Saturday, July 12, 2008

State budget cuts will harm foster children

County frets over ‘foster freeze’
State proposal could affect 1,073 kids across SCV
Geyer, Katherine. The Signal, July 11, 2008.

Local social workers and foster children advocates said Thursday the 1,073 Santa Clarita Valley foster children will suffer from the proposed state budget that would cut an estimated $44 million from services throughout Los Angeles County.

“Real children in real crises cannot wait until next year or the year after for our state to resolve those problems,” Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, said at a news conference in Valencia on Thursday. “The state must now make good on its promise to care for and protect these children.”

The county would see a 10 percent reduction in funding if the proposed 2008-2009 state budget is adopted, according to the County Welfare Directors Association. Statewide, child welfare services and foster care programs would see a $320 million reduction.

The budget would cut the payment rate for foster care providers and foster family agencies and would reduce the number of county social workers, according to the organization.

Heimov said the proposed budget is “unacceptable” for the children and, if adopted, would result in “poorer quality of education, fewer doctors to treat them, less frequent visits by a social worker and less access to our already overburdened courts.”

Gerokeshia Campbell, a former foster parent, said the budget cuts would make it harder for families who want to help out.

“Unfortunately the governor’s budget proposal will make it tougher for more families to make this important choice and take on this critical role,” Campbell said. “While many families would love to welcome a child into their home, with high gas prices and high food prices and economic worries, they just can’t do it without state assistance.”

California has operated for nearly two weeks without a budget and that has meant delays in payments to foster care programs, said Virginia Sandoval, a social worker with the county Department of Children and Family Services. “As it is, there is already a great delay in services,” she said.

The Assembly and Senate were supposed to pass a budget by June 15, and Schwarzenegger was to have signed it by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

If lawmakers fail to pass a budget by Aug. 1, the state is preparing to borrow money to cover expenses before it runs out of cash in September.

The state’s total spending plan under the budget Schwarzenegger released in May was $144.3 billion for the current fiscal year, a figure that includes special obligation funds and money to repay bonds.

“Our children did not create the budget problems,” Heimov said. “Our legislators have a responsibility to fund critical services that provide critical care to our most vulnerable children.”


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The average child welfare worker in Santa Barbara leaves their job within two years??

High Turnover and Fragmented Focus Plague Foster Care
‘Too Many Cracks to Fall Through’
Welsch, Nick. The Santa Barbara Independent, July 3, 2008.

Of the 38 children emancipated from foster care last year throughout Santa Barbara County, 12 wound up homeless within six months. Given the dangerously disjointed state of the county’s Child Welfare Service Department — as described by the Santa Barbara Grand Jury in a recent report — it’s a wonder that number isn’t higher. While praising the dedication of many Child Welfare Service employees, the Grand Jury found a department plagued by an astonishing rate of turnover that’s worsened every year for the past five years.

In fact, the Grand Jury found that the average Child Welfare worker stays on the job less than two years. Given that each worker spends the first three months in training, the Grand Jury concluded, “The system is highly inefficient.” Making matters worse, this turnover comes at a time when foster care caseloads have increased by 81 percent over the past five years without any corresponding increase in foster care workers.

But even without the rampant turnover problems, the Grand Jury concluded that the manner in which Child Welfare employees are assigned to manage foster children ensures a “discontinuity” of oversight and care. By the time most foster kids are placed in their first foster home, the Grand Jury found they had been handled by no less than three county caseworkers.

“Because of this discontinuity, many foster children have difficulty in forming trusting relationships with adults,” the Grand Jurors reported. Given that many foster care kids are placed in more than one home before they’re released at age 18, the number of caseworkers a typical foster child encounters is considerably higher. Child Welfare managers explained their employees are assigned specialized functions — such as investigation, preparing court reports, and home placement — rather than individual children, in order to achieve maximum caseload efficiencies.

Compounding this purported discontinuity is the way Child Welfare assigns caseworkers to monitor the progress of Santa Barbara foster kids placed in facilities outside of Santa Barbara County. Given an acute shortage of foster beds within Santa Barbara, roughly 25 percent of all Santa Barbara foster kids are located in homes outside the county. One Child Welfare worker is assigned to cover the out-of-county charges, but that assignment is regularly rotated to alleviate the stress caused by so much travel.

Currently, 584 county youths are in foster homes — up from 322 in 2002. The Grand Jury attributes the increase to neglect, associated with a rise in methamphetamine abuse. Family reunification is the first charge of department workers, but in those cases where the parents are deemed unfit, juveniles go to foster homes. When foster children reach 15 years old, the county begins preparing them to become self-sufficient once they’re emancipated at age 18.

