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.