Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A challenge to invest in higher education without family support

Aid a must for former foster kids, study says
Schultz, E. J. Fresno Bee, Jan. 17, 2007, pg. A1.

California is a horrible parent, kicking most of its foster kids to the curb as soon as they turn 18 -- with no job, home or path to college, according to a new report.

More than 4,000 foster children leave the system, or "emancipate," each year, including about 180 in Fresno County and 90 in Tulare County. But 65% leave with no place to live, less than 3% go to college and 51% are jobless, according to the study released Tuesday by the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law. The report was funded by The California Wellness Foundation, a grantmaking organization devoted to promoting health in the state.

Much-ballyhooed legislative fixes have failed, says the group, which is calling for a $123 million-a-year state investment to give foster children the same chance as other kids.

"They are your children, public officials," said Robert Fellmeth, director of the institute. "They are in your charge. How you treat them is the proper measure of your devotion to family values."

The stakes are high in the central San Joaquin Valley, home to nearly 5,000 of the roughly 75,000 children now in foster care in the state.

"It is our obligation to continue to provide transitional services," said Catherine Huerta, interim director of Fresno County's Department of Children and Family Services. "But there's never enough money to do that."

Most foster children are released from state jurisdiction at age 18. Transitional services -- like housing and job counseling -- are available through county-run programs supported by the state.

Tulare and Fresno counties, for instance, plan to apply this year for money from a state program that gives housing assistance to former foster youths ages 18-24.

But more help is needed, according to the study.

On average, the state spends less than $2,225 on foster kids after they turn 18. By comparison, California parents spent a median $44,500 on such things as tuition, cash and housing to help their adult children reach independence, according to the study.

The Children's Advocacy Institute plan -- expected to be introduced this year in the Legislature -- would close the gap by giving monthly stipends to former foster kids ranging from $258 to $850 a month. The money would be distributed by a court-appointed guardian, and the payments would last five years, for a total of $34,968.

The cost to the state, including administrative expenses, would reach about $123 million annually within five years, according to the report. But the state would recoup its investment because former foster kids would stay off welfare and out of prison, advocates say.

"We're not investing in these children, and we're losing money in the bargain," Fellmeth said.

Last year, the Legislature attacked the foster care problem with a flurry of bills. But some of the most significant legislation stalled, according to the study, including measures to increase education assistance and give hiring preferences to foster children.

The bills that did pass, including requiring background checks on mentors and easing rules to allow for emergency foster care placements, were "very small, tiny baby steps" Fellmeth said.

Overall, he said, the effort has "basically been a fraud -- it's basically not happening."

Assembly Member Bill Maze, R-Visalia, co-chairman of last year's Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care, disagrees.

"This is a gigantic problem, and we've stated that from the get- go," he said. "As we all know, you don't get absolutely the grand outcome that everybody wants in any one year."

Maze, who expects to take a leadership role this year on a proposed joint Senate-Assembly foster care committee, said lawmakers are committed to reconsidering the bills that failed last year. And he said legislators would consider the plan released Tuesday, but "you can't just focus all that energy solely on emancipated youth."

Other problems need fixing, he said, like making sure that foster kids still in the system are getting the proper medical and mental health care.

"You have to prioritize things," he said. "Very clearly we know, as a system, as a whole, we've got major problems."

Meanwhile, foster kids continue to churn through.

Dinuba-area native Jennifer Rowan was in the state's foster care system off and on from the age of 7 to 18. When emancipated, she went to live with her mom. But when her mom was evicted, the two were forced to move to a Fresno women's shelter.

But she beat the odds, graduating from high school while living in the shelter.

Rowan, 20, who was profiled in The Bee in June 2005, now attends classes at Fresno City College and works for Fresno County, counseling foster kids.

"When they get out," she said, "a lot of them, they don't have family. It's hard to go to school and concentrate on doing something with your life when really your life is not together."

Foster children in the ValleyThere are about 75,000 foster children in California. Here's how many are living in the Central San Joaquin Valley as of July 2006:

Fresno County: 2,427

Tulare County: 1,118

Merced County: 660

Kings County: 350

Madera County: 334

Source: State Department of Social Services

3 Comments:

Blogger leigh said...

Has the plan by the Children Advocacy Institute take effect and had the word been given to the former foster care children advised. And how will they be advise. Also how many children in up in the prison system and per the studies how many who were in level 6 to 14 are and have been in the prison system

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