Sunday, September 24, 2006

Good news for California foster youth

Foster care bills signed into law
Governor approves much-improved reforms
Edwin Garcia, Media News Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday signed into law a package of eight bills intended to improve the lives of tens of thousands of youths in foster care, bringing accolades from Bay Area social service advocates.

One of the measures will improve coordination of services among agencies and courts, and another will make it easier for foster kids to get in touch with siblings.

Schwarzenegger and lawmakers now are on the cusp of ending what they referred to as a historic year of legislative accomplishments benefiting the state's 75,000 foster children. This year's state budget also includes more than $180 million for foster care and child welfare services, the most funding in recent years, legislators said.

"I tell you, this is a great day; it's a great day of celebrating," Schwarzenegger told dozens of cheering advocates and legislative staff members at the Capitol rotunda.

"It is absolutely important that we're doing a better job for foster care youth and foster care kids in the future Schwarzenegger said, "because this state really hasn't done a great job."

Two youths who were formerly in foster care stood with Schwarzenegger to praise the legislation. One was Maggie Tuazon of Hayward, who during a 31/2-year span lived in eight group homes and three foster homes.

"I felt like no one wanted me and no one could support me and my needs," said Tuazon, 19, who credits a mentor with helping her to finally accomplish her goals.

The signing also was attended by municipal officials who were in Sacramento a foster care conference.

Regina Deihl, executive director of Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting of San Mateo, a nonprofit organization, called this year's legislative package "huge" for youths and families. As a result, she said, social workers will have more manageable case loads and foster parents will be able to communicate more effectively with judges.

Much of the credit for the legislative accomplishments was given to Assemblywoman Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, a longtime champion for foster children, who convened hearings that drew hundreds of advocates who urged the state to adopt reforms.

The bills signed Friday are:
-AB 2216, which will create the California Child Welfare Council within the Health and Human Services Agency.

-AB 1979, which eliminates fees for criminal background checks of adults who want to volunteer as mentors to foster kids.

-AB 2488, by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, which will provide intermediaries for foster children to contact siblings.

-AB 2985, by Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, which protects youths in foster care from being victims of identify theft.

The four other bills include one that seeks to place youths in home environments "that resemble as closely as possible non-foster care families."

The other bills guarantee that children have access to attorneys during dependency proceedings at the appellate level, make it easier to place youthqswith relatives, and help foster parents provide input in court.

"We believe we've made great strides this year and have very significant legislation," Bass said. "And the items that went into the budget will really directly improve the quality of life for California's most vulnerable children."

Bass said she and dozens of advocates would "celebrate" immediately after the bill signing — by getting together to plan their agenda for the next legislative session, which begins in December.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Experience of foster youth varies by county

Editorial: Governor to sign foster-care bills
San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, Calif.: Sept. 22, 2006. pg. B.10

GOV. Arnold Schwarzenegger today will sign eight bills designed to make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of foster children in California.

The most significant of the bills, AB2216 by Assembly member Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Hills, would force the state to finally acknowledge and address the vast disparities in the living conditions and access to services for foster youth in the state's 58 counties.

"We viewed this as the linchpin for making the system work better," said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, which represents thousands of foster youth and has been pressing hard for reform.

By any measure, the system has been failing these children. Nearly a third become homeless within a year of emancipating, or "aging out," at 18. One in five is incarcerated.

The state's record keeping and standards are so slipshod and so inconsistent from county to county that the state only recently -- under pressure from the federal government -- started keeping track of how many foster children died and why. One advocacy group, collecting data from counties, just determined that 50 foster children died in the state last year.

In revealing the governor's intent to sign AB2216, Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belsh said the landmark reform bill would provide an "important collaborative mechanism" to bring more consistency and accountability to the foster-care system.

It requires state and local agencies handling the various foster-care programs to communicate with each other, with the goal of identifying and expanding best practices. It also sets up a council -- co-chaired by the Human Services secretary and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court -- to oversee the system.

"We would be hard pressed to focus on a population more worthy of our attention and resources than the children in foster care and those at risk" of being placed outside the home, said Belsh, noting that foster care was cited as a priority in the governor's first budget.

She credited a bipartisan push on behalf of foster children with creating the atmosphere that produced more than $100 million in new state funding and the eight bills that Schwarzenegger plans to sign today.

Those bills will mean the state's 75,000 foster children will now be guaranteed legal representation in dependency proceedings through the appellate level (AB2480 by Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa), provided with a better chance at a family environment by easing some of the rigid regulations that discourage would-be foster parents from taking on the responsibility (SB1641 by Sen. Nell Soto, D-Pomona), given fewer bureaucratic hurdles when they try to locate their siblings (AB2488 by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco) and protected from identity theft (AB2985 by Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia).

As Schwarzenegger noted in a letter to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuez in May, California has an "obligation to act" in response to the "sobering statistics" about what is happening to these children -- to our children, our collective responsibility.

"We tried to craft legislation that would have an immediate impact on people's lives," said Bass, who emerged as the Legislature's champion of the foster-care cause.

In a bold and bipartisan way, California legislators delivered an unprecedented combination of funds and laws to upgrade the foster- care system.

"Although we may disagree on many issues, we were very happy to come together to protect California's most vulnerable children," Bass said.

Schwarzenegger's bill signings today will put the finishing touches on a remarkable year.

