Sunday, September 10, 2006

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 governor@governor.ca.gov. Our previous editorials on California's troubled foster-care system can be found under "Chronicle campaigns" at sfgate.com/opinion