This transition often proves exceptionally difficult, and emancipated youth have swollen the ranks of the homeless throughout the nation as well as in Santa Barbara.
A new eight-bed shelter for foster kids ages 16 to 18 opened in southern Santa Barbara last fall to teach the life skills necessary for self-sufficiency. Another eight-bed facility has long existed in North County. As good as these facilities are, the Grand Jury noted they served only 16 young people, “leaving the rest to fend for themselves.” The Grand Jury found that foster kids “tend to isolate themselves, having learned to survive the system by ‘making themselves invisible.’” As a result, “Too many youth fall through the cracks and too many become homeless.”

The one bright note found by the Grand Jury was the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program, in which volunteers are assigned to an individual child. The Grand Jury found that the one-on-one interactions CASA offers create the most “consistent adult influence” in foster children’s lives. Frequently, CASA volunteers become mentors to their foster charges. But because the foster child caseload has mushroomed so fast, there are only half enough CASA volunteers to go around.

The Grand Jury’s report was prepared just before three-year-old foster child Gilbert Dominguez of Santa Maria was found beaten, bruised, and dead on June 11. Police arrested Sylvia Marie Dominguez — the boy’s foster mother and her biological aunt — and prosecutors have charged her with murder. The accused has pled not guilty and denied striking the child. While some neighbors have suggested physical abuse was not uncommon at the Dominguez household, county officials said there were no warnings of reported incidents or allegations on file.

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75,000 foster children; $80 million potential cuts to foster care programs

Latest Victim Of California Budget Crunch: Foster Homes
75,000 Kids Use Programs On Chopping Block
NBC, San Francisco,CA.

California budget gridlock has many people worried that children in the state's foster care programs could get hurt in the fight over funding.

For the seventh time in 10 years, lawmakers in Sacramento have failed to pass a state budget on time.

About $250,000 in foster care services may disappear.

That has left foster parents in the state wondering who will help provide critical services for thousands of California kids in need of good homes.

The failure to start the July 1 fiscal year with a spending plan could have catastrophic effects on millions of people, as dozens of programs sit on the chopping block, NBC11's Mike Luery reported.

Foster parents get hundreds of state dollars to pay for diapers, food and medical care for the kids they bring into their home.

Jessie Wright wonders how she'll be able to take care of her 9-month-old toddler.

"I called my daughter last night and I'm like -- I may need to borrow some money, because I'm not sure what's going to happen."

Foster parents like Wright receive an average of about $500 a month from the state to take care of children who often come from abused backgrounds, Luery reported.

However, with the prospect of lower payments and a stall in the state budget, long-term funding remains uncertain.

Democrats want to close the $15 billion budget gap by raising taxes.

Republicans want to cut social services.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass said she wants to find a permanent source of money to help foster parents and the state's 75,000 foster kids.

"If we are able to take care of the foster care population, it will reduce the prison population in the long term, because when we don't take care of the foster children, that's where a lot of them wind up unfortunately," Bass said.

The law requires that current payments to foster parents must continue, but with $80 million in potential cuts to foster care programs, parents said they are starting to feel pinched.

"They need to find some real solutions," Wright said. "Stop doing this. Stop putting the children in the middle of it."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed last year's budget on Aug. 24.

That was seven weeks overdue.

Tuesday Bass said she believes she'll have a deal upon which Republicans and Democrats can agree upon in about a week.

That could be overly optimistic though because both parties are still bickering over the $15 billion, Luery reported.

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32% of youth homeless within 6 months of aging out of foster care in Santa Barbara

Civil grand jury finds problems in Santa Barbara County foster care system
Lerner, Danielle. Santa Barbara County Grand Jury Report, June 30, 2008.

An investigation by a civil grand jury finds several problems in the Santa Barbara County child welfare system.

Here are the Facts First:
* The jury investigated the county's foster care system to see how well it serves foster children.
* In a report released Monday, the jury issued five findings and recommendations on how to improve the system.

In its report, the jury labeled the county's Child Welfare Services as "a system of care that lacks stability." Now, it is up to the county to make some changes.

The nine-page report sheds new light on those services.

The number of children in foster care has shot up 81 percent since 2002, mainly because of a nationwide increase in methamphetamine abuse. The report suggests that Santa Barbara County is struggling to keep pace.

In one finding, the jury said many foster care kids are not ready for life outside the system.

"They don't have a support system, they don't have anyone to fall back on," said Steve Anselm of Family Care Network. "Once they turn 18 and exit the system, no one is there to really help them through, especially with housing."

32 percent of young people released from the system last year were homeless within six months. So now, more than ever, local agencies are ready to help.

