stairs."

Cole has an open adoption -- meaning Luke's parents are free to visit. When I ask how the mother feels about her son's privileged life, she answers slowly. "I think she realizes that he has opportunities here that she would never be able to provide him. Both she and her partner have expressed how appreciative they are that I'm caring for him.

"When we had an adoption ceremony here, we thanked them for Luke and we acknowledged the fact that they were going to grieve." Cole breaks off here for a moment, fighting back tears.
"It was very emotional for me, because I understand what it's like - I mean, I can see how sad that might be that they've lost their child. And then there's grief because Luke has lost his birth mother and father and even if he has an open adoption, he'll have to deal with that all his life."

Marshaling the energy to care for a toddler -- lifting, feeding, diapering -- isn't a problem because Cole has two women, sisters, who care for Luke 12 hours a day. Still, she's mindful of the fact that she'll be in her 80s when Luke hits his teens, and says that's become an incentive for her to stay healthy and vigorous.

"I'm going to have this child in my life until I die." Beyond that, "I have a big family, so he's now got a big, extended family. If I'm not here, they will be here."

When she got the call from her grandniece, Cole recalls, "I knew I couldn't leave Luke in foster care. That's not part of my fact set; that would be unimaginable to me. I want to make a contribution in this world. And I can make it by either donating money or services to somebody, or I can make it by taking this child and creating a life for him that he wouldn't have if it weren't for my intervention.

"It's like a daily tithe. I'm not sending a check maybe to Hurricane Katrina, but I'm tithing myself every day as I take care of this child."

The contrast with her old life, with her 35 years as a driven businesswoman, amazes her: "You know, you're going from developing a strategic plan or taking your company public, and you're coming home to a goo-goo, ga-ga baby, changing diapers and dealing with that. It's a reality check.

"So, it's a good thing. I'm glad I did it and I think what I would like to see personally are other people doing the same thing."

Friday, August 18, 2006

NBA star goal to have all his siblings under one roof

A grown man taking care of business.
Scott Ostler. San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, Calif.:Aug 17, 2006. p. D.1

Caption: Leon Powe is using his NBA money to benefit the community and to help take care of his six brothers and sisters.

E-mail Scott Ostler at sostler@sfchronicle.com
For information on Powe's camp, for players ages 7-18, call (925) 969-3432.

Leon Powe is already out blowing his NBA money.
He's taking care of back-to-school expenses for his six siblings, ages 6 to 20.

He's traveling to basketball camps to prepare himself for his rookie season with the Boston Celtics.

He's kicking in the dough for a free kids basketball camp he'll hold next month at Merritt College.

He's jet-setting. He flew to Colorado to personally thank Dr. Richard Steadman for doing such a great job rebuilding his knee.

Powe and mentor/friend Bernard Ward are founding an agency to place foster children and group-home children in top-flight schools.

Powe regularly springs for lunch for the two or three guys who try desperately to keep up with him at his workouts.

No new car yet. Leon is driving his brother's car. "It's good on gas," Powe says.

And of course there's jewelry. Powe is having a jeweler spiff up his entire collection, which consists of a necklace with a tiny photograph of his late mother.

So Powe's life has been one big party since he signed with the Celtics.

Powe and I are talking one recent afternoon at Cal when his good friend and workout sidekick Vincent Powell arrives for a weight- lifting session. Powe tells Powell that I asked Leon if he has taken any time to relax and celebrate the draft and signing.

Powell laughs himself nearly out of his chair. He's been chasing Powe up Strawberry Canyon and along Baker Beach and around the gym and weight room all summer.

Leon and Vince have their hearty laugh at my expense, and Powe says, "I don't really kick back too much. Work out and go eat, that's about it, that's all we do."

A quick outline of Powe's schedule since being drafted in the second round (No. 49 overall) by the Nuggets, being traded to the Celtics and signing a two-year guaranteed contract for $400,000- plus per:

-Six weeks of hard-core workouts at Baker Beach with other Bay Area players. Some were occasional drop-ins; Powe made every session.
- Working out at Cal, shooting and lifting weights.
- Working out with the Celtics and playing summer league (Powe's five-game averages: 15 minutes, 46 percent field-goal shooting, 3.6 rebounds, 6.6 points).
- Workouts and scrimmages at the Warriors' headquarters.
- Runs up Berkeley's Strawberry Canyon.
- NBA camp in Las Vegas, where he scrimmaged with and sought the advice of stars like Jermaine O'Neal and Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

"That's Leon Powe," says Ward. "Run, lift and shoot."

Powe's money is guaranteed. Not guaranteed are a spot on the Celtics roster, playing time and respect. That stuff will have to be earned.

But it's not like Powe has never scuffled. Fatherless at 2, homeless at 7, eventually into the foster system. His mother, Connie Landry, died when he was a high school junior. He's had two major knee reconstructions.

So there is no cruise control for Powe.

"You just got to keep working hard, there ain't nothing else about it," Powe says. "It ain't cars, it ain't money, it ain't none of that. This is a dream come true, you get to play in the NBA, you want to be the best player you can be. I know I do."

Of this NBA rookie crop, Powe is the mystery man. His stardom at Cal (Pac-10 Freshman of the Year; conference scoring and rebounding leader as a sophomore) was built mainly on his inside power game.

The NBA is a bigger, meaner place. Experts don't agree on Powe's future, and those on the "nay" side say he's too short to dominate inside, and lacks a perimeter game and finesse skills.
Best case: He's the next Ben Wallace. Not-best case: He's Ike Diogu without the glitzy offensive tool belt.

Not to worry, say Powe and Ward.

"Leon's got a jumper," Ward says. "He just didn't have to display that ... at Cal."

Powe says he did fine against NBAers in summer games and at the Vegas camp.

And while the ideal power forward is two or three inches taller than Powe, he says he has added at least three inches to his vertical jump since last season. And he's still working.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers has Powe's number. He told Leon to watch himself and not work out too hard before camp opens.

Leon doesn't kick back, he kicks forward. Ward says he and Powe are working on a plan to eventually collect all of Leon's brothers and sisters, five of whom are in foster care, under one roof. Powe says he wants to be the family and community role model he didn't have as a kid. He says he eventually will earn his degree from Cal.

"My mom told me to finish," Powe says. "I gotta carry that out."

Ward says Rivers and Celtics general manager Danny Ainge already have a nickname for Powe.
"They call him 'The Grown Man.' "

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Editorial regarding accountability for California foster care

State must finish job of reforming foster care
Mercury News Editorial

California is poised to enact $83 million in foster-care reform legislation that should be cause for jubilation throughout the state.

But hold off on the celebratory champagne.

