Saturday, March 14, 2009

Assembly bill would help put new federal policies and money to work for the state's kids

Editorial: Fixing foster care in California
Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2009.

For years, thousands of California youths were abused or neglected twice over -- first by parents who couldn't or wouldn't provide basic care, then by governmental agencies that sent them to live with strangers instead of extended family, only to cut them off from all support on their 18th birthdays. The state and many of its counties are now doing better, keeping foster children with family members whenever possible, and in some cases continuing care to age 21 to ensure that young adults have a place to live, adequate job training or admission to college.

Outmoded and foolishly restrictive federal laws discouraged humane and cost-saving innovations -- until last year, when Congress adopted a wide-ranging overhaul of federal foster care reimbursements. Now a state bill by two Assembly Democrats, Jim Beall Jr. of San Jose and Speaker Karen Bass of Los Angeles, would help put the new federal thinking -- and funding -- to work for California kids.

AB 12 would permit California to use federal money to pay half the cost of its kinship guardian program, allowing grandparents and other family members to get the same financial help that formerly could go only to group homes or unrelated foster parents. But that's just Part One. The money that the state and county would save because of the new federal participation would then go to extending services to foster youth until they become 21 -- and those dollars would in turn be matched by more new federal money.

The bill would represent a huge step forward in fulfilling the state's duty to see abused and neglected kids through childhood, in the care of loving family members when possible, and into college or paying jobs. But some caution is in order. As final language is hammered out, there may be pressure to divert savings to help with the state's budget woes instead of reinvesting in foster care. That would be a costly mistake; a study released Monday showed a $2.40 return for every dollar invested in extended foster care.

Some attention is needed on the federal side as well. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines issued in the waning days of the Bush administration restrict funding to "new" kinship-guardian relationships, not existing ones the state and counties already pay for. That punishes California for having done the right thing for families while waiting for Congress to catch up. Revising that language would help more kids here and further the purposes of the federal law.

The department also could help by making clear that emotional or mental health problems are sufficient medical reasons for extending foster care for young people between 18 and 21 who are incapable of holding a job or pursuing vocational, secondary or higher education. Lawmakers, both federal and state, certainly did not intend to push onto the street (or into more costly programs) those children most in need of help.

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