Sunday, December 02, 2007

California officials 'parent' 77,000 foster children

Parenting our foster children
Fellmeth, Robert. San Francisco Chronicle. Nov. 25, 2007, pg. E-5.

Our state officials are the parents of 77,000 children. These foster kids have been removed from their homes and their biological parents. In supplanting parental authority, the state in a democracy makes them part of our family. Their parents are our three branches.

So how did their legislative parents perform in 2007?

A few glimmers of responsibility: an increase in housing help for foster kids who turn 18; increased transparency when kids die from abuse; and some additional screening of foster kids for disabilities and possible federal SSI (disability) help.

But the final grade, as with recent performance, is not better than a D, reflecting California's three continuing basic deficiencies:

a) We refuse to recognize the right of a child simply to be intended by two committed adults. Within a generation, the unwed birth rate has climbed from 8 percent to above one-third of all children. Though child support by absent fathers averages just $50 a month per child, we have not increased our commitment to collecting child support. And we have engaged in no public discussion of reproductive responsibility. This is a verboten topic in a state dominated by liberal ideology.

b) We have underpaid the family foster-care providers who are the next-best option for these children - a personal parent. Most adoptions come from this group. But we pay these folks $450 to $700 a month per child - not close to out-of-pocket costs. The supply of these providers is down, and so we now have few places to put foster children except marginal kin and group homes. Yet we manage to find almost $5,000 a month per child for group home placements - eight times more! (Group homes have lobbyists in Sacramento.) So kids are split from their siblings, moved from the longtime school districts, and shuffled through multiple placements.

c) The typical American youth does not become self-sufficient until age 26. Private parents give their children a median of $45,000 after the age of 18 to help out. All government help for these kids reaches less than $10,000 per child after they emancipate.

Those emancipating kids hit the streets and now amount to 40 percent of California's homeless. Twenty-five percent will end up in prison within two years. More than 50 percent have no place to live and do not have a job. We kick them out anyway. To survive, they become addicts, turn tricks, commit crimes.

These statistics are well-known to every leader and staffer in the Legislature who handles these issues. The numbers have been reported and documented for years. That acknowledgment covers both parties. Each has allowed the other to cancel the child-friendly aspect of its political philosophy - accomplishing a kind of "contract" to the detriment of children.

Republicans appear to most support the wealthy class, particularly tax breaks that "starve the beast of government." Those tax expenditures also remain in place forever unless affirmatively ended by a two-thirds vote. And their party leadership denies the right of Republicans to vote their conscience on such matters (they are bound by caucus votes).

Meanwhile, Democrats support public employee and other unions, and the expansion of existing social services - lobbied by those now performing them. The end result tends to be a foster care system where children become pieces of paper flowing across the desks of probation officers, and caseworkers, and counselors, and attorneys, and judges, and psychologists. Each desk is manned by changing faces. And from the child's point of view, they get phone calls from strangers and are moved into institutions with names like "Promises" and "Progress Ranch" and "Morning Sky."

New money goes to expand such impersonal services - what folks are already doing. Most of the new money in 2006 reduced social worker caseloads. Most of the paltry addition in 2007 is for transitional housing that will allow group homes to expand and extend care. Both expenditures have merit, but they betray a bias against directly helping children. Contrary to Hillary's slogan that it "takes a village to raise a child," it takes a family.

Optimum solutions that involve personal help matched to an individual child - such as a "transition guardian" plan to replicate what parents do for children post-18 - get short shrift. There is no existing bureaucracy to advocate for that important alternative.

We now collect $1.7 billion per year in mental health money under recently enacted Proposition 63 - and it is accumulating. One stated priority here is mental health prevention and transition to adulthood from age 18 to 26. What population more fits this initiative's stated purposes? But these foster kids are not organized to lobby for that money, and their share is likely to be negligible.

We have heard the same song from legislators for the past 17 years of lobbying for children. "We just do not have any money. . . . Impossible. Wish we could help."

Meanwhile, both parties ignore the $30 billion in annual state tax "expenditures" (special favors), and also the federal tax reductions giving California taxpayers more than $37 billion a year since 2003. About 1 percent of either of these sources would provide prevention investment, adequate family foster care placements and more adoptions, and an eight-fold increase in assistance to emancipating foster kids - simply matching what private parents provide for their children.

That would discharge the state's parental duties responsibly and earn it a B or better. But none of these proposals is on the table.

Rather, both parties support $75 million for a February 2008 primary to vitiate the term limits for the Assembly and Senate leadership and for national attention and political ego gratification. They can find money for that, although we already have an election scheduled in June - just four months later.

The prison guards get legislative attention, as do most groups with political money. The Assembly budget included $145 million in new tax breaks over three years for multinational Hollywood corporations. We added $45 million in yacht tax breaks. Foster kids do not attend too many fundraisers.

So who is representing these children and their primary needs? To be intended at the start, to have a personal relationship with someone who they know will stay up all night worrying if they screw up, and to help achieve self-sufficiency in the years between 18 and 26? Children had their champions in 2007 - Karen Bass, Darrell Steinberg, Carole Migden, Noreen Evans, Bill Maze, Mark Leno, Jim Beall, Dave Jones, among others.

But the Big Five making the real decisions at the end are not among them - the two top Democratic and Republican legislators and the governor.

Foster kids usually get orphaned at the end of each session by a device called the "suspense file." It happened again this year, with a dozen bills - costing even a trivial amount of money. Bills are introduced with fanfare, win big votes in policy committee and one house, only to be marooned in the appropriations committees - where they are killed without a vote by a confidential decision of the legislative leadership. But the leadership of our state gives high praise and low priority to these children of the state, their own children.

So who is at fault? In a democracy, we can point fingers. But in the final analysis, it is our failure. We allow it to happen, and we countenance it year after year without political consequence for those who are designedly our servants. The grade of D for the Legislature implies a similar judgment for those who continue to elect them.

- Robert C. Fellmeth is the Price Professor of Public Interest Law and the director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law.