Monday, October 26, 2009

Lack of consistency in parenting programs and struggles to find safe, affordable housing

Fighting to be a mother again
Banks, Sandy. Los Angeles Times. October 24, 2009.

For women trying to get their children out of foster care, it's more than becoming a better parent and kicking drug habits. It's contingent on finding safe, affordable housing.

It took her 15 years -- one stint in prison, several passes through drug rehab, months of weekly parenting classes.

But this week she had good news to share at her Parents Anonymous session in South Los Angeles: "They said I can have my daughter back."

They are the Los Angeles County child welfare system. Her daughter is a teenager now, flirting with the same fast life her mother led. And the mother is a recovering drug abuser, trying to repair the damage her addiction left.

"Fifteen years ago, I lost my parent rights," she said. She sought to regain custody of her child twice -- in 2004 and 2007 -- but authorities turned her down both times. Then last week, she was summoned to court and told her rights would be restored.

"I never gave up," she said, as the mothers in the room applauded.

Like her, they have all lost children to foster care. And they're trying to become better parents because they want their sons and daughters back.

More than 70% of the parents whose children are in Los Angeles County's foster care program have substance abuse problems. Many also have experienced domestic violence or suffer from mental health problems. Before they can regain custody, the vast majority must attend counseling or parent education programs.

Some programs offer little more than a sign-in sheet and list of dos and don'ts: Don't fill your baby's bottle with Coca-Cola. A time-out is better than a smack across the face of a defiant toddler. A bag of Cheetos is not an appropriate breakfast for a kindergartner.

But other sessions provide a forum for discussion, and often unearth deeper problems -- such as the buried anger of a mother who was abused when she was a child, or the need to earn the trust of resentful children who have seen Mom relapse too many times.

"These parents need a place where they can talk in confidence, without being judged," said Barbara Hill, the facilitator at the Parents Anonymous session I attended. The meeting took place at Broadway Village, a complex built by her agency, Beyond Shelter, which pairs social services with subsidized family apartments. I'm not using the parents' names because the program promises anonymity.

The two dozen parents at Tuesday's meeting had all been mandated to attend. Most were single women, but there was one couple, a few lone men, and a teenage girl there to support her mother. This was their monthly role-playing session, in which they had to offer solutions to scripted parenting dilemmas:

They all agreed that they probably would not call authorities on a mother threatening to beat her misbehaving son in the mall. Instead, they'd confront the woman and warn her to lighten up "because people are watching," one mother said.

They'd have no qualms lying to police about a daughter suspected of selling drugs. But if the allegations were true, the private punishment they would dole out might make jail seem like a walk in the park.

And they would say "no" to a sleepover with a friend whose mom keeps a filthy house, uses drugs and has boyfriends in and out -- even if they liked the mother. Her homegirl's feelings matter less than a mother's responsibility to her daughter, they concluded.

The back and forth about right and wrong was not much different from the conversations I've had over coffee with my own friends from the time our kids were small.

When is it OK to spank? Are the girls old enough to go alone to the mall? What to do about our clueless friend who doesn't know her 14-year-old drinks alcohol?

And I was struck by how universal the challenges of parenting are. And how hard it must be for a struggling mother who knows that her wrong answers in a parenting class might keep her child in foster care.

In last Saturday's column, I vented my frustration about drug-using moms who have multiple children in foster care. This week, I visited the counseling and rehab programs because I wanted to know whether parenting classes can help a drug addict become a responsible parent.

I didn't realize that for some women, finding affordable, stable houses is a bigger obstacle than pregnancy or relapse.

"Women come in here crying all the time because they don't have a safe place to live with their kids," said Gina Johnson, a counselor at New Beginnings Recovery Treatment Center. "The housing issue is the main focus women have when they want to get their children back."

Several factors contribute -- the high cost of housing in Los Angeles; the women's history of instability; their lack of education or skills; and burned bridges among family members who might have been willing to take them in.

But it's also an institutional Catch-22. Drug-using moms who lose their children often lose their government-subsidized housing. Housing aid, their only means of paying rent, is based on family size.