The linchpin of the package, Assemblywoman Karen Bass' AB 2216, remains in limbo. Her bold bill, which is not costly, is the essential piece needed to bring accountability to foster care throughout the state.

Bass is calling for the creation of a single foster-care agency that would oversee the lives of the state's 75,000 foster children. The idea is to provide a go-to department that would be accountable for foster children's welfare and would be a strong institutional advocate for their needs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves kudos for making sure the state's budget includes sufficient funds to pay for the bipartisan package of bills that will pay for more social workers to work with foster children, encourage relatives to step up and help care for children who would otherwise have to be placed in foster homes, and offer housing and financial aid grants to foster children with the interest and ability to attend college.

But without Bass' bill, social workers will still need to navigate the state's complex education, health and court systems to obtain records for each child. And the state's foster children run the risk of continuing to be neglected, as they have been for the past two decades.

This reform is necessary because nearly one in every four foster children experiences homelessness as a child. Fewer than 2 percent graduate from college and 50 percent of former foster children don't graduate from high school and are currently unemployed. Worst of all, one out of every four foster children is incarcerated, which needlessly creates an additional burden for state taxpayers.

When the state assumes responsibility of foster children, we all become their collective parents. By supporting Bass' AB 2216, Californians can demonstrate they no longer wish to abdicate their parenting responsibility and are willing to accept their role as advocates for some of the state's most vulnerable children.

Does dog ownership constitute child endangerment?

Ruling allows S.F. child put in foster care because of pit bulls to go home
News Channel 3: ABC


A San Francisco woman who lost her son to foster care because of pit bulls in the family home is getting her son back.

During a hearing yesterday in the juvenile division of San Francisco Superior Court, a commissioner ruled that seven-year-old Andrew Louie could return to live with his mother, Valerie Louie.

The child had been removed from the home in December because social workers feared the dogs posed a threat.

In making the ruling, Louie says the commissioner stipulated that Andrew is not permitted to have contact with the remaining pit bull in the home. She says she's looking for a new home for the dog. The other pit bull has since been given away.

The ruling comes two weeks after a San Francisco jury deadlocked on child endangerment charges against another San Francisco mother -- Maureen Faibish.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Bittersweet beauties prepare to emancipate from foster care

Foster Care Cinderellas Spend a Fairy-Tale Night
Young women about to be emancipated cap a life-skills camp at Pepperdine University as the belles of a ball at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History.
By John L. Mitchell, Times Staff WriterAugust 14, 2006

There's a fairy tale of sorts in the story of how a group of girls from a foster care program in Compton blossomed into beautiful debutantes at a Cinderella Ball.

The tale begins with 29 teenage girls and young women who gathered over the course of three weeks last month at the Pepperdine University campus in Malibu. They were there to be schooled in the basics of life, to learn how to confront their worst fears about their childhood and to map their emancipation from the foster care system.

The story climaxes with a ball, a coming-out party for 11 of the older girls, young debutantes who, for one night, dressed in white gowns and waltzed with tuxedoed escorts across the marbled floors of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

"Cinderella is more than a tale of a girl who lost a shoe and found a prince," said Kenadie Cobbin, director of the HerShe Group, the mentoring organization behind the camp and ball. "She is the journey of a girl who is treated like an outsider, but dares to follow her dreams, and in the end achieves them."

Although the denouement of the story has yet to be written, the beginning is frighteningly familiar.

Almost all of the girls in the program were taken from their families during some crisis and shuffled among relatives, foster families and group homes — from school to school and neighborhood to neighborhood — until, for many, the future seemed as bleak as the past.

"The clock strikes 12 when they turn 18, and they're very fearful of what that does," Cobbin said. "They have to be adults, and they've never really had a chance to be children."

Connie, for one, is not very enthusiastic about reaching the milestone. "I'm just not ready," the 17-year-old said softly. "I don't have dreams. I usually have nightmares about my past. I really don't talk much, period."

In Los Angeles County, 18-year-olds are not automatically turned out on the street with a token bus fare and a hefty garbage bag in which to pack their belongings. Of the 21,000 foster care children living outside their parents' homes, the Department of Children and Family Services has placed more than one-third in transitional care, which allows young adults to delay emancipation until the age of 21.

Nonetheless, studies indicate that pregnancy, homelessness and incarceration remain problems for the estimated 1,200 who age out of the system each year. Cobbin's goal is to smooth the bumps in the road.

Before the Cinderella camp opened in mid-July, the Los Angeles chapter of the Links Inc., an African American civic and charitable organization, held a formal tea for the girls at a member's home in Hancock Park.

That meant the girls were acquainted by the time they checked into campus dorms, but trust didn't come easily. At the beginning of their stay at Pepperdine, there was little interest in sharing their stories. What's more, their appearance — tattoos, boyish clothes, garish jewelry — was a barrier.

"Is that a tongue ring in your mouth?" retired Judge Veronica McBeth, a strong backer of the program, asked one of the soon-to-be debutantes walking across the campus. "You know it'll be hard to get a job with that in there."

The judge didn't comment on the 16-year-old girl's nine tattoos, including one with the numbers "5150" on the back of her neck: state Welfare and Institutions Code shorthand for someone with a mental disorder, a danger to themselves or others.

"That's the only one I really regret getting," said Keanakay, who admitted that she didn't immediately feel comfortable among the other girls and the women who were trying to help them.

"It was the most I've been around women my whole life," she said. "This is my introduction to womanhood."

There was an uneasy tension when the girls first arrived.

"Some of them would not go to bed and they wouldn't try to be quiet," said Tann Moore, a counselor. "If you asked for quiet, you'd get one of those eye-rolls, neck-rolls or hard-breath reaction."

But attitudes slowly began to change as the girls shared some of their experiences. Angel, 17, lives with a foster mother who has threatened to throw her out. She doesn't talk much about the pain she carries, but she loves to write, keeps a daily journal and dreams of becoming a journalist some day.

She wrote about her bittersweet feelings in a poem: I'm grateful for my brother who doesn't know much of what I'm going through.I don't worry about it.Sometimes I ask: Am I supposed to be thankful for the love that is not here?Her love, her memory, her hugs, her destiny. She looks down on me.I say thanks mommy for making me strong. You are not here, but I still hung on. I'm thankful for mother's day…. I hate father's day. I'm thankful for Angel.

The camp was split between two sessions with two age groups, one for the younger girls ages 12 to 16, and the other for those closer to transitioning out of foster care.

Morning exercise began at 6 a.m. with yoga and stretching. The girls swatted flies while riding horses and broke nails as they went rock climbing. They bowled gutter balls at a local alley and sang karaoke off-key. There were picnics and campfires on the beach — experiences that many had never had in their lives.

