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.

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