Wednesday, September 16, 2009

4,000 foster youth "age out" of California each year

The Fight to Make Well-Being a Foster Child's Right
Daniel Heimpel, Huffington Post, Sept. 15, 2009.

In the twilight of his Presidency, George W. Bush signed The Fostering Connections to Success and Increased Adoptions Act of 2008, marking a fundamental shift in the priorities of Child Welfare in this Country. On Tuesday a subcommittee of the Congress' Committee on Ways and Means will convene to discuss the law's lagging implementation.

For the past three years, I have been a mentor and friend to two 18-year-old boys who both spent much of their childhoods in LA County's rambling foster care system.

Roughly 4,000 foster youth age out of California's foster care system every year. For most their 18th birthday is not so much a day of celebration as one of total isolation. Already separated from their biological families by death or abuse or neglect, at 18 the system turns most out -- leaving many with only frazzled wits to face an uncertain future.

Fostering Connections offers states matching funds to extend foster care till 21 and has placed requirements on the public Child Welfare departments across the country to notify kin if a child is taken into state custody, increase efforts to keep siblings together, enhance health care standards and keep kids from bouncing from school to school even if they are bouncing from group home to foster home and back again.

Until Fostering Connections, Child Protective Services' overriding priority was making sure children were saved from abuse, neglect and dangerous living conditions. What the law makes clear is that safety is -- in and of itself -- an insufficient goal, and compels foster care agencies to do what they have never been legally mandated to do before: provide foster children lasting connections with loving adults and increase their overall well-being.

Despite the importance of this law, ossified state and county departments of child protective services have done little to see it implemented and states that have gone as far as draft implementation legislation have been railroaded by a buckling economy.

For the young men I know, provisions like extension of care can be the difference between the abject and the edifying. For John, whose case was terminated by the department on Christmas Eve of 2008, two months after his 18th birthday, life is out of control. Six months ago he left Los Angeles and his then six-month-old son to try anew with his sister in Montana. Four months later he had burned his bridges there and had impregnated his new girlfriend.

For Chris, who knows John from when they were both 15 years old and living in the same South Central group home, life is different because he was among one of a handful of foster youth who have their "emancipation" stayed, by entering into what are called transitional housing programs. Staying in the system has given him the housing and stability to successfully land a job at a fried chicken restaurant. On Wednesday I am taking him to get his driver's license.

The difference for these two young men is that one was allowed to stay within the system while the other was forced to languish without.

If the federal law was a reality on the ground, every dollar states spend on supporting youth like Chris past his 18th birthday is matched by a dollar from the feds. But for states to receive the funds they need to pass implementation legislation. In California Speaker of the Assembly Karen Bass pushed through complicated and essential legislation to ensure the money.

Unfortunately the current budget crisis has put those funds on hold till 2011, though they were meant to flow in 2010. That means one more year that a young man like John isn't afforded the same opportunity as his peer and friend Chris.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who introduced the bill back in '08, will hold a hearing on the law's implementation tomorrow. The clear message to states during that hearing must be that while the economy has hampered efforts to speed implementation, the commitment to seeing it through cannot falter.

Otherwise John's story will continue to be more common than Chris'.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Editorial calls on Governor Schwarzenegger to remember his commitment to foster care

Editorial: 'Aged-out' foster youth at terrible risk
San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 2, 2009.

The phrase "at risk" gets tossed around a lot by educators and social workers. Nowhere is the buzzword more applicable - and more poignant - than in its description of foster youth who are "aging out" of the system at age 18.

Talk about "at risk." One recent study revealed that 54 percent of young men and 25 percent of young women are incarcerated within 18 months of leaving the foster-care system. Another survey showed that 70 percent of California prison inmates have spent time in the foster-care system.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders do not need a lecture on the meaning of these numbers. The well-documented struggle of emancipating foster youth, and the failure of an overburdened system to help them, motivated the governor and legislators to significantly enhance the resources and accountability in the system.

What these leaders need is a reminder of why these investments in our most vulnerable citizens are so critical - especially now, when the economy is compounding the challenges on the young people who lack family support and, in many cases, the skills to navigate on their own.

The same Schwarzenegger who in 2006 signed the landmark package of foster-care reform bills recently slashed $80 million from the state support for child welfare services. Those cutbacks would cost California $44 million more in federal assistance for youth.

The result would be a devastating rollback in the state's effort to give these foster youth - our children, our collective responsibility - the services they so desperately need. Social workers would have higher caseloads and less time to identify and address the needs of youth under their charge; there would be less money for transitional housing and independent living programs; there would be cutbacks in programs that allow children to reunify with their families instead of landing in long-term foster care.

These ill-advised cuts become "schizophrenic and counterproductive" when viewed in the context of the Legislature's pained efforts to reduce the prison population, observed Frank Mecca, executive director of the state's County Welfare Directors Association.

"We don't have the option not to protect when the hot line rings," Mecca said. "All (Schwarzenegger) did was pass the buck to others to make the impossible choice of which child's safety and which child's well-being we're going to compromise."

Amy Lemley, policy director of the John Burton Foundation, is among the foster-care advocates who is trying to stir pressure on the governor and legislators to restore these cuts. "If you can't rally to protect abused and neglected children, what does that say about the state's priorities?" she asked.

Schwarzenegger and legislators must work together to restore that $80 million for child welfare services. They should connect the dots, and recognize the much higher costs of the system's failings.

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