Foster alumna is murdered

A difficult life tragically ends in school garden
Woman's body found by young students checking vegetables
Simone Sebastian, Jim Herron Zamora, Henry K. Lee. San Francisco Chronicle.
San Francisco, Calif.: Sep 21, 2006. pg. B.1

Cynthia Lynn Hudson grew up in foster homes and spent her adult years homeless, fighting cocaine addiction and struggling with mental illness. Her tumultuous life ended in a community garden in West Oakland, where shocked elementary school students found her battered body Tuesday.

Police, parents and school officials were at a loss Wednesday to explain the unspeakable tragedy to the children at Lafayette Elementary School who used the fenced plot of land -- where a piece of yellow police tape still hung -- to grow vegetables and flowers.

"It's scary," said Waynette Lovely, whose 6-year-old daughter attends the school. "This happening in the garden is scary, and the kids finding it is even scarier."

The garden, where students have planted tomatoes, arugula, eggplants and other vegetables, is surrounded by a fence about 5 or 6 feet tall just outside classroom windows at the school at 17th and Market streets. The gardening program is run by the city Parks and Recreation Department.

About a dozen students between 7 and 10 years old, led by a Parks and Recreation Department employee, entered the garden after school Tuesday and found Hudson's body, said department spokeswoman Kip Walsh.

"They walked to the garden as they always do to check on the vegetables they planted," she said. "One of the children saw the body, and they immediately called 911."

Homicide Sgt. Dom Arotzarena said it appeared Hudson, 47, was killed inside the enclosure. "None of the evidence indicates that she was dumped at the scene," Arotzarena said. "We're not ruling anything out, of course, but it appears so far that she was killed there in the garden area."

Investigators confirmed that Hudson suffered severe trauma but declined to say how she was killed.

Hudson is the youngest of five siblings who grew up in foster care in Berkeley and Oakland, said her sister, Brenda Smith. She said their mother was mentally ill and their father was absent. Hudson was 2 when the siblings went into foster care, she said.

"Cynthia's been homeless for many, many years, literally living on the streets for at least 10 years," said Smith, 52. "She's been mentally ill all her life, and she's been in and out of jail for a long time."

The family stabilized when the siblings were taken in by Sallie Anne Jones, who became their foster mother and looked after them even as adults, Smith said. After Jones died in the 1990s, Hudson ended up on the streets.

"She didn't spend much time in shelters," Smith said. "My sister lived on the streets -- sometimes she kept all her things in a shopping cart, but she had nowhere to go."

The only bright spot in the past 10 years for Hudson came early last summer when the Berkeley Drop-in Center helped place her in an apartment near downtown Oakland, Smith said.

"I saw her last week," Smith said. "She wasn't using (drugs), and her face looked brighter and healthier. My sister was doing about as good as she ever lived."

Court records show Hudson has been arrested numerous times for drugs and unprovoked attacks on people in Berkeley, including yanking a child off a bike near a school, pushing a woman to the ground and slapping another person in the face. Her most recent arrest came Aug. 21 for allegedly stealing meat and frozen squid from an Oakland market. She has also been held several times for psychiatric observation.

Walsh said the employee who was with the children when Hudson's body was discovered was "very disturbed and upset."

Counselors were on site at Lafayette all day, district officials said, and a letter was sent to parents alerting them of the incident.

It's the second time this year that Lafayette has been a crime scene. In May, a man reportedly entered the school through a hole in a gate and attempted to sexually assault a 6-year-old girl, which prompted the district to add security.

Outside the garden, where children have painted wooden benches and signs labeling each vegetable, there was a single white candle Wednesday, with the handwritten words: "Garden Angel; May her soul rest."

Parents said they occasionally hear gunshots in the neighborhood but believe it is usually safe. But they are starting to question their own perceptions.

"Now I have my kids asking, 'Is Oakland a really bad place to live?' " said Javona Thomas, who saw the police at the garden Tuesday while picking up her 7-year-old son. "This is a nice neighborhood. It's rare that you see cop cars just pull up."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Did founders of Genesis embezzle money?

Genesis foster care agency's co-founders reject plea deal
Pablo Lopez The Fresno Bee. The Fresno Bee. Fresno, Calif.:Sep 15, 2006. p. B1

Defense lawyers for the founders of Genesis, who are accused of embezzling more than $500,000 from the Fresno foster care and group home business, rejected a plea offer from the prosecution.

Instead, defense lawyers say they are ready to go to trial to prove their clients' innocence.

Elaine Bernard, her ex-husband, Rene Bernard, and her sister, Carol Dela Torre, are charged in Fresno County Superior Court with a 17-count indictment that alleges embezzlement, theft and tax evasion.

The prosecution offered Elaine Bernard and Dela Torre a plea deal in which the sisters would admit to at least one felony.

Rene Bernard would have to plead guilty or no contest to two misdemeanors.

In exchange for the pleas, the vast majority of the indictment would be dismissed, lawyers said.

After a hearing Thursday, Elaine Bernard's lawyer, Roger Nuttall, said his client rejected the plea deal because the defendants are innocent.

"This is not an embezzlement case. There was no intent to steal. They are highly respected, decent people," he said.

Nuttall said the plea deal wasn't fair because neither Elaine Bernard nor Dela Torre would be able to run the nonprofit business with a felony conviction on their record.