In addition, mentors and role models visited the campus to teach life skills — how to balance a checkbook, fill out applications for jobs, college or apartments.

The girls kept journals and told stories of their abandonment, neglect and abuse. They discussed forgiveness.

"Forgiveness is really big," Cobbin said. "They have to forgive the two most important people in their lives. To be in foster care, your mother and your father have let you down: molestation, alcohol and drugs."

The younger girls in the group still have hope, still believe that their mother will get off drugs, straighten up and come back home, she said. "The older girls have gotten beyond that and have moved to 'I don't care.' "

Theresa Fair, a life-skills coach at the session, said she learned that maternal hatred can lead to self-hate."I used to hang with guys because they would stroke me and tell me I was cute," Fair recalled, relating her own experience to the girls. "But I had to be honest with myself. I had to learn to dance the dance with women. They became my mirrors and my shadows. I had to learn from them just who I was."

During one final session of the camp, Danielle, 17, said the most important lessons she learned came from the simple experience of being in the group."We learned not just how to bond; we learned how to trust each other," she said. "You can't be sisters and have that bond unless you have trust."

Each of the young debutantes walked away from the camp experience with something different:

• Tara, a 17-year-old in the system since she was 13 months old, said she has learned patience. • Porchia, 21, who has a 2-year-old son, doesn't want to follow the same drug-laden path as her mother.
• Tinesha, 17, vowed to complete high school and go to college to major in communication, an area she sees as a weakness.
• Tarilynn, 17, just figures it's OK to open up and let people know how you feel. "It's OK to love and not get hurt."
• And Eva, 20, says she just wants to "dance in the rain without getting wet."

As the date for the ball approached, rehearsals became more intense."Shoulder back! Stand straight! Smile! Don't forget to smile," implored choreographer Tyna Andrews Parish.

The women were supplied with gowns, and stylists volunteered to do their hair. A West Hollywood spa prepared their nails. Makeup artists were brought in to do their foundation, eye makeup — shadow, liner, mascara and contour—cheeks and the lips.

The tab for the camp and the July 29 gala came to $82,000, raised largely through private donations and fundraising events. Dr. Dre's record label, Aftermath Entertainment, donated a 2006 Chevrolet Suburban and helped raise $25,000 of the money from various rappers.

County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke arranged for the museum site.

On the night of the ball, nearly 300 guests packed the museum's North American mammal wing. The audience erupted in applause as the young women made their entrance, escorted by boys who also are supervised by the Compton office of the Department of Children and Family Services.

Betty Hall was more than pleased with her foster daughter, Kim, 17, a senior at Compton High who is on the cheerleading squad and has a 3.8 grade-point average.

"She is so beautiful," she said. Hall recalled how rough around the edges Kim and her sister were when she took them into her home. "I said I'd take her for a week and I ended up having them for five years," she said, watching Kim dance. "I told them, 'I'm keeping these two because I believe they can change.' They did."

No one seemed happier than Kimasha Houston, Eva's older sister."She is the life of the party," Houston said. "Just to see her happy and focused. She is a reflection of her inner beauty."

Eva has been in the foster care system since birth. She never knew her father, and her mother, who struggled with crack addiction, has been diagnosed with cancer. At 16, Eva ran away from a relative's home where she was hit with a belt buckle and called a crack baby. She graduated from high school, tasted college and now has a burning desire to be a social worker.

Eva doesn't like it if someone says she's blossoming like a flower. "I'd much rather be a tree," she said. "Trees stand still and I just want to stand still."

The ball ended with embraces, picture-taking and promises to keep in touch. The music switched to hip-hop and the girls broke out into their own dances. They are scheduled to meet next month with program mentors, who will keep track of their progress over the year. And they no doubt will recall the "Cinderella" theme that was played at the ball:

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you're fast asleep.I
n dreams you will lose your heartaches.
Whatever you wish for, you keep.
Have faith in your dreams and some day
Your rainbows will come smiling through.
No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
The dream that you wish will come true.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Entry Into Foster Care Due to Dog Ownership?

Love, Fear of Dog Tear a Family Apart
The San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 2006, Elizabeth Fernandez

Valerie Louie's nightmare started the day her young son accidentally left their front door ajar last year.

Two of her dogs -- pit bull mixes -- ran out, and one bit a small dog on the ear. San Francisco's animal control department deemed the animals "vicious and dangerous,'' and eventually they were banned from Louie's Richmond District home.

But in a bizarre snowballing of events, Louie's son, Andrew, then 6, was removed from his home and placed in foster care where, allegedly, an older child engaged him in sexual behavior.

Andrew eventually was permitted to move in with his aunt, but he has not returned to his home full time in eight months even though the dogs have been gone the whole time.

The boy had never been bitten, harmed or even threatened by the family pets, although Louie admits she could have done more to supervise Andrew around the animals. Child Protective Services officials told Louie that they were taking the boy to a foster home because of the threat that Andrew could be hurt by the dogs.

"My family was torn apart for purely speculative reasons,'' said Louie, 45, a registered nurse. "It is terrifying that city agencies can have so much power against a law-abiding, hardworking family. But the worst part of it all has been the time between my son and me that is forever lost.''

Louie, who has filed a legal claim against the city, goes back to court today to argue that Andrew should be allowed to return home full time.

The case opens a window into the complex choices and sometimes troubling outcomes of social work in San Francisco, particularly after recent fatal accidents involving controversial canine breeds with menacing reputations. San Francisco officials say they intervened because they saw a "disaster waiting to happen," a viewpoint that interviews and documents indicate was colored by the fatal maulings of 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish last year and 33-year-old Diane Whipple in 2001.

In Louie's case, a minor dogfight brought into question a mother's judgment and ability to protect her child, involving numerous city employees and tens of thousands of dollars in public resources. In the clash between a strong-willed mother and well-intentioned city agencies, one goal was shared: to safeguard a little boy.

City officials acknowledge that the matter -- depicted as "a hot case politically'' in a confidential report reviewed by The Chronicle -- escalated to a point no one ever sought.

"A rather small incident became a very big incident,'' said San Francisco Police Sgt. William Herndon, who presides over vicious animal cases with the city's Animal Care and Control agency. "It became such a mess. This case gave me such a headache, it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. I think it is absolutely tragic that her son is still not home.

"Nobody is perfect -- we aren't, Child Protective Services isn't. But we really tried to do the right thing. Even though there were easy solutions, we did not take them because they were not the right solutions ...The whole crux of this thing was whether a child was in danger.''
Some city officials maintain they did the right thing by taking Andrew from his mother.
"We have tried to be more proactive,'' said Carl Friedman, director of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control. "The real issue is stopping something before it happens. The problem with that is it is hard to measure the effect of something that doesn't happen. I think the way we acted may have prevented a tragedy.''