So they can lose those vouchers if their children go into foster care, or if they enter a residential drug rehab program. When they recover, they go to the end of the line, and the waiting list for aid can be months, or years, long.

"They can jump through all these hoops -- the drug tests, the counseling, the parenting classes -- then they can't find a safe place to live," Johnson said.

That leads some to give up, she said. "They feel so defeated, so helpless. Some go back to selling drugs, selling their bodies to get money. It's like a vortex, and they get sucked back in. They feel like they're doomed to fail."

And I think back to that Parents Anonymous meeting and the mother who was so pleased to be getting her daughter back.

She'd persevered for so many years -- writing her daughter from prison with advice, enlisting friends to help keep the girl on track, petitioning the court again and again for the privilege of mothering.

"All I have to do now," she told the parents celebrating her success, "is find a place for us to live."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The needs of foster children don't decrease during a recession - they only multiply

Letter to the Editor: Fostering Care
San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 19, 2009.

Like so many other state responsibilities, foster care fell by the wayside earlier this year while Sacramento fought over the budget. But the needs of foster children - our children - don't disappear because of a recession, so we were pleased to see that several foster care bills were signed into law.

AB131 was sponsored by the Judicial Council of California and authored by Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. It would require parents who can afford it to reimburse the state for court-appointed counsel in a dependency case. Another Evans bill to receive the governor's signature was AB154, which brings California in line with the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. The new law doubles financial incentives to adopt foster children who are older or have special needs.

But the governor should have signed Evans' third bill, AB82. The bill would have established safeguards for foster children being prescribed psychotropic medications. Such medications can be dangerous. Ordinarily, a child's parent would provide this kind of support.

It's unfair that the governor has chosen to abdicate this responsibility for the children we're raising collectively.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Residential treatment centers receive massive budget cuts

State funding cuts to foster care and treatment programs hurting local agencies
Lee, Alfred. Pasadena Star-News, October 14, 2009.

Rosemary Children's Services is facing a 10 percent cut from the state this year.

A 10-percent cut in state funding has forced local foster care and residential treatment programs to eliminate some services and beds for needy children, officials said Wednesday.

The reduction took effect Oct. 1 and was approved by the state Legislature in an effort to fix the state's budget gap.

In Pasadena, Rosemary's Children's Services will lose out on $660,000 in funding and is looking at cutting services, Executive Director Greg Wessels said.

"It's very discouraging. You'd like to think that the work you've chosen for your life is important not just to you but to everybody else. Then you realize that there are much bigger realities," he said.

Keyonna, 16, has been living at one of Rosemary's residential treatment centers for four months after being kicked around the system since she was a small child. Her mother was a drug addict and couldn't take care of her, she said.

"It's been hard for me, and now that I'm here in this program, it's helped a lot," Keyonna said. "It's helping us grow into adulthood."

For Altadena-based children's services agency Five Acres, the cuts will result in a loss of about $800,000 in funding per year, said Executive Director Bob Ketch.

As a result, Five Acres has already shuttered a six-bed group home and reduced staff for foster care services, and the agency is also looking at further cuts in the number of children it serves.

"Every week I read an intake summary...and these are often times histories of kids who have been in multiple placements, who've been abused and neglected by their families and also by the system," Ketch said. "These are kids that are hurting and they need help."

Pasadena-based Hathaway-Sycamores has also closed six beds and made cuts at its residential treatment center, in addition to cuts to its foster care services. The agency will lose out on about $275,000, officials said.

And Hillsides, also based in Pasadena, stands to lose about $450,000 and has made some administrative cuts, said Associate Executive Director Suzanne Crummey.

Such programs had already been struggling, agency officials said. The state has not raised its reimbursement rate for such services since 1990, said Hathaway-Sycamores President Bill Martone.

Hathaway-Sycamores has gone down from 178 beds in 2005 to 34 beds now, although part of the reason was due to changes in program philosophy, Martone said.

"When a child has an acute situation that really requires that level of intervention and it's not there, then I think we have some real problems in our child welfare system, and I think that's the danger of under-funding," Martone said.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Youth needs fall through the cracks

Changes urged for Fresno Co. social services
County might disband Children and Family Services agency

Branan, Brad. Fresno Bee, Oct. 11, 2009.