"The offer was not acceptable," Nuttall said, saying pleading to one felony would be as bad as pleading to all of the felonies in the indictment. "They would lose their license. They would lose their profession."

Nuttall indicated the prosecution's offer was a packaged offer, meaning the sisters both would have to plead guilty or no contest, or the deal would be voided.

The packaged deal, however, does not affect Rene Bernard.

Rene Bernard's lawyer, Scott Baly, said his client is still considering the prosecution's offer. If Rene Bernard rejects the offer, Baly said, he was ready to defend his client.

Prosecutors Regina Leary and Mike Elder left court without commenting. District Attorney Elizabeth Egan has a policy against talking about pending cases.

The sisters founded Genesis in 1987 and turned it into an $8 million annual enterprise caring for abandoned and abused children. Rene Bernard used to work for the business as a handyman.

The District Attorney's Office launched an investigation into their accounting practices in late 2001 after receiving information from Genesis employees and former board members. After a lengthy investigation into their accounting practices, the District Attorney's Office accused the defendants of using a corporate credit card and checks to skim more than $500,000 from the nonprofit business between 1996 and 2002.

Defense lawyers contend the defendants had permission to use corporate credit cards. They also have said the defendants have repaid any money owed to the corporation.

At Thursday's court hearing, Nuttall said he wants to reach a "reasonable settlement" that does not include a felony conviction for Elaine Bernard and Dela Torre.

Prosecutor Regina Leary, in response, told Judge Gary Orozco that she would be willing to listen to a counteroffer. Orozco offered to set aside time, including on Sunday, to help both sides reach a settlement. Orozco then ordered another pre-trial hearing on Sept. 21.

If a settlement isn't reached by then, Nuttall said he will file a motion to continue the Sept. 25 trial date for one week so he can get his other cases resolved or delayed before jury selection begins.

Lawyers said they expect the trial to last several weeks.

"We feel we have a particularly viable case," Nuttall said. "We are ready to present it to the jury."

Checks too late to help emancipated foster

NO REFUGE: A false promise to foster youth
San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, Calif.:Sep 15, 2006. p. B.10

IF CALIFORNIA legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are serious about helping foster youth make the transition to adulthood, they need to do more than pour money into the bureaucracy.

They need to make sure that money is going to the young adults it is designed to help -- when they need it most.

A case in point: The new state budget includes a $5.7 million supplement to a federal program that provides grants of up to $5,000 for emancipated foster youth to cover the costs of housing and other expenses when they go to college.

It's a compelling need. By definition, these former wards of the state lack the personal resources and family-support structure that is so essential in navigating higher education. Only about 2 percent of all former foster youth ever get a college degree. An 18-year- old leaving the foster-care system is many times more likely to become homeless or imprisoned than to earn a diploma in the following five years.

So, with September rents now overdue and classes having started more than two weeks ago on most campuses, how much of this money has actually reached the roughly 2,000 eligible foster youth in California colleges and universities?

Not a dime.

At the earliest, the first checks will be sent out in "mid-to- late October," said Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, which administers what are known as "Chafee grants," after the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., who championed the program to help young people ages 18-21 who are leaving foster care.

The excuses amount to classic bureaucratese. Fuentes-Michel insisted it's not the commission's fault -- as of Thursday, she was still waiting for the state departments of Social Services and General Services to sign the "interagency agreements" to give the commission authorization to distribute the money.

"The timing of this program," she acknowledged, "is not in sync with the academic calendar."

That is an understatement. The distribution of funds has been so outrageously slow that some financially strapped students have given up and dropped out of school as a result, according to those who administer the money at the campus level. At Cal State University East Bay, the dozen students who were certified for Chafee grants in summer 2005 did not receive their checks until August 2006. Financial-aid administrators at City College of San Francisco and Laney College said many-months delays were not uncommon.

The frustration is statewide, said Minh Ngo-Gonzalez, director of the Silicon Valley Children's Fund, which runs a program to help 41 emancipated foster youth at 15 California colleges.

She said "almost all" of those students received letters from the state last fall indicating they would get a Chafee grant -- and counted on it as part of their financial-aid package -- but none received a check before springtime. A few waited and waited, until they were finally notified -- in the spring -- that the program had run out of money and they would not get anything.

This bureaucratic dysfunction is worse than intolerable. It is cruel.

Ngo-Gonzalez said state administrators had been assuring students that, with the extra state money, the problems had been fixed and the grants would be issued in a timely manner this year.

That promise is officially broken. Even a one-month delay is untenable for a student who is scrambling to come up with the money for food, apartment deposits and other basic expenses.

"It's not right, what's happening," Ngo-Gonzalez said. "If the federal or state government tells you they're going to do something, you expect them to do it."

Sarah Mejia, a 22-year-old single mother and full-time CCSF student, knows all about delays and bureaucratic snafus. A mix-up in government records left her without a Chafee grant in 2004-05, despite documented evidence of her years in foster care. Her eligibility was finally certified by the state at the start of school in late August 2005. Still, she did not receive her $4,800 check until May 2006.

Mejia is livid at all the bureaucratic finger-pointing in Sacramento.

"At the end of the day, they get to go to their big homes, sit by their warm fires, enjoy their cappuccinos and watch their plasma TVs," said Mejia, who, at 22, is no longer eligible for the grants that came late one year and not at all in the other. "They're insulated from the conditions that me and other people who are counting on these grants have to live with."