Yet Louie's supporters say public agencies overreacted to pit bull hysteria and vilified a single mother who is devoted to her child.

"In my line of work, I see some pretty bad things. I see kids who have been bitten by a dog but still are permitted to stay with their parents,'' said Dr. Leslie Gershoff, a Sacramento emergency room physician and longtime friend of Louie's. "For Andrew to be taken and then to be kept away such a long time is just appalling.''

Louie, who has worked at Highland Hospital in Oakland for 18 years, admits she made mistakes. She acknowledges twice bringing home her dogs, against the wishes of the city's social workers, while Andrew was living there. She also concedes she was sometimes not as vigilant as she should have been in supervising her son with their pets. But she says she loves her son and believes it was wrong for her to lose him, particularly because he was placed in a stranger's home when numerous relatives lived just blocks away.

"Andrew has had to live in a state of anxiety and uncertainty over his life for many months,'' she said. "He is constantly asking can he come home for good soon.''

Buoying her case is a court-appointed dog trainer who said he believes the dogs pose no untoward danger. A court-appointed psychologist has also strongly recommended that Andrew "be returned to his mother's care immediately. There is no threat to him at this point, and keeping these two separated can only be punitive.''

That evaluation was written in March. But not until the past few weeks was Andrew permitted to stay overnight in his home -- and then only on weekends.

"It is almost like water torture,'' Louie said. "He is being flipped back and forth.''

Based on interviews and confidential records provided by Louie, The Chronicle reconstructed the events of the case. It started April 26, 2005, when Cricket and Frances ran away and Cricket -- raised by Louie since he was a pup -- bit another dog. Louie apologized and paid the vet bill.

But that dog's owner complained to the city, and on June 16 -- 13 days after the death of Nicholas Faibish -- Sgt. Herndon ordered the dogs to undergo a "temperament evaluation.'' Later, he declared the dogs "vicious and dangerous.''

Over the span of the next two months, Cricket was assessed by two animal behaviorists. Both times, the experts voiced serious alarm for Andrew's safety because the boy repeatedly provoked the dog, poking it with toys and pulling his tail. One expert recommended that Louie never again leave the two alone.

"My problem, candidly, was that I did not believe the dog was a threat to her child under normal circumstances,'' Herndon said in an interview. "If I had just taken the dog, everyone would have gone on their merry way. But it wasn't something I could do because it wasn't the dog that was the problem, it was the way the child interacted with the dog, and the mother didn't do anything about it.''

Animal Care and Control sent a referral to Child Protective Services on Aug. 12, 2005. Then Louie made the first of two serious mistakes: She brought Cricket back into her home in early September because she feared for his health. A week later, city workers removed Cricket while a sobbing Andrew watched.
Angered and convinced that Louie could not be trusted, social workers sought to make Andrew a dependent of the court. According to case records, "There is a need for court intervention. ... The mother has minimized the safety issues that are involved in this case.''

Commissioner William R. Gargano of the juvenile division of San Francisco Superior Court granted the petition but permitted Andrew to stay home.

In mid-December, Louie made her second mistake: She temporarily brought Frances home, believing the dog was to be euthanized.

"I thought I could find a home for her,'' she explained. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with bringing her back with us. The city had not mentioned anything about Frances being an issue.''

When a caseworker visited Andrew at school Dec. 14, the boy mentioned that Frances had come home.

The next day, while Andrew was decorating a Christmas tree with his mother, city workers came to remove him from the home. It was an ugly scene -- Louie was distraught and crying.

A few days later, Andrew told his therapist that a 12-year-old boy at the foster home subjected him to inappropriate sexual contact. The therapist notified CPS, and Andrew was moved to another foster home. Louie said the agency failed to notify her about the incident; she also said social workers claimed not to know about Louie's nearby relatives.

Two days later, the court ordered Andrew to be placed with his aunt and uncle.
Coincidentally, just weeks later, an audit by the city controller found that the Department of Human Services failed to comply with required standards, including requirements that they visit at least 90 percent of all foster children once a month or more. Executive Director Trent Rhorer attributed those problems to heavy caseloads and budget cuts.

In an interview, Rhorer said his agency, which has 2,100 children in foster care, strives to keep children with their biological parents "whenever it is safe to do so. It is only in cases of extreme risk or evidence of past abuse or neglect when children are removed.''

When that happens, 53 percent are placed with a relative, Rhorer said. Incidents of abuse while in foster care are "very small,'' he said, amounting to less than 1 percent of cases in San Francisco.

Rhorer said he could not specifically discuss the Louie case.

But in a curious letter to a friend of Louie's who had written expressing concern, Human Services -- while citing confidentiality requirements -- discussed Andrew's alleged sexual mistreatment: "Two child protective service workers investigated the allegation that Ms. Louie's son was sexually abused in a foster care placement, and they were not able to substantiate the allegation.''

For months after her son was taken from home, Louie visited him nightly at her sister's house, helping him with his homework, reading him a story. But she could not walk him to school without supervision.

In March, she underwent an extensive psychological evaluation.

According to the confidential report Louie shared with The Chronicle, she "made some errors ... in her mind, she was not putting her son in peril. She knows dogs, and she knows the dogs in her home very well. ... However, Ms. Louie made it clear to this examiner that she has now learned her lesson. ... She will not again take the chance of having her son taken away from her.''

The report pointed out that Louie had fully complied with court orders, and it noted that Louie's case occurred shortly after Nicholas Faibish's death: "That tragedy made everyone in the area fearful and reinforced concern about pit bulls. Understandably, the people involved in this case were extremely cautious and wanted to make certain that they did not let a similar incident occur on their watch.''

The report urged that mother and son be reunified immediately and that Cricket also be returned home.

That did not happen. Instead, child welfare workers contacted dog trainers to assess the dogs still living with Louie.

Trainer John Van Olden flatly refused. "Nobody can say definitely one way or another because it involves an animal, and animals by nature are unpredictable,'' he said.

Veteran dog trainer Mike Wombacher was ultimately paid $675 for five sessions with Andrew, Louie and their three dogs.

"I wasn't there at the front end" when the case started, he said. "But I didn't see anything in the behavior of the dogs that would warrant the kid being taken away. There is nothing in that house that presents any more of a threat to Andrew than exists in any other home with dogs in the Bay Area.''

On June 15, Louie filed a claim against the city, demanding damages for inflicting stress, anxiety and humiliation.
Last month, Commissioner Gargano ruled that Andrew could spend weekend nights at home. It could be decided today whether Andrew -- and possibly Cricket -- will be returned to the home. Another family adopted Frances in February.