Children are at the forefront of a debate over whether to change the way Fresno County delivers social services. (actually, it sounds like children are coming in dead-last)

County administrator John Navarrette wants to eliminate the Children and Family Services Department and move its work to other departments.

The department's child-welfare duties would go to the Employment and Temporary Assistance Department under a new name, the Social Services Department. The county's Behavioral Health Department would take over children's mental-health programs.

Navarrette says the changes are needed to trim costs because federal and state funding for social services is declining. By eliminating four administrative positions and making other changes to consolidate departments, the county would save more than $1 million annually through the plan, he said.

"All of us have to take a hit," he said. "We're all doing more with less."

But critics, including some county supervisors, question his estimates, and say any savings aren't worth reducing quality of service. They worry that the mission of Child Protective Services will get lost in a merger with the county's largest department.

Foster children often need mental-health counseling, so they should be served by the same department, critics add.

But Navarrette and his department heads insist services would not suffer under the plan. To appease critics, Navarrette said he included a policy guaranteeing that 25% of mental-health revenues would continue to be allocated for children.

The Board of Supervisors expects to vote on the proposal Oct. 27. If approved, the reorganization would take effect Jan. 1.

Supervisors Debbie Poochigian, Judy Case and Phil Larson say they're still studying the plan and haven't made a decision. Supervisors Henry Perea and Susan Anderson say they're opposed.

Approving the plan would bring Fresno County in line with the rest of the state, because it's the only county with a Children and Family Services Department providing both child welfare and mental-health services, Navarrette said. Officials at the California State Association of Counties and the County Welfare Directors Association of California could not confirm his statement.

Navarrette said the proposal was motivated in part by changes at Employment and Temporary Services. The department's director, Julie Hornback, announced her retirement this year, and another department official, Steven Rodriguez, left to become Madera County's top administrator.

Under Navarrette's proposal, Fresno County won't hire replacements. Instead, he would move Catherine Huerta, director of Children and Family Services, to head the new Social Services Department. Child Protective Services would be added to a department that has more than 1,500 employees and administers welfare, employment and other services.

Perea, who has criticized Child Protective Services in recent years, doesn't like the idea.

"By putting CPS in the county's largest department, children may be overlooked and put in danger," he said.

Anderson also thinks Child Protective Services won't get the oversight it needs in such a large department.

Navarrette disagreed, although he conceded that workloads would increase in the Behavioral Health and Social Services departments as supervisors assume new responsibilities.

Anderson and Perea also worry about moving children's mental-health services to the county's Behavioral Health Department, which now runs adult mental-health programs.

The idea has been proposed before, most recently by Perea. But Perea said he would only support a merger of mental-health programs if it included Child Protective Services.

Dr. Morton Rosenstein, a physician and chairman of the county's foster care oversight committee, shares Anderson's and Perea's concerns. The committee expects to make a recommendation on the proposal later this month.

"Fresno County is unique in that children's mental health works with Children and Family Services and it has worked very well," he said. If they are separated, Rosenstein said, "they won't work as well together."

Anderson also worries about communication between children's mental-health and protective care, should they be split into separate departments.

"More children's cases will fall through the cracks," she said.

Children in the foster-care system would not notice any changes and would be served by the same people who see them now, Huerta and Navarrette said.

County workers responsible for foster care would continue to communicate with those responsible for mental health, just as they do now, Navarrette said.

Curt Thornton, a member of the county's Mental Health Board, said moving children's programs to Behavioral Health would add to the burdens of an overworked management staff. The board has not made a recommendation, but Thornton said he is leaning toward opposing the plan.

"You've had someone who has been a virtual workaholic, and I don't know how much longer she's going to last," he said, referring to Behavioral Health director Giang Nguyen. "We're talking about a fundamental change."

Nguyen doesn't dispute his assessment, but still supports the plan. "The workload will increase for everyone," she said.

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Annual Tea and Fashion Show helps foster care youth to make it in college

Program helps foster kids finish college
Hulbert, Cynthia. Sacramento Bee, Oct. 12, 2009.

Brittany Chamalbide was more than ready for her Heidi Klum moment.