Assemblywoman Karen Bass, a Baldwin Vista Democrat who has taken a lead role in advocating for foster youth, said legislators had two objectives in adding $5.7 million to the Chafee grant program. One was to make sure that all eligible students could obtain the grants. (Last year, there were twice as many applicants as there were available dollars to fully fund the grants).

The other goal was to alleviate one big excuse for the delay in getting the money to the students -- the fact that the federal fiscal year, which will bring $7.9 million in Chafee grants to this state, does not begin until Oct. 1. The state fiscal year begins in July, thus, theoretically, allowing the state money to flow in time for the school year.

Bass was none too pleased to learn the state bureaucracy was not going to be getting money to the eligible students until mid- October at the earliest.

"What you've brought to my attention is that this is still a problem," Bass said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "For a middle-class kid, this (type of delay in financial aid) means you borrow from your parents. For a foster kid, this could mean you are on the streets."

In most other forms of financial aid, standard practice is to ensure that students know exactly what they will be receiving -- and, in many cases, have checks in hand -- before the first day of class.

Consider the plight of a newly emancipated foster youth entering CSU East Bay. Even if a student were to receive a maximum $4,600 Pell grant -- the main source of financial aid for the lowest- income students -- the math of higher education is daunting. On- campus room-and-board runs $8,400 a year. A $5,000 Chafee grant could make or break a college opportunity for a freshman without parents, credit or connections.

"These are probably the most disadvantaged group we serve," said Rhonda Johnson, financial aid director at CSU East Bay. "You can imagine the impact of having to wait for any type of financial aid."

California legislators this year made foster care a higher priority than it has been in memory -- including the addition of $5.7 million for the Chafee grants. Their most significant move toward reform was the passage of AB2216, authored by Assembly members Bass and Bill Maze, R-Visalia, to set up a council to oversee this state's severely disjointed system for caring for the 80,000-plus foster children that are our collective responsibility.

The bungling of the Chafee grants is a perfect example of why the state needs a commission to oversee the system and outlay of dollars, as AB2216 proposes. Schwarzenegger must sign this bill -- for the sake of taxpayers and for the sake of young people who are being shortchanged by the state government's disorganization and inattention.

"One of my greatest fears is that we will do this work and the implementation will fall short," Bass said of this year's strides in foster-care reform.

Enough of the bureaucratic excuses. The emancipated foster youth who have enrolled in college -- overcoming tall odds in pursuit of their dreams -- deserve the support of the promises the state has made to them.

The Chafee program must be realigned so that these grants reach students before the first day of classes -- before they purchase their books, before they have to arrange child care or buy groceries, before the rent is due.

We will stay with this issue until the problem is fixed. . Urge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to intervene in this bureaucratic logjam that is delaying Chafee grants -- and encourage him to sign AB2216 to make all foster-care programs more efficient and effective. E-mail him at

Failure to monitor deaths in foster care

Foster child deaths mount
Some 50 children died last year in the state's protective care, say the advocates tracking numbers.
Clea Benson Bee Capitol Bureau. The Sacramento Bee. Sacramento, Calif.:Sep 17, 2006. p. A3

Almost 50 abused or neglected California children died last year in foster care after the state took them away from their parents for their own protection, according to child advocates who started counting because the state does not keep track.

The tally by the Children's Advocacy Institute is the first measurement of how many of California's most vulnerable children die while under the state's guardianship.

The institute, based at the University of San Diego School of Law, also found that more than 60 children in foster care died in 2004.

California has about 75,000 foster children, one-fourth of the nation's foster-care population.

Some of the children died accidentally or of natural causes. But others were neglected or abused by caregivers. The causes of death were not included in the study.

The death count includes children such as Dylan James George, 2, whose foster parents have been charged with fatally beating him in their Fremont home in 2004. Anthony Cortez, 15, was choked to death by another child in a Stockton group home in 2003. Four-month-old Christopher Battie died of sudden infant death syndrome in a Fresno foster home in 2003.

Data comparing the death rate for children in foster care to the death rate for children overall were not available because the state has not compiled updated mortality statistics for the general population.

The California Department of Social Services collects data on how many children in foster care statewide are injured, but not on how many die.

Advocates said a failure to monitor deaths in foster care could hamper efforts to improve the system. The state failed a federal review three years ago in part because children were not being kept safe enough after being removed from their homes.

"It just makes common sense that the state should be tracking and aware of how and when their children are dying, and if there's anything they can do to stop that," said Christina Riehl, an attorney at the Children's Advocacy Institute.

Riehl said the institute started its count after a state law went into effect requiring counties to release the name and date of death of each child who dies while in foster care. The group compiled the data by submitting requests to each of California's 58 counties.

Mary Ault, California's deputy director of children and family services, said the state reviews individual death reports and has monitored fatality trends through the Child Death Review Council.

"I believe the more facts we have, the more information we have, the better we're able to manage for better outcomes," Ault said.

The review council, composed of representatives from different state agencies, looks at records of all child deaths in the state and issues periodic reports. But there is a lag time of several years before each report is released, and the council does not specify how many of the children who died were in foster care.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined last year that the state was violating federal law by failing to publicly disclose information about deaths and near- deaths of children due to abuse or neglect.