While she waits for her son to come home full time, Louie reflected ruefully about the parenting education course she recently completed. Her classmates, she said, included a mother whose boyfriend beat her daughter to death and a father who left his 3-year-old son with a known drug addict and returned to find that the toddler had ingested a near-lethal amount of methamphetamines.

"It was quite an education for me to listen to these people whose lives were so different than mine,'' said Louie. "In each of these cases, the child had suffered a great deal of physical and emotional harm. Yet my own son did not suffer any physical or emotional harm until Child Protective Services came into our lives. What irony is that?''

E-mail Elizabeth Fernandez at efernandez@sfchronicle.com.

"Throwaway Kids" in LA County

Throwaway kids: Thousands of area foster children leave county care for a dangerous and desperate life on the streets
By Joe Piasecki

Except for the tape holding his ripped black boots together and a needle wound on his right arm that looks red and infected, you wouldn’t know Brian Chytka is in deep trouble.

The 22-year-old is surrounded by those he calls family. There’s a street-smart skater, a young punk-rocker in jeans who laughs like all of this is somehow funny, and a girl with military-short hair and a lip ring who looks healthy but knows she will die a heroin addict. She won’t eat the food I offer her because she feels sick from going a day without a fix.

Heroin is also Chytka’s drug of choice. It was his dad’s, too.

Like thousands of former Los Angeles County foster youth who have left state care homeless, penniless, ready-made targets for drug dealers and sexual predators, Chytka lives wild on the streets. Anonymous victims of broken homes and of tragic neglect as wards of our overtaxed and impersonal foster care bureaucracy, they have become LA’s throwaway kids.

Every day in Hollywood, youth who have recently become homeless visit My Friend’s Place, one of only a few charities offering drug and psychological counseling, showers, food, even haircuts to people under 25. It was near here that I found Chytka, one of only a few young people actually willing to tell their stories, and his friends carrying their food around in a plastic bag one afternoon in May.

Half of the kids who go to My Friend’s Place have been in foster care — more than 700, according to David Brinkman, the center’s executive director. All too commonly, he said, “Foster parents drop their kids off at our door into homelessness.”

Brinkman’s figures for those troubled youth who find their way to Hollywood are actually deceivingly low when it comes to telling the fates of former youth countywide, according to the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles. The group says nearly one-third of foster youth — and there are more than 25,000 of them right now, according to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) — become homeless within two years of leaving the system. Another group, the Covenant House of California, guesses that as many as half of local foster youth become homeless in six months.

LA is not alone in failing to keep its children from a life on the streets at 18. Nationwide, according to foster youth advocates Casey Family Programs, as many as half of former foster youth will become homeless sometime after leaving care.

If nothing changes, 75,000 American kids will become homeless after leaving foster care over the next 15 years, Casey President William Bell warned members of the state Assembly last month.

Those now living on the streets and others who, thanks to a few dedicated people inside and outside the system working on their behalf, are beating the odds and putting their once-broken lives back together have troubling stories to share. Many were abused at home, bounced in and out of foster homes, struggled in school, made few if any lasting relationships and learned little about caring for themselves.

JJ, who turns 21 in June, spent the past three years sleeping under freeway bridges, in abandoned homes and in Pasadena’s Central Park. She became homeless at 18 when, tired of being moved from group home to group home, she successfully fought to be emancipated from the system.

“Being out on the street, not knowing what I was going to see on the next corner, having people literally push a crack pipe in my face — I couldn’t handle it,” said JJ, who entered foster care after using drugs and suffering sexual abuse at home.

JJ and the other youth in this story are identified only by their first names because they are either under 18 or fear that people knowing their pasts would affect their ability to find mainstream jobs and housing. Chytka demanded that his name be used.

Twenty-year-old Jonathan isn’t homeless, but his eligibility for free county-sponsored housing in Burbank runs out in a month, and so far he’s got nowhere to go. In and out of 15 different foster homes since he was 5, including one in which his foster parent didn’t speak English, Jonathan says no one noticed he couldn’t read until high school.

According to Casey Family Programs, 46 percent of American foster children leave the system without a high school diploma.

“The state has a long way to go before it can be declared a good parent to kids in our foster care system,” said Assemblywoman Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s Select Committee on Foster Care. Pushing a package of legislation that would extend housing, health care and other benefits to foster youth until they are as old as 24, the committee is hoping to go a long way very quickly.

800 down — 9,200 to goThat society has somehow failed the kids in its care who grow up to be homeless is clear. Finding out why this is happening and, more importantly, how to fix it takes some commitment.

Money trickles down from Washington, but comes with restrictions. States make rules, too, and also disburse funds to counties. Counties, in order to deliver housing, health, education and other services to current and former foster youth and administrate these funds, have set up complex bureaucracies of departments within departments. They, in turn, subcontract to social services nonprofits, which, of course, have to meet government requirements.

And then there are the kids themselves — 90,000 in California alone, each one with a different story and a different set of needs.

LA County’s foster care program is not only the largest in the United States, it’s larger than the programs managed by many states. But here there are fewer than 800 beds available for kids leaving foster care with nowhere to go, and all but 244 of those are operated by local nonprofits that receive some of these funds, according to DCFS Emancipation Services Director Rhelda Shabazz.

“We probably need about 10,000 beds. That would guarantee every youth who wanted it could have one,” said Shabazz.

The problem? Not enough money, she said.Of the $18 million in federal funds her department received this year, only 30 percent, roughly $5.4 million, can be spent on temporary “transitional” housing and rental assistance for kids growing up and leaving the system.

The rest goes toward education grants and programs that teach kids to drive, cook for themselves or understand credit and banking practices. County social services workers called independent living coordinators work with foster youth to plan services delivery several years before emancipation, and services remain available to kids until they turn 21, even when they leave the system voluntarily and come back later for help, said Shabazz.

But when it comes to housing, there are other resources available.This year, said state Department of Social Services spokesman Michael Westin, $8.1 million in state funding is available to counties that will provide matching funds to expand transitional housing programs. Like most other counties, LA has not put up matching funds.

Removing that requirement is just one of several goals of the Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care. A package of legislation currently wending its way through the Legislature specifically targets keeping foster youth off the streets when they leave the system. The bills have found support from both parties and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The bills would make independent living services programs mandatory for all foster youth and give them the option to stay in the system until they turn 21. Other services, like transitional housing and education grants, would remain an option to emancipated foster youth for an additional three years, until they turn 24. To better supervise services delivery, the bills would establish a state Child Welfare Council and Undersecretary of Foster Care.

