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.