Threatened with the loss of federal child-welfare funds, the state this summer started requiring counties to file reports on such incidents. The reports are supposed to be filed on all children, not just those in foster care.

Ault said the state would be able to use those reports as a tool for improving the system.

So far, one report has been filed. It describes the drowning death of a 2-year-old girl found in a hot tub in Orange County in July.

The report said Orange County social workers had investigated several reports that the girl's parents had neglected her and had placed her with her grandparents for several months while both parents were incarcerated. When the girl died, she was back in her parents' custody.

Meanwhile, the state is continuing efforts to reduce the number of children in foster care, which has dropped since a high of 100,000 in 2000.

In a couple of weeks, the Bush administration will begin allowing California to spend federal foster-care funds on programs that aim to keep children at home with their parents.

The rate at which California removes children from their homes is close to the nationwide average, said Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. But Wexler believes the rate should still be lower.

"What you have in foster care is a system where, of course, the majority of foster parents want to do the best that they can for the children in their care," Wexler said. "But the abusive minority is significant, and there are a number of foster children abusing each other. The system is overloaded with children who don't need to be there."

Fast Facts
California has about 75,000 foster children, one-fourth of the nations foster-care population.

The study by the Childrens Advocacy Institute found that:
* Almost 50 California children died last year in foster care.
* More than 60 such children died in 2004.
* The state Department of Social Services collects data on how many children in foster care are injured, but not on how many die.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The buck stops here

Editorial: Wards of the state
Karen Bass, Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.:Jul 24, 2006. p. B.10

CRACKING DOWN ON CALIFORNIA'S worst deadbeat parent, one who lets tens of thousands of children go without each year, took an act of the Legislature. The act was this year's budget bill, and the recovering deadbeat is the state itself, which has become the parent to about 75,000 children who were abused or neglected at home and ended up being brought up by the state in foster care.

About a third of those children live in Los Angeles County, home to more youths under government supervision than any other county in the nation.

For years the state and county have added to the misery of their wards by offering oversight that is too limited, services that are too byzantine and bureaucratic and funding that is distributed in such a bizarre fashion that counties actually have a financial incentive to break up families just to keep the money coming in.

That's changing. An unexpected boost in state revenues, and a tireless effort by freshman Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), helped boost spending on foster youth by more than $83 million this year. That comes on top of a federal waiver won this year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that will allow some counties to use their share of $1.9 billion in federal funds for preventive programs.

There's a lot of optimism in Los Angeles County, where the number of children removed from their families already has been cut by more than half in the last five years. But now David Sanders, who has led the turnaround as director of the Department of Children and Family Services, is leaving.

Recent improvements in how the federal, state and county governments treat foster youth cannot be allowed to rest on the skill of a single leader or the unexpectedly good budget news of a single year.

That's why Bass has introduced AB 2216, which would help consolidate some of the gains with a more rational system of child welfare oversight.

Currently, state and county officials, dependency courts and boards of education defer -- or shirk -- responsibility to each other. Bass' bill would require agencies to coordinate their work through a child welfare council, with California's chief justice and secretary of health and human services in charge. The council would be required to measure results of programs to make sure they improve the lives of children.

"With no one in charge," the Little Hoover Commission reported in 2003, "the foster care system fumbles forward, and often backward, and costs children and families their happiness, their prosperity and even their lives."

AB 2216 is a step toward putting someone in charge. Once it passes, and Schwarzenegger signs it into law, Bass can follow up on another good idea she has floated: creating a foster care undersecretary in the governor's office so that there can be no doubt where the buck stops when it comes time to eliminate the state's and counties' reputation as deadbeat parents.

Providing housing for foster youth who age out of care

`To Break the Cycle'
Inspire program puts six young women in apartments
Lisa O'Neill Hill, The Press - Enterprise. Riverside, Calif.:Sep 8, 2006. p. A07

Kristi Camplin saw a need and did something about it.

Camplin's husband, a former Riverside County social worker, had long expressed frustration about the lack of services for young people once they age out of foster care. So a year ago, Camplin, then a stay-at-home mom with a psychology degree and a sales background, formed a nonprofit group to help them.

Now, six young women live in two apartments run by Inspire Life Skills Training. One apartment is in Riverside; the other is in San Bernardino. In between shuttling her four children to school, soccer practices, gymnastics and other activities, Camplin makes sure the girls are keeping up in school, attending counseling and staying employed.

"I just jumped in and thought, `It can't be that hard,'" the 32-year-old Corona woman said.
Camplin had no idea what she was getting herself into and still has a lot to learn about running a nonprofit, she said. But this much she knows: She is giving half a dozen young people positive reinforcement and better odds at a more stable, productive future.

"These six young girls are getting a chance to break the cycle in their families and not be dependent on the system," Camplin said. "Any future kids they may have are going to have a better life."

Camplin formed her organization with $15,000. She and her husband donated $5,000 and the rest came from an Orange County transitional living facility, which served as a model for Inspire. Another Orange County group donated $30,000.

The organization receives no county, state or federal funding, she said.

However, Camplin hopes to raise up to $40,000 through an October fundraiser to help with the $65,000 a year operating budget. The young women in the program are scheduled to speak at the event.