“We definitely need to make some improvements with the population of youth emancipating out of care,” said Bass. “The reality is kids in all areas of the world are not ready to be financially independent at 18.”For Pasadena Democratic Assemblywoman Carol Liu, also a member of the task force, the time to act is now.

“It’s important we try to resolve these problems upfront while we still have control over these kids. It’s a no-brainer to try to provide for these kids. Otherwise they wind up in our system being incarcerated or homeless,” said Liu, who several years ago authored the Foster Care Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all foster youth the right to obtain services, file complaints and have access to attorneys and the courts.

According to the Children’s Law Center, 20 percent of ex-foster youth in the United States will serve time behind bars within two years of leaving care.

“It’s a system that does need looking at, because if we don’t put the money upfront, you’re going to pay for it someplace down the line. We don’t want to waste more lives with something we certainly can fix,” she said.

Big plans
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a push to create more transitional housing and other services for youth is underway as part of the Bring LA Home campaign, the $100-million plan to end homelessness in the county that was designed by a blue-ribbon panel of community leaders.

Released in April, the plan calls for specific services and new housing for homeless youth, and has convened a task force to deliver that plan in July.“

We need a comprehensive, countywide approach for service planning and delivery for youth,” reads the report, which cites a study in the late 1990s that found more than 60 percent of Hollywood street youth had a history of foster care.

Housing these kids, said Brinkman, is the essential first step in really helping them and should be a starting point for services.

“When you have a youth you’ve been working with for eight hours … and put them on the streets at night full of pedophiles and gang-bangers and pimps looking to take advantage of this population, the next time you see them they’re back in crisis again,” he said.

Natalie Profant Komuro, director of policy and planning for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, helped craft the Bring LA Home report and is optimistic that change is coming — despite facing a lack of funding handicapping her understaffed department.

“What I think is very exciting about the timing of this is the unprecedented resources available to help,” she said.

Much of those resources come from nonprofits. Last year in Pasadena, the Hillsides center for troubled youth used grant money to purchase an apartment building that now houses 28 emancipated foster youth who have entered the system as victims of abuse.

The Hillsides Youth Moving On facility is the first affordable housing project of its kind in LA County and is unique in that it’s not just for youth. Many of the apartments in the complex are rented at market rate in order to fund the down payment for a second building.

Jeanette Mann, a member of the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees and a parishioner at All Saints Church in Pasadena, runs a program out of the church that sends donations and volunteers to organizations including My Friend’s Place, Hillsides and the Old Pasadena-based Sycamores, which helps foster youth get adopted or find permanent and loving foster homes that are monitored by the agency.

They also take in foster youth who, for whatever reason, run away or get kicked out of group homes for aggressive or criminal behavior and would otherwise end up in juvenile detention.

Lots of groups and agencies are doing good work, but they need volunteers, so we recruit volunteers,” said Mann of All Saints’ Foster Care Project, which boasts a database of some 380 volunteers. Many donate to the project’s Birthday Club, which sends cards and presents to hundreds of foster kids whose birthdays would otherwise go unmarked.

But it wasn’t too long ago that nonprofit resources weren’t as plentiful, and federal funding restrictions were so tight that local governments had their hands tied when it came to spending on youth aging out of foster care. That’s when Patricia Curry, who runs a Pasadena insurance business and has served on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families for more than a decade, started her youth advocacy.

In the early ‘90s, foster youth weren’t on anybody’s radar, she explained.

“People just really weren’t aware, the amount of [independent living services] dollars was very small, and there was no transitional housing. The kids would emancipate with a big old sack on their back, pick up a Hefty bag and just walk out onto the streets,” she said.

Since that time, awareness has increased, so much that a group from the nonprofit community has formed Pasadena Transitional Partners to discuss foster care issues and untangle the web of government resources for kids who come into their care.

One of the group’s members, Susan Abignale of Casey Family Programs, helps run a drop-in resource center on Green Street, one of nine such centers that have opened in the county over the past decade.Casey’s Alumni Center in Pasadena focuses on finding housing, education and employment for kids, and often helps them reconnect with the foster care system to receive any benefits for which they might be eligible.

Meanwhile, the Mental Health Services Act (2004’s Proposition 63) has allowed county officials to allocate some $14 million to foster care and transitional housing programs, money that Curry said will soon allow service workers to treat and house more street youth with mental health needs.

While kids fall to the street for a variety of reasons, many are traumatized by horrific acts of abuse and are forced to deal with untreated medical problems. As for the homeless plan, “it is what it is,” said Komura, “but there isn’t any money now saying we can launch this campaign.”

What’s needed, she said, is a locally driven plan not just to house kids, but to use those resources to bring more stability into their lives to allow them to find their feet.

‘A failure of the state’
Jonathan, the 20-year-old whose time in transitional housing is about to run out, said instability is the biggest hurdle he’s faced as a foster child.

“Right after my high school graduation was pretty much the day I got kicked out of my foster home. The guy I was living with didn’t want me there since they were going to stop paying him. Luckily the social worker was able to find me a place after a couple of days,” he said.

Now an intern at the Casey Alumni Center in Pasadena, Jonathan counts himself lucky to have a job and a high school diploma, though he’s had to put college on hold to sort out the basics of his life, like paying for food, transportation and a new place to stay.

Casey Community Programs Supervisor Marvin Carter has found that finding stability, more so than more resources, is the key to success after foster care.

“When you get that first apartment, that first job, the challenge is not getting it, it’s keeping it,” said Carter of those he works with. “If I had to generalize, the problem when you talk about transition-age youth is keeping things. It runs parallel to their overall life, moving from place to place. Going to work on time, calling in when you’re not feeling well, the things that show we’re taking responsibility we take for granted because we’ve had it ingrained in us since we were kids. I don’t know if they didn’t have it, but it’s the stability and consistency of [the message], having a consistent person giving that message.”

And even if there were enough of it for everybody in Jonathan’s shoes, transitional housing is still only an option for two years, and you can only learn so much about caring for yourself in a county-funded independent living classroom.

For whatever reason, many foster youth aren’t benefiting from the federally funded life-skills independent living programs that go along with it, according to Human Rights Watch’s Los Angeles Office, which recently conducted a study of homeless foster children in San Francisco and Hollywood.

What they’re telling me is that they aren’t getting the preparation and support they need to enter into adulthood, regardless of what part of the state they’re from or when they left the system,” said Human Rights Watch Children’s Advocate Elizabeth Calvin, who presented a preliminary report to the Assembly Select Committee of Foster Care on May 8.