Makeup? Flawless. Hair? Perfectly coiffed. Chamalbide was rocking a clingy red dress and strappy black sandals, and the runway was beckoning.

"I'm super excited," said Chamalbide, 18, as she prepared for her modeling debut. "This feels like a real fashion show."

It was real, and it was important. The annual event was a benefit fundraiser for scholarships and other educational necessities for foster youths, like her, who have "timed out" of the system at age 18.

Surveys suggest that 80 percent of foster children want to go to college, said Joni Pitcl, president of the Foster Youth Education Fund, the nonprofit group that sponsored Sunday's event. Only 3 percent actually go, however, and only 1 percent finish.

Many youngsters leave the foster care system without the funds, confidence and support to navigate college, Pitcl said. "For these kids, a flat tire can turn their lives into a tailspin," she said. They need support and guidance, but they have nowhere to turn."

The annual Tea and Fashion Show has raised about $200,000 over the past seven years, helping dozens of foster youth go to school and manage their educational expenses.

Each year in Sacramento County, about 250 youths "age out" of foster care, and a shaky economic climate and government budget cuts have hit them particularly hard this year, Pitcl said.

More than 300 people attended this year's fashion show at California State University, Sacramento, which also included a silent auction and raffle of donated items. Part of the proceeds from the event will go to the university's Guardian Scholars Program, which helps needy students with academic counseling, financial advice, social support and mentors.

Chamalbide and some 50 other young models wore outfits Sunday supplied by Macy's in Sunrise Mall, and they wore them proudly.

"I love it," Alex Gonzalez, 20, said of his white shirt with snap buttons, black jacket and jeans. "It works for me. I would totally wear this shirt, if I could afford it. It costs $90!"

As the minutes ticked by and the spotlight got closer, Gonzalez and his fellow models peeked from backstage at the runway that they soon would own. Music was thumping, and the house was packed. VIP seats lined the stage.

"I'm pretty proud to go out there," Chamalbide said.

Sure, they had butterflies. But these models were not easily flustered. After all, each of them had endured far scarier things in their young lives.

"Going through all of that stuff, it's a struggle," said Mark Hamlett, who was separated from his siblings at age 11 and placed in foster care. "But I'm OK now," said Hamlett, who turns 18 next week. "I think I'll be fine."

Chamalbide, Gonzalez and Hamlett all are students at Sacramento State, thanks in part to the Foster Youth Education Fund. So, as they took to the runway Sunday, they did so with plans for diplomas and careers.

"I feel really good," Chamalbide said.

Then she and the others stepped onto the stage, and toward a bright future.

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Does privitization help or hurt children?

Is privatization good for foster kids?
Heimpel, Daniel. Los Angeles Daily News, Oct. 12, 2009.

A 2-year-old boy in foster care died in Siskiyou County this summer. Across the rural, sparsely populated county in far Northern California, people looked to blame someone, something for his death.

Was it the fault of the woman taking care of the toddler, the third foster parent in twice as many months? Was it the fault of Child Protective Services? Or was it the fault of the private, nonprofit foster care agency that the county had entrusted with the toddler's life?

Between sobs, the social worker from the private agency that had placed the boy told me that this was just a tragic and random event. She said that speculating on this incident was hurtful to the people involved.

But I am of a different mind. When a child dies, it is imperative to scrutinize the cumulative cause of a child's passing.

In this case the child was left in the care of a 77-year-old woman. The toddler had been moved from the home of another foster parent three weeks earlier - a home where the young boy was thriving, according to both a CPS report and statements from neighbors.

The foster mother who the toddler was taken from can't stop crying. In the five months that the brown-haired boy lived with her, she had loved him, even wanted to adopt him. She holds pictures in her shaking hand: the boy splashing in a baby pool on her front lawn, of him smiling in her arms and of him lying in a baby-blue casket, a wreath of white atop his head.

And from a well of rage she levels a strong accusation: The private, nonprofit foster care agency that took him from her did so to maintain a placement, keep a kid in care and thus keep state money flowing in. This estimation is cynical. People who work in child welfare, overwhelmingly do so out of a love for children - but that love is not shared by profit's unbending bottom line.

