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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