In her report, Calvin details complaints by several youth that group homes ironically went too far in treating them like a child before they were forced to leave. One said he wasn’t allowed to ride the bus or get a job. Another said she had to wait to take a class on how to do such normal things.

Others told Calvin they had no idea medical coverage, school tuition assistance and transitional housing were even available, or that they left transitional housing to become homeless.

They’re really describing experiences of not having been given basic tools on how to be an adult, very basic things like how to cook, budget money, rent an apartment, protect themselves from people trying to take advantage of them,” said Calvin. “From the perspective of Human Rights Watch, this is a failure of the state because these children are dependent on the state for more than just food and shelter; they’re dependent for their development.”‘

And you can quote me’
Actually, said Shabazz, the state is doing much to make sure kids don’t fall through the cracks. Sometimes the hard part is getting the kids on board.

“Unfortunately, it seems there are youth that have not received services, but I believe that’s the exception, not the rule. Again, it’s voluntary. Youth are offered services and many of them choose to take them,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of outreach.”

County officials are currently sponsoring a survey of foster youth and are holding discussion-based forums to see what kids really think about what’s available to them. In order to encourage more foster youth to participate, they’re offering a $50 gift card to those who fill one out.

And some foster youth really excel in these programs. More than 100 gathered downtown last week at the Walt Disney Concert Hall to celebrate not only their high school graduation but also their scholarships for college.

Sometimes people have the wrong impression about who foster kids are and what it means to be in the foster care system. People think the kids have done something, but they’re there by circumstance and can achieve as much as any other kid,” said Polly Williams, president of United Friends of the Children.

United Friends, founded in 1979 by Nancy Riordan, wife of former LA Mayor Dick Riordan, finds scholarships for foster youth in its program, offers an array of life-skills training and operates its own transitional housing program.

Fewer than one in five foster youth will go to college, and many don’t graduate, said Williams.

Patrice, a former foster child who worked with United Friends and graduated from UC Berkeley earlier this year, is one of those proud few. Separated from her siblings at a young age, she hopes to find them some day to offer support.

“Mentors in my life were guiding me and pushing me along,” said Patrice. “Counselors, about anything about life … that’s one of the things foster kids need and what helped me get through this.”

All of this, however, seems terribly unimportant to a group of a half-dozen African-American current and former foster youth who visited My Friend’s Place just a few weeks ago. In that group were sisters Danielle, 17, and Chan’tell, 15, who said they resent being placed in foster care and just want to be left alone.

“Right now I’m kind of AWOL,” said Danielle, originally from Baldwin Hills. “I ran away because they made me mad. They took me to some old lady’s house. I didn’t know her.

“If a 17-year-old girl says she wants to be free, you should let her go, because if you keep trying to take her back to a foster care she’s gonna leave. If I can’t be with my family, I’d rather be alone. I don’t want to be with somebody else trying to tell me what to do, and they’re not my family,” said Danielle, who plans to get a job when she turns 18 so she can adopt her younger sister.

Taking a cue from Danielle, Chan’tell explains that she’s all about family and the system is not; that the freedom of the streets is more appealing than foster care because the people she cares about are here.

“They just need to leave us be because we’re all family and we don’t want to be split up, and there’s no way you can split up family, anyway,” she said. “Honestly, out here we take care of each other better than any foster parent could take care of us.”

Brinkman explained that three out of five kids My Friend’s Place serves have what the social services community has come to call street families. These six boys and girls as well as Chytka’s group are street families, made up of youth in similar circumstances who tend to trust only each other.

And why not be wary, especially about a system as complex as each child is unique?

“It’s hard to know how much of it is normal adolescent rebellion compounded with a complicated history and issues of abuse and neglect. It’s never just one reason,” said Lesley Heimov, policy director for the Monterey Park-based Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group appointed by the Los Angeles Superior Court to represent most youth in the foster care system.

Some, like Danielle, ditch the system because they no longer trust it, most likely from having bad experiences or inadequate care, said Heimov.

“I distinctly remember a foster home where the people in the house did more drugs than the people in the house that I came from, and that’s including the foster kids,” said Pasadena’s JJ of her Tarzana foster home five years ago.

Others, like Chytka, just haven’t been given the tools to keep themselves out of trouble. And despite the positive changes that have occurred in preparing foster youth for adulthood, change has been so recent that the generation leaving care now hasn’t been entirely caught up.

“The biggest challenge is establishing rapport as adults,” said Brinkman of working with street youth at My Friend’s Place. “Constantly they have been failed by the adults in their lives, and they are very wary of adults, period.”

As if to illustrate his point, Danielle asked me to send a message to the Department of Children and Family Services: “Let the foster care system know that they can kiss my black a** — and you can quote me on that.”

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Bill to promote safety for foster youth

The following is a transcript from KGET TV in Bakersfield, California:

New bill promotes safety for children in foster care
County and state officials are working together to make a big difference for children living in foster care.

Last month, KGET-17 News showed how a 13-year-old girl under the care of Child Protective Services was living on the streets of Bakersfield and without supervision. Every time the police took her to the county’s shelter for children, she wold simply walk away and return to her life on the streets. The law does not allow CPS workers to detain her against her will. Moreover, there was nothing that local law enforcement could do.

On Tuesday, county and the state officials met and could be changing those circumstances this month.

The action comes after numerous calls were made to several Kern County Supervisors. It was Michael Rubio who stepped up with a plan designed by the Director of Human Services, Beverly Beasley Johnson, and Probation Department Chief, John Roberts, to keep safe these kids who were making bad decisions.

On the state level, Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield drafted a bill that would make it possible to hold dependents of the court for enough time to notify police, parents and the county before they are allowed to leave a home or shelter. The bill has just come back from legislative council and is ready for review.

“With both the county and the state now working together, that hole in the safety net protecting could be closed for good,” McCarthy said.

In addition, McCarthy said he'll push to get the bill to the floor by Aug. 8 and hopefully passed before the session ends.

Michael Rubio has already made it a priority in the county budget for this month which means CPS and the probation department will not have to rely on grants to fund the project. Instead, the money will come from the general fund targeting areas of need and hopefully keep these children and our community safer.

Increased funds for foster youth to attend college

This article was written by Rob Akers and published in the Bay Area Reporter, Vol.36, August 3, 2006.

Leno foster care bill gets funding
Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) held a news conference last month to announce more than $14 million for college readiness and assistance for foster youth.

The funding boost was included in the 2006-07 state budget, and will allow implementation of Leno's AB2489, a measure to provide foster youth with academic preparation, financial assistance, and campus-based support.

A diverse group of foster youth, their advocates, and various elected officials, including Supervisor Sophie Maxwell were on hand at San Francisco's Independent Living Skills Center July 11 to share the news.