While the director of the private, nonprofit agency that had taken the boy would not discuss the case in detail, he did take time to tell me how business was for the hundreds of private, nonprofit foster family agencies, or FFAs, that have popped up all over rural California and the rest of the country.

"Of course, it is very important that we continue to get placements and foster parents," he said. If not, his agency and all his competitors would be out of business; keeping kids in care keeps bread on his table.

In 1986 the California State Legislature allowed the development of FFAs. The intent was that these private entities would come in to place children with special needs. Despite the narrow intention of the state, FFAs did what profit-driven organizations do: They multiplied, and soon the foothold they had in foster care was an escalator.

By 1996 there were around 14,500 children placed by FFAs in California. And by January 2008, the peak, more than 20,000 kids were placed in FFAs, according to the California Department of Social Services. The number is even more significant when considering the trend of reduced overall numbers of foster children in care. From a peak of nearly 90,000 total kids in care in 1998 the number has steadily dropped to 65,000 in early 2009. Today well over one-third of California foster children are not cared for by the state, but by private, nonprofit agencies.

In rugged Siskiyou County, 110 of 123 total foster children are placed by foster family agencies, according to county's Human and Health Services director. And as agencies like the one that moved the now-deceased 2-year-old have taken over care, the director explains that HHS has "turned a lot of responsibility over to the foster family agencies." In the case of the young boy who died in August, the move was precipitated by the private agency not the public one.

This harkens to a deep-seated belief in this country that if a public service like foster care is faltering, private enterprise can come in and do it more efficiently. In Florida, foster care was privatized after four of five pilot programs crashed and burned. Today there is no way to judge its success because there is no effective monitoring program in place. Kansas, one of the pioneers of privatization, has been lambasted for its performance, and in rural California the results have been mixed.

In Siskiyou County where 87.4 percent of children are placed with FFAs compared with 43.9 percent of the general California foster care population, county social workers were 10 percent less likely to make their mandated monthly visits than their colleagues across the state, according to statistics furnished by UC Berkeley's Center for Social Services Research. Public social workers, pushed to the limits by heavy caseloads, take advantage of private social workers because there is simply not enough time in the day to see every child.

While in Yreka, the Siskiyou County seat, I stopped into another of the foster agencies that dot the small town. I sat with a woman who felt that she was doing God's work by helping children. But she also realized that doing God's work was contingent on keeping the money flowing, on keeping kids in care. "To be honest. It's about the placements, that's the bottom line," she said.

For the young boy buried on the long flank of Siskiyou County's towering Mount Shasta, we may never know how much the bottom line contributed to his death. But the question must be floated: Can we as a society be engaged in privatizing our children?

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Every state Governor should know the importance of assisting youth transitioning out of foster care

Gov. Schwarzenegger signs legislation to provide services and resources to California’s foster children, Gotten, Valeria. California Newswire, Oct. 12, 2009.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a package of legislation focused on expanding and promoting adoption opportunities and increasing services for children in California’s foster care system.

The bills signed into law will create a food stamp program to assist youth transitioning out of the foster care system and help provide housing for former foster youth working toward a higher education degree. The legislation also ensures that California’s foster care system will continue to have the resources necessary to provide the valuable services these children depend on and helps older foster children secure a safe and stable living environment.

“Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, nurturing environment and this legislation will expand adoption programs and services to ensure that opportunity for California’s foster children,” said Governor Schwarzenegger. “It is also important to provide youth with the right tools when they transition out of foster care and these bills help make that possible by improving their access to quality education and providing them with resources to be successful as independent adults.”

The Governor announced that he has signed the following six bills:

· AB260 by Assemblymember Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) that will require that a licensed person shall not make any false, deceptive or misleading statement or representation, require a mortgage broker to receive the same compensation for providing mortgage brokerage services whether paid by a lender, borrower or a third party and will prohibit a mortgage broker from steering a borrower to accept a loan at higher cost.

· AB 719 by Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) to create a 12-month transitional food stamp demonstration project that grants federally funded food stamps to foster youth for one year after their eighteenth birthday, when they age-out of the foster care system and no longer qualify for state aid.