She said she has been blessed that other organizations, friends and even people she meets at meetings have stepped up. Cal Baptist University provides free counseling. Hamner Towing in Norco and Corona Fleet help the young women buy cars and fixes the vehicles for free. The Corona Police Department has donated gift certificates.

Camplin also calls on a group of more than a dozen volunteers who teach the young women "life skills" classes and serve as mentors.

"It's just God keeping it together and keeping me going," Camplin said. "Every week I meet somebody new who can help me."

The need never ends. Camplin said she has six to eight applications from girls hoping to move into Inspire housing.

But for now, she has no more room.

*Inspire program director Kristi Camplin, 32, and husband, Dave Camplin, 35, both of Corona, help to find former foster kids places to live after they leave the foster-care system in Riverside County.

Inspire Life Skills Training

Foster Care; the next step can be iffy
At exit time, help is scarce
Inland woman's homespun nonprofit group offers lifeline
Lisa O'Neill Hill. The Press - Enterprise. Riverside, Calif.:Sep 8, 2006. p. A01

Leilani Kane became numb long ago to her nomadic and chaotic upbringing. In foster care since she was a child, Kane changed addresses eight times in 13 years.

Some of her living situations were not ideal but at least she had a roof over her head, she said.

However, Kane always knew that one day she would have to fend for herself. In California, most children in foster care are on their own when they turn 18 and are emancipated. Some find housing, but about half return to relatives who couldn't care for them, said Mike McConnell, manager of Riverside County's Independent Living Program.

Kane, who turns 18 today, said she had few options.

Housing remains one of the biggest concerns for the 20,000 young people in the country who age out of foster care each year, experts say. But Inland officials are hopeful that a recent change in California legislation and a tiny, homespun nonprofit group will help make small strides in solving a large problem.

A program, passed by the state Legislature in 2002 and designed to provide housing, grocery support and job training to foster youth between the ages of 16 and 24 got little participation because it required a 60 percent match from county governments.

But Gov. Schwarzenegger agreed this year to fully fund the program, and Riverside and San Bernardino counties hope to participate.

For Kane, the homespun nonprofit group, Inspire Life Skills Training, was her answer.

"I was worried about where I was going to stay," said the soft-spoken young woman with black hair that falls near her waist. "I had nowhere to go."

She applied for and was accepted to live in one of two apartments for former foster youth run by Inspire. One apartment is in Riverside; the other's in San Bernardino. Founded a year ago by a Corona woman, the organization helps young women transition into self-sufficiency.

Kane, who was removed from her mother after being born with drugs in her system, is moving into an apartment near Riverside's Cal Baptist University where three other young women - all of whom were in foster care - live.

She said she is excited and apprehensive about the opportunity.

"It's really like I only get one chance. I can't screw it up," said Kane, who attends Riverside Community College, works, and wants to be a pediatric nurse.

More options
Inland officials hope future emancipated youth also will benefit from the change in legislation.
Local governments that had not been participating will apply for funding and demonstrate how they would use the money.

Cathy Cimbalo, children's services director for San Bernardino County, said her office hopes to take advantage of the program, as do officials in Riverside County.

"I think we're all aware that kids at 18 really are not ready to be on their own but the system has not planned for that," Cimbalo said.

Both counties provide some services to foster youth after they leave the system.

In California, 75,260 children were in out-of-home placement as of June, according to the California Department of Social Services. That number includes children who are living in foster homes and those who have been placed with relatives.

As of June, 5,256 children were in out-of-home care in Riverside County, compared to 4,743 in San Bernardino County, according to the department.

Social service providers in both counties prepare foster youth for emancipation by teaching them tasks such as paying bills and interviewing for jobs - skills they need to live on their own.

They also are given help finding housing. Emancipated foster youth are entitled to college tuition waivers and can qualify for certain scholarships that waive all the costs. But many youth don't know about the services.

"It's not like they're just thrown out into the wind, but the problem with housing is a severe one," said Becky Dugan, Riverside County's presiding juvenile court judge. "We don't have enough housing and the housing we do have is in places we don't want to put them. The county overall has a severe shortage of affordable housing, which trickles down to foster kids."

Robin Nixon, executive director of the National Foster Care Coalition in Washington, D.C., said social service providers and others need to do a better job of preparing youth for emancipation. She also believes the age at which young people are emancipated should be pushed back.

"The average American kid doesn't cut off the family purse strings until 26 or 27 but we expect them to do it at 18," Nixon said.

Inspire founder Kristi Camplin, 32, recognized that problem. The six young women who live in the Inspire apartments juggle classes, part-time jobs and mandatory, free counseling at Cal Baptist University. All are 18 or older and attend local colleges, including Cal State San Bernardino.

They participate in twice monthly "life skills" classes designed to get them thinking about their long-term goals or about more practical matters such as birth control options. Camplin pairs them with mentors, volunteers who can be a constant resource and guide for the young women whose lives have been defined by inconsistency.

Camplin furnishes the apartments with donated beds, sofas and other items.

She has become seasoned at asking businesses for gift certificates that she can give to the teenagers. She relies on donations to pay for expenses.

The young women each contribute at least $80 a month toward rent, pay 10 percent of the utility bill and buy their own groceries. In many ways, they are living lives of typical young people.

Erica Navarro, 18, and Tabitha Cooper, 19, share an apartment near Cal State San Bernardino.
The girls have formed a tight bond, and relate to each other as if they were sisters.