"This is exciting," Leno said. "This money will mean the difference of college success in the lives of foster kids who have nobody to turn to for the support all young people need."

Leno said the program is important to keep youth on track. "And higher education is part of that plan. Every foster youth accepted will now have their tuition and fees covered ... whatever the need is the student will get to determine it."

Leo Rayford, an emancipated foster youth at ILSC, thanked Leno for his efforts to include the foster care funding in the budget.

"Without these resources I would have been stressed on the financial problems instead of being stressed on passing the courses. So I am blessed to have the privilege of obtaining financial aid," he said.

Rayford, who is attending Solano Community College, urged his fellow foster youth who attended the news conference to take advantage of the resources the measure provides.
Eliza Gibson, chief of programs at Larkin Street Youth Services, also thanked Leno and Maxwell for their leadership "in addressing the needs of foster care youth, particularly the barriers to accessing high education."

"Like all homeless youth, former foster care youth face tremendous obstacles to pursue and reach their educational goals. I look forward to continuing to work alongside community partners to help all foster care youth reach their full potential," Gibson said.
Leno said there are 2,400 children in foster care in San Francisco, one of the highest per capita rates in the state.

Foster care reform received $82 million in the 2006-2007 state budget, which was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in late June.

Specifically, the budget expands the Foster Youth Services Education Program by $8.2 million and increases the Chafee Scholarship Program, providing financial aid for foster youth attending two-year or four-year colleges by $5.7 million. The combined increases should fully fund all eligible foster youth.

The state budget will provide the funding source for AB2489, a comprehensive package of reforms meant to help foster youth achieve their higher education goals.

The measure expands the California Department of Education's Foster Youth Services program to all foster youth, provides tuition waivers for college, establishes automatic eligibility for Cal-Grants, creates housing preferences for foster youth on college campuses, and provides state matching funds for Chafee Scholarship grants.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

San Francisco Chronicle - Recent editorial

Please note: The following editorial was published in the Sunday, July 30th issue of the SF Chronicle. The views expressed therein are those of the editorial staff of the San Francisco Chronicle:

No time to be complacent
ASK ABOUT THE state of foster care in California these days, and many -- from the state Capitol, to the courts, to the counties -- will say the same thing: "The time for reform is now."

Though the sentiment is inspiring, it's easy to be skeptical, given that a call for change has been made numerous times, most notably through scathing reports by the Little Hoover Commission and the Pew Commission on Foster Care. After a while, it was easy to wonder if the blaring call for reform was falling on deaf ears.

But with an $83 million increase in the state budget dedicated to foster care a package of reform bills and a bipartisan effort to keep the momentum going, it seems as if the time has, indeed, finally come for change.

"This is the biggest one-time set of policy reform and investment that I've seen in my 15 years" said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association.

Not that it has come easy. An "uphill battle" barely describes what the Legislature's Select Committee on Foster Care faced when it first began holding public hearings in November 2005. From Los Angeles to Sacramento, the committee, formed by Assemblywoman Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista, heard from numerous foster youth, social workers, educators and advocates whose testimonies revealed a flawed system that provided little to no refuge for the children in it.

As we said in our editorial just weeks before the first hearing: "It's time for them to use this opportunity, own up to their parental responsibilities and prove that we're finished being a deadbeat state."

The members of the committee have done -- and continue to do -- just that. Many credit Bass' leadership for generating the political will behind foster-care reform. Thanks largely to her efforts, as well as those of other committee members, an impressive package of foster-care reform bills passed the Assembly, and are now in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Equally as significant to reform is the additional $83 million that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger committed to foster care in the state budget. Much of the funding will be used to implement several bills that have yet to reach his desk.

Among the important areas earmarked in the new funds are:
-- $4 million for transitional housing for emancipating foster youth;-- $4 million to focus on adoption for foster youth ages 9 through 18, who are deemed "hard-to-place";
-- $8 million for the state's Kin-GAP program to ensure that relative caregivers get the same financial support from the state as non-relative caregivers, even after they become permanent guardians;-
- $14 million for college assistance;
-- $50 million for additional social workers.

"The real issue is that we have to demonstrate that these additional dollars will mean better outcomes," said Cliff Allenby, director of the California Department of Social Services. "If we can demonstrate that, then this is just the beginning."

According to San Francisco Human Services Director Trent Rhorer, the focus on foster care has already yielded positive results.

While San Francisco was already participating in pilot programs, he said the city has been able to expand on them because of the select committee's work and because of the state's additional investment in the system. Among San Francisco's focal points is finding alternatives to removing children from their parents' homes. These front-end programs include such services as job assistance, substance-abuse programs and counseling.

Since starting these programs more than a year and a half ago, Rhorer says the data proves their success. According to a report conducted by his department, the number of youth brought into the system for the first time is down 38 percent in San Francisco. That number for African American foster youth -- who have long represented a disproportionate number of the foster youth population -- is down 51 percent.

In addition, the recidivism rate, meaning, the number of youth who return to the system after being reunified with their families, is also down by 26 percent overall, and 42 percent among African Americans.

But these results were brought about by pilot programs whose funding from year to year is at risk. With the new investment in the budget, Rhorer says the programs are not only financially secure, they can now expand to other services.

San Francisco will benefit directly from the new funds dedicated to relative caregivers because a staggering 53 percent of foster youth in the city are placed with family members. In comparison, the state average is 30 percent.

"Usually, relatives don't want to become permanent guardians because they lose money when they do that," said Rhorer, "Now, we can put hundreds of youth in a permanent setting with relative guardians."

With a focus on reform and funds to back it up, the number of emancipated youth who end up homeless, jobless and incarcerated can be replaced by the number of those who graduate from high school and go on to college.

For that reason, this is no time to be complacent. Now that the funds are in the state budget, it's time to move the bills out of the Senate Appropriations Committee before the Aug. 18 deadline, and through the Legislature by Aug. 31.

The governor, who has put his money where his mouth is, can now complete the process by signing the key bills into law. Indeed, the time for reform is now.

Sitting in suspense
Among the key bills waiting in the Senate Appropriations Committee are:
- AB2216 (Bass): Creates a structure for leadership and accountability for the management of the agencies that provide services to foster youth.
- AB2489 (Mark Leno, D-San Francisco): Provides foster youth with financial assistance and the campus-based support they need to complete their college education.
-SB1712 (Carole Migden, D-San Francisco): Establishes a three-year, four-county pilot program focused on increasing adoptions of older foster youth.
-AB2194 (Bass): Extends Independent Living Program services to youth placed with non-related legal guardians and those adopted at age 14 or older to ensure they are prepared to live on their own after they emancipate.