Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Poor economy leads to shortage of foster homes

As prices rise, Inland foster care families trim costs, refuse new children
Zimmerman, Janet. Press-Enterprise, Aug. 12, 2008.

Soaring gas and food prices have foster parents scrambling to make ends meet, and child welfare advocates warn that the faltering economy could exacerbate a shortage of homes for placing abused and neglected children.

Some families have moved into smaller homes or the stay-at-home parent has had to get a paying job, so they take fewer or no foster children, social workers said. The problem would be aggravated by a proposed 10 percent funding cut to balance the state budget, they said.

"The way the economy's been going, we have lost homes because the rate they've been receiving has not kept up with the cost of living," said Emmanuel Humphries, chief executive officer at Alpha Treatment Center's Foster Family Agency in Riverside. "It hurts them, it hurts the system, it hurts children they could have benefited."

Alpha, a private agency serving Southern California, lost three foster families in the past year because the breadwinner had to take a lesser-paying job and the families moved to smaller homes, he said.

Kathy and Robert Culviner lost their five-bedroom Menifee home and had to move to a three-bedroom rental in Aguanga this spring. The couple, who have three children of their own, stopped taking foster children. They were certified by Alpha to care for three children at a time.

Kathy Culviner said she had already cut her hours on her postal carrier route to have more time at home when her husband's business, refurbishing and installing office cubicles, declined and they couldn't make their house payment.

Christine Portales, left, and her husband, Jaime Portales, say they have started clipping grocery coupons, making more soups and stews and cooking from scratch to cut back on expenses. Some children arrived at their home with just the clothes on their backs.

"We would have kids in the home if the reimbursement were higher and it was not so much out of pocket," said Kathy Culviner, a product of the foster care system who has taken in about 50 children since she became licensed 11 years ago.

Depending on the ages of the child, the state pays $624 to $790 per month for those in private foster family agencies, which typically provide intensive treatment to children who might otherwise be placed in a group home. Licensed foster homes, for children with the fewest needs for support and services, receive $446 to $627 monthly.

The money is to cover room and board, extracurricular activities, toys, personal items and any other living expenses.

Some foster parents said they are barely hanging on.

Christine Portales, who cares for four children at her Colton home, borrowed $80 from a neighbor last month so she could get gas. She sometimes drives 130 miles a day, ferrying the children to their medical and therapy appointments, court-ordered visitation with their families and gymnastics lessons.

Foster father Jaime Portales says he is considering going to school to learn a new trade because of layoff fears.

Portales said she's also seen her grocery bill jump from $175 a week to $275.

"Because fuel prices have gone up, the utilities have gone up, the food has gone up, everything has gone up, except what you get for the kids," Portales said. "I figure I'm paying out of my pocket to take care of these kids."

The children are ages 10, 7, 6 weeks and 4 weeks. Three of them came to live with Portales within one week in June, and it takes a couple of months to receive the first state payment.

The three youngest children came with just the clothes on their back. The emergency clothing allowance Portales requested hasn't arrived, she said.

So Portales and her husband, Jaime, have cut back on expenses.

Christine Portales drives as much as 130 miles a day to take the children to medical and therapy appointments, and to family visitation.

She has started using grocery coupons, making more soups and stews and cooking from scratch. Jaime, afraid of getting laid off from his job as a cement contractor, is considering going to school to learn a new trade.

The Portaleses skipped a family trip to Disneyland because they couldn't afford it.

County social services officials said it's hard to determine just how much impact the economy has had on foster care and that any effects may not be reflected in statistics for a year or two.

In California, about 80,000 children are in the foster care system.

Fewer Homes Available
The number of licensed foster homes in California has declined over the past decade by about 3,000 homes and more than 18,000 potential placements, according to a report last year by the County Welfare Directors Association of California.

Sayori Baldwin, deputy director of Riverside County's Department of Public Social Services, said many factors contribute to the drop, including a recent emphasis on reuniting families and having children cared for by relatives, and getting them into adoptive homes more quickly.

In Riverside County, the number of children and the number of homes in use declined in all placement areas -- county foster care, private foster family agencies, group homes and with relatives -- in the first quarter of 2007 versus the same period in 2008, according to a quarterly report by the Children's Service Division.

In San Bernardino County, new foster family licenses dropped from the usual 25 or 30 to 19, said Norm Dollar, deputy director for foster family recruiting.

"There is a downturn. I think it's fair to speculate that people are making difficult economic decisions," Dollar said.

The cost of raising a child in California is more than $700 per month, said Regina Deihl, of Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting in San Mateo. The group filed a lawsuit against the state over the foster-care reimbursement rate. The case is set for trial in federal district court in November.

Foster care providers got a 5 percent boost in funding in January, the first increase since 2001.

If more families are lost from the county systems, more children will be placed in more expensive or less appropriate settings, such as more costly private foster homes or group homes designed for children whose behavior is so out of control that foster parents can't handle them, Deihl said.

At the very least, it means fewer extras for children who already have done without, she said.

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