Navarro, who wants to be a correctional officer, was placed in a shelter when her mother was arrested.

She was unhappy in the succession of homes she lived in and resisted getting close to anyone.

"My parents always made promises to me and never kept them," she said. "I've learned now don't get my hopes up on what people say."

Navarro said her social worker suggested applying to Inspire. Now, her life is pretty calm, and living in the apartment has provided stability.

"It's taught me more responsibility," she said.

Inspire focuses on high functioning kids, which increases the chances that the program will help youth succeed, Dugan said. Too often, the foster-care system is blamed for negative outcomes, she said.

Society in general has leaned very heavily on the criminal justice and family law systems to be parents for children, she said.

"The truth is no agency, no court can be parents for children," she said. "We are basically left as a cleanup when the damage has been done."

Outspoken advocate for foster children

Foster care advocate honored
Cortney Fielding, Pasadena Star - News. Pasadena, Calif.:Sep 7, 2006.

ALTADENA - Shirlee Smith is no angel.

By her own account, the parenting guru and foster-child advocate is a loud, bossy, pushy woman with a reputation for pestering government agencies until she gets what she wants - or at least gives them a piece of her mind.

So it was a surprise when the 69-year-old Altadena resident learned she would be named one of this year's Congressional "Angels in Adoption" by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena.

"People have called me a lot of things," Smith said, "but angel isn't one of them."

A parenting teacher, longtime Star-News columnist who has recently returned to these pages, television host and author of "They're Your Kids, Not Your Friends," Smith will be recognized in Washington, D.C. later this month for her work as a foster parent.

A former member of the Los Angeles County Adoption Commission, Smith has served as an appointee to the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families.

"Shirlee has a remarkable and tireless dedication to foster children and richly deserves this recognition," Schiff said. "She is a tremendous advocate for foster-care children."

But naturally, the woman known for telling it like it is to parents also has been an outspoken critic of the child-welfare system she has worked so closely with.

Smith believes there are too few people genuinely looking out for the millions of children nationwide in foster placement.

"People pretend to care, but they don't," she said.

Part of the problem is a system that doesn't screen adults adequately before handing over foster children, she said.

The result: Children who need extra love, attention and discipline to overcome hardship end up with caretakers who look at them more as a source of income than as a son or daughter.Smith has raised 13 special-needs children.

But the biggest injustice she sees takes place when they turn 18, and are "emancipated" with little in the way of funding, resources or guidance to aid transition into their new adult lives.

Often, she said, foster parents turn their backs on children when "there's no more check coming."

"You knew the checks were going to stop coming ahead of time," she said. "Letting your kids go - that doesn't mean literally."

Through her parenting classes, a Web site and a Charter Cable TV show, "Talk About Parenting with Shirlee Smith," she is hoping to ensure fewer children end up in the foster system to begin with.

Smith said she realized adults needed help learning to be parents after watching birth mothers of the infant children Smith was caring for come for visitation.

One mother came back after a visit and told Smith not to worry about feeding the infant because she had just fed her a bottle of Kool-Aid.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "Nobody knows they don't know how to be a parent."

Bill to bring consistency and accountability to foster care system

Editorial: Governor -- help these kids
San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, Calif.:Sep 3, 2006. p. E.4

CALIFORNIA legislators have just approved a significant reform bill to bring consistency and accountability to its troubled foster- care system. The question now is whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who launched into politics as an advocate for children with his after-school program, will sign AB2216 into law.

He must.

The Child Welfare Leadership and Performance Accountability Act of 2006, authored by Assembly members Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and Bill Maze, R-Visalia, would force the state to finally acknowledge and address the vast disparities in the quality of care and access to services for foster youth in counties throughout the state.

AB2216 will require the many state and local agencies that deal with various aspects of foster care to communicate with each other, with an intent to identify and expand best practices. The bill sets up a council to oversee the system and to make sure that a foster child's odds of success in life are not so dependent on where he or she lives.

Three other freshly passed foster-care bills demand the governor's signature:
-- AB2480 by Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, would ensure that foster youth have legal representation when dependency proceedings reach the appellate level. Currently, counsel is required only when requested by the child's trial attorney and there is a conflict of interest between the child and the county's lawyer.

-- SB1641 by Sen. Nell Soto, D-Pomona, would lift some of the absurdly rigid state regulations that have become barriers to creating a family environment for foster youth -- and discourage would-be foster parents from assuming the responsibility. Example: A foster youth cannot ever be left home alone, even for the parent to run a brief errand. Soto's bill would impose a more reasonable "best meets the needs of the child" standard.

-- AB2488 by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would lift some of the obstacles that prevent foster children from locating their siblings -- one of the more common, and eminently understandable, cravings of someone who spent his or her youth being moved from home to home.

Schwarzenegger and legislators put a combined $94 million extra for foster care into the coming year's budget. The danger is that the governor might try to declare "mission accomplished" and cite that increase as sufficient evidence of his commitment to foster care.

But the infusion of new money -- welcome as it is -- does not preclude the need to reform the system. If anything, it intensifies the need to make sure those dollars are spent as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The stakes are excruciatingly high.

Recent history suggests California's more than 80,000 foster children are at far higher risk of becoming homeless or incarcerated than advancing to college.