· AB 1393 by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) to require the University of California, the California State University and California Community Colleges to give priority for on-campus housing to emancipated foster youth.

· AB 295 by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) to extend the Older Youth Adoption pilot project for six months until June 30, 2010 to provide participating pilot counties with sufficient time to demonstrate the effectiveness of pre-adoption and post-adoption services for older youth who have been in the system over 18 months and are living in group homes or non-related foster families.

· AB 167 by Assemblymember Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia) to exempt a foster youth who transfers from a new school during the eleventh or twelfth grade from completing locally-imposed course requirements that exceed minimum state standards, if those local requirements would prevent the student from graduating while he or she remains eligible for foster care.

· AB 669 by Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) to exempt current or former foster youth age 19 years or under from California State University, University of California and California Community Colleges in-state residency requirements for tuition and fees.

· AB 1325 by Assemblymember Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) to create an alternative option to the definition of “traditional adoption,” in the case of adopting a Native American child. In traditional adoption, termination of parental rights of the biological parents must occur for a Native American child to be adopted. Unfortunately, termination of parental rights can be detrimental to Native American cultures. This bill will add the option of Customary Adoption. Customary Adoption is defined as “a traditional tribal practice recognized by the community which gives a child a permanent parent-child relationship with someone other than the child’s birth parent.”

In addition, the Governor signed a series of foster care-related bills that make changes to existing state laws to ensure that California continues to receive important federal funding to maintain child welfare services:

· SB 597 by Senator Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) to establish the development of a plan for the ongoing oversight and coordination of health care services for foster youth and the development of a personalized transition plan for a foster youth in the 90-day period before he or she ages out of foster care.

· AB 154 by Assemblymember Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) to specify that any savings in state funds attained from an increase in federal funding for adoption services be reinvested in the foster care and adoption service system. The bill also requires adoption agencies to inform prospective adoptive parents of their potential eligibility for federal and state adoption tax credits.

· AB 595 also by Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia) to tighten requirements for approving criminal background checks for foster care family homes licensing in an effort to prohibit persons convicted of specific offenses from becoming foster or adoptive parents.

· AB 665 by Assemblymember Alberto Torrico (D-Fremont) to broaden the use of the federal adoption incentive awards that are received by the state as a result of increased adoptions of older children to include other legal permanency options available to older foster youth in order to increase the opportunities for these youth to be placed in stable homes. Other legal permanency options include legal adoption, relative guardianship and reunification services when those services were previously terminated.

· AB 938 by the Committee on Judiciary to require that when a child is removed from his or her parents and placed in foster care, the child’s social worker must within 30 days, conduct an investigation to identify and locate the child’s adult relatives and notify them that the child has been removed from his or her parents’ home.

The Governor also signed the following two child welfare-related bills:

· AB 488 by Assemblymember Norma Torres (D-Pomona) to authorize the Department of Social Services to renew or extend beyond a three-year time period specified performance agreements with private, nonprofit agencies that provide child welfare services. This bill also requires the county or private nonprofit agency to fund an independent evaluation of the agency’s performance.

· SB 118 also by Senator Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) to direct counties to include information about incarcerated parents who receive services required by the court to reunify that parent with his/her children.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Free dental care for foster care youth in Sacramento

Verizon Foundation helps 400 foster children
Robertson, Kathy. Sacramento Business Journal, Sept. 21, 2009.

More than 400 foster-care students in Sacramento will get free dental care thanks to a telemedicine project funded by a $100,000 start-up grant from the Verizon Foundation.

The project was created by the California Dental Association, University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry and the California Health Care Foundation to improve access to care.

The grant by the philanthropic arm of Verizon will support the first year of a project at Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento and a second site in Southern California.

The four-year pilot project will improve access to dental services in 15 community locations across California by giving participating dentists the technological ability to examine patients remotely with help from dental hygienists and dental assistants in underserved communities.

After remote exams, dental hygienists and assistants will perform preventive and temporary treatment. More complex cases will be referred to dentists.

The collaboration “demonstrates that when partnerships are formed, we can still do great things in and for our communities even during times of unprecedented budgetary constraints,” Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said in a news release.

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