"All our services are focused on that time, when they leave their foster home or their transitional housing, on, 'Are they ready?'" Anselm said.

A high turnover of social workers is another part of the problem, something the report says leads to inconsistencies in care.

Another tip? Better communication with group homes, foster parents and other service providers.

A Santa Barbara County spokesperson said it welcomes the criticism and remains proud of its Child Welfare Services.

"We are very appreciative of them preparing the report, and we'll be getting our responses back to them within a very short time frame," said Terri Nisich, Assistant CEO of Santa Barbara County.

A team of people from the county is busy analyzing and responding to those findings. In the next two or three months, the county's Departments of Social Services, Human Resources and the Board of Supervisors will respond in writing to each of the jury's findings.

Read the full text of the Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury report on Child Welfare Services here.

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90% of children in LA foster care are minorities??

Hospital staff more likely to screen minority mothers Anderson, Troy. Los Angeles Daily News, June 29, 2008.

Nearly 90 percent of all children in Los Angeles County's foster-care system are minorities, drawing growing concern that hospitals and child welfare agencies are performing the vast majority of drug screening tests on low-income, minority pregnant women who seek public health care.

While only 10 percent of the county's general population is African-American, African-American children make up nearly 36 percent of all children in the county's foster-care system.

The county trend mirrors state and national figures that show children of ethnic minorities in foster care - especially African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians - outpace the number in the general population.

Statewide, 75 percent of foster children are minorities, including 27 percent who are black while African-Americans make up just 7 percent of the state's population.

Nationwide, 58 percent of the 513,000 kids in foster care are children of color, although they represent only 42 percent of the child population in the United States.

"There is very strong evidence that hospital staff are more likely to suspect drug use on the part of black mothers and these mothers are more likely to have their children removed and put in foster care," said Dorothy Roberts, the Kirkland & Ellis professor at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago and author of "Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare."

Local, state and national child welfare officials agree that a disproportionate percentage of minority children - especially blacks and American Indians - are in foster care. But they say maternal drug testing is just one of the factors.

"(Hospital drug testing is) one aspect we'll be looking at to see why there are these disparities, but it seems the problem is multifold," Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn said.

"The numbers indicate we bring in a large proportion of African-American children, including infants and older children. Whether it's connected directly to substance-abusing moms, I don't know if we have that information. But it's something we need to look at."

While abuse and neglect rates are actually lower among African-American families than in white families, studies have found race to be an important factor in reports to child protective service hotlines, according to a recent Casey Family Programs report.

Additionally, many public and private hospitals have overreported abuse and neglect among blacks while they underreport maltreatment among Caucasians, according to the Casey report.

A study published in the Journal of Women's Health found black women and their newborns were 1.5 times more likely to be tested for illicit drugs as others.

"There is a strong stereotype that black mothers are irresponsible," Roberts said. "And the entire image of the `crack baby' is that of a black child. So people who have to identify substance-abusing mothers and make decisions about it are influenced by these stereotypes."

In two recent lawsuits against Los Angeles County, Beverly Hills attorney L. Wallace Pate alleges social workers took children from two Latino couples without confirming results of initial tests.

"This is an attempt to start a social movement and raise public awareness about the fraud being perpetrated by the county," Pate said.

"It's just another way of profiling minorities and ensuring their kids end up in foster care and are on the fast track to jail, prison and devastated lives."

The cases come as a special California panel focusing on the role of courts in child welfare capped a two-year investigation and released recommendations to help courts improve foster care outcomes.

Among the recommendations is for the courts and child welfare agencies to examine and address why a disproportionate percentage of minorities are in the child protective system.

Ploehn and Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash are chairing a group examining the issue. And Casey Family Programs is assisting counties in the research.

"It's an issue that's becoming extremely visible and is taking on a life of its own as far as child welfare professionals focusing on this, starting to do research and craft solutions," Ploehn said.

DCFS Medical Director Dr. Charles Sophy said he believes drug testing of pregnant women is a factor in the disproportionate percentage of minorities in foster care.

"I think that drugs have played a significant role in the phenomena of disproportionality," Sophy said. "I continually remind my staff that they have to have an open mind and it's not a race or culturally oriented issue."

Medical experts recommend hospitals conduct more expensive confirmatory tests to ensure the results are accurate, but officials admit hospitals in the county often don't perform these tests unless requested.

Hospital officials have discretion in deciding who to test, a factor child welfare experts believe plays a role in the disproportionate percentage of minorities in foster care.

"Drug testing isn't automatic," said Dr. Barry Lester, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Brown University in Providence, R.I., who has attempted to convince lawmakers to develop a national policy on the issue.