Any responsible parent whose children were in danger of living on the streets or falling into the criminal-justice system would do everything and anything within his or her power to provide a structure to steer them to the right path.

Foster children are our collective responsibility. The outcomes of this failed system -- with unacceptable numbers of youths entering adulthood without the skills or support systems they need -- leave no doubt about the urgency for reform.

These four bills need to be signed into law. Urge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign these four bills to improve the lives of foster youth. E-mail him today at Our previous editorials on California's troubled foster-care system can be found under "Chronicle campaigns" at

Foster deaths in Los Angeles

Child abuse reform sought
Troy Anderson, Los Angeles Daily News. Daily Breeze.
Torrance, Calif.:Aug 29, 2006. p. A4

Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo asked the grand jury Monday to investigate the loss of lives of dozens of children returned to parents or caretakers who later killed them and identify areas for reform.

"We have a child-welfare system that is broken," Delgadillo said. "And I'm not going to sit on the sidelines while kids are being harmed by the very system designed to protect them."

He said there might be more than 75 children who were killed in the past five years.
Social workers either returned foster children to abusive parents or caretakers or failed to remove the youngsters from abusive homes.

Maureen Siegel, senior assistant city attorney, said they arrived at the figure by extrapolating out data prior to 2001, which showed that an average of about 15 children had been slain by parents and caregivers after they were returned home from foster care or left in their homes by social workers.

Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect data suggests that the number of deaths may have decreased in recent years. ICAN reports reveal that the number of deaths rose from 13 in 1996 to 15 in 1997 and then peaked at 20 in both 1998 and 1999 before falling to 15 in 2000 and 12 in 2001.

The number of deaths rose to 18 in 2003 and fell to 15 in 2004. Data for 2002, 2005 and this year were not available.

Department of Children and Family Services spokeswoman Louise Grasmehr said the DCFS has made significant improvements in recent years in ensuring the safety of children.

And she pointed out that the federal government's recent approval of a funding waiver will help the department further improve child safety by allowing the department to use $350 million of its $1.4 billion budget on services to help families overcome their problems before it's necessary to place their children in foster homes.

"We take every death of a child extremely seriously and the department takes every death of a child in our system to heart," Grasmehr said. "We routinely look at practice issues in child fatalities."

Since 2003, DCFS statistics show the number of children in foster homes has dropped by 26 percent, the percentage of children abused in foster care dropped 30 percent and the percentage of children re- abused in the community dropped by 14 percent.

"Certainly, any death is too many," said Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights. "If DCFS is not making proper assessments, that's something that needs to be looked into."

In a letter to the grand jury, Delgadillo noted there is currently no independent system of review in place to hold accountable the agencies responsible for protecting children and removing them from dangerous homes.

Delgadillo said he decided to ask for the investigation after seeing a number of cases come through his office in which children had been killed following DCFS involvement.

Rising child deaths in LA County

L.A. official targets foster care system
Troy Anderson. News. Pasadena Star. Pasadena, Calif.:Aug 29, 2006.

Disturbed to learn that Los Angeles County social workers returned dozens of children to parents or caretakers who later killed them, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo asked the Grand Jury on Monday to investigate and identify areas for reform.

"We have a child welfare system that is broken," Delgadillo said. "And I'm not going to sit on the sidelines while kids are being harmed by the very system designed to protect them.

"We think there are as many, maybe more, than 75 children whose lives have been lost" in the last five years, he said.

Those claims involve alleged incidents where social workers either returned foster children to abusive parents or caretakers or failed to remove the youngsters from abusive homes.

Maureen Siegel, senior assistant city attorney, said they arrived at the figure by extrapolating out data prior to 2001, which showed an average of about 15 children had been slain by parents and caregivers after they were returned home from foster care or left in their homes by social workers.

Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect data suggests the number of deaths may have decreased in recent years. ICAN reports reveal the number of deaths rose from 13 in 1996 to 15 in 1997 and then peaked at 20 in both 1998 and 1999 before falling to 15 in 2000 and 12 in 2001.

The number of deaths rose to 18 in 2003 and fell to 15 in 2004. Data for 2002, 2005 and this year was not available.

Department of Children and Family Services spokeswoman Louise Grasmehr said DCFS has made significant improvements in recent years in ensuring the safety of children despite reunifying thousands of foster children with their biological families.

And she pointed out that the federal government's recent approval of a funding waiver will help the department further improve child safety. The waiver allows the department to use $350 million of its $1.4billion budget on services to help families overcome their problems before it's necessary to place their children in foster homes.

"We take every death of a child extremely seriously and the department takes every death of a child in our system to heart," Grasmehr said. "We routinely look at practice issues in child fatalities."

Since 2003, DCFS statistics show number of children in foster homes has dropped by 26percent, the percentage of children abused in foster care dropped 30 percent and the percentage of children re-abused in the community dropped by 14 percent.

"Certainly, any death is too many," said Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights. "If DCFS is not making proper assessments, that's something that needs to be looked into. I just don't have any good indicators that says DCFS is not now or in the last year or two not making improvements in their ability to assess risk."

In a letter to the grand jury, Delgadillo noted there is currently no independent system of review in place to hold accountable the agencies responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect, as well as removing them from dangerous homes.

Delgadillo said he decided to ask for the investigation after seeing a number of cases come through his office in which children had been killed following DCFS involvement.
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