"Hospitals have different rules on how they decide who to drug test. Sometimes the rules are medically based .... But a lot of times the decision is based on clinical suspicion. And guess what? Who do we get the most suspicious about? Poor people and people of color.

"There is a tremendous imbalance of poor people and minorities who end up getting tested."

Sherman Oaks attorney Ken Sherman, who has handled dependency court cases for decades, said mothers who have a regular doctor or are more affluent rarely get tested for drugs at hospitals.

"I think there is an element of discrimination in that regard," Sherman said. "But the thing that really bothers me is the fact that (DCFS) has a policy on how they should assess whether a person's substance abuse affects their ability to care for their kids, but I don't think social workers ever look at that policy."

And when an initial urine screen is positive for drugs, poor and minority mothers are often unaware of or unable to afford the more expensive confirmatory tests, experts say.

Under reforms made in recent years, Ploehn said the department now is focusing on trying to keep babies with their mothers.

"We really are focusing on trying to keep them at home whenever possible," Ploehn said. "If we can bring services to the family - whether it's providing child care, drug education or whatever it takes - then the baby will stay with the mom."

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Her baby died in foster care and DCFS wouldn't pay for the funeral service??

Seized baby dies in foster care
Mother accused of using cocaine, marijuana
Anderson, Troy. Los Angeles Daily News, June 28, 2008.

Growing up in Los Angeles County's foster care system, Elizabeth Espinoza is sure of one thing: A baby needs its mother.

Espinoza, who was separated from her own mother when she was young because of neglect, also had her newborn baby taken by the foster-care system when she tested positive for marijuana and cocaine at the hospital after giving birth.

Just three months later, the baby, Gerardo, died when his foster mother strapped him into a car seat, took him to a neighbor's home and left him in the car seat on a bed, according to a lawsuit filed against the county's Department of Children and Family Services seeking unspecified damages.

The autopsy listed the cause of Gerardo's death as unknown, but noted that "airway compromise" could not be ruled out and that a car seat is not "a proper sleep environment for an infant."

"The last time I saw him I hugged him," said Espinoza, 21, of Los Angeles. "I felt something different. I felt like he was trying to catch his breath. I think he missed his mother.

"A lot of people say it, and I believe it myself: A baby should not be taken away from their mother."

Principal Deputy County Counsel Rosemarie Belda said the county had not been served with the lawsuit yet and could not comment on pending litigation.

The case began two years ago when DCFS took 1-year-old Alexis R. Martinez and her newborn baby brother, Gerardo, from Espinoza after the positive drug test, according to Beverly Hills attorney L. Wallace Pate, who is representing Espinoza.

The suit alleges DCFS took Espinoza's children based on false and perjured allegations that she was incapable of caring for her children because of the positive drug test.

Espinoza says a county social worker took her children despite her insistence she didn't take drugs. Gerardo had tested negative for drugs and had no signs of withdrawals, according to the lawsuit.

Espinoza enrolled in a drug treatment program and had monitored visits with her children until Gerardo's death two months later on Aug. 2, 2006.

"(DCFS) didn't even pay for the funeral service," Espinoza said. "They wouldn't even pay for the headstone. I was getting welfare, and people had to help me bury my son.

"I got the cheapest headstone I could find. It says, `Rest in Peace Gerardo Martinez,' has little angel wings on the side and the dates he was born and passed away."

Several weeks after the baby's death, the social worker returned Alexis to her mother under DCFS supervision. In May 2007, the social worker told the court Alexis was safe and doing well at home, Pate wrote in the suit.

The next month, the social worker asked Espinoza to take a drug test and Espinoza tested positive for marijuana, according to the suit.

The positive test, in and of itself, is not grounds for detaining a child, Pate wrote.

"It wasn't confirmed," said Espinoza, who denied smoking marijuana.

The social worker visited her home and found the apartment was clean and there was no evidence Alexis was in imminent danger, Pate wrote.

The social worker told Espinoza to attend a team decision-making meeting in August, but the day of the meeting Espinoza called to say she had taken the wrong freeway and missed the appointment. (this could happen to anyone)

The next day, the social worker came to her home, took Alexis and put her in a foster home, according to the suit.

In September, a judge granted a motion by Espinoza's attorney to dismiss the case and ordered the girl returned to her mother.

While Espinoza has her daughter back, she misses her son nearly two years after his death.

The day she buried him, she said, she bought 12 white doves and released them after the service.

"They say when you let them go it's like their soul is released," Espinoza said.

"And they say when one of the doves stays, that means the person's spirit stays there.

"One dove stayed there. It flew to the top of his casket and just stared at everybody. I felt it was Gerardo's soul saying goodbye."