Thursday, April 07, 2011

Former foster children have overtaken war veterans as the single largest population in California’s homeless shelters.

Many Penniless Former Foster Kids Call The Streets Home
Sharma, Amita, KPBS, April 6, 2011.

Former foster children have overtaken war veterans
as the single largest population in California’s homeless shelters.

The average American parent spends $50,000 dollars from the time a child turns 18 until age 26.

Foster children, who leave the state’s care at 18, get $500.

These findings are among a bevy of disturbing facts contained in a new report from the Childrens' Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego. It portrays the grim trail of hopelessness facing the 30,000 young Americans -- including 300 in San Diego -- who leave the foster-care system each year upon reaching age 18. It's a trail Melissa Lechner has tread for the past several years.

“When I left the foster care system, I ended up couch surfing, going from a friend’s house to a friend’s house," Lechner said. "I tried getting my own apartment with two other people. That didn’t work out. I moved into another friend’s place. By 2007, I became homeless.”

Lechner is a 22-year-old Grossmont College student who works part-time as a caretaker. She has been homeless off and on since 2007. In the winter months, home has included the sidewalk in front of the downtown library. During warm weather, home for her and other ex-foster kids was the San Diego River bed.

“We all cuddled together in tents to keep warm, laid out our blankets," Lechner said. "I ended up with staph a couple of times because of the dirt. Churches would come out and feed us.”

Lechner went into the foster care system when she was 10 months old after her mother was killed in a car crash. She spent the next 17 years with 10 different foster families and in a handful of group homes.

“I knew it would happen," she said. "I’m a foster kid. It’s to be expected. Foster kids end up leaving the system and having nowhere to go. They don’t give us any sort of funds to be able to get our own place. They just leave us out to dry.”

But San Diego County Child Welfare Services Director Debra Zanders-Willis said social workers do try to prepare the kids for self-sufficiency. She said six months before foster kids exit care, social workers help them create a transition plan that includes assistance in writing resumes, interviewing skills and finding a job.

She said there is also subsidized housing available for foster kids turning 18 until age 21.

“There are a lot of resources available for foster youth when they exit out of foster care,” Zanders-Willis said.

That statement, according to attorney Kriste Draper with The Children’s Advocacy Institute at USD, is more theory than reality. She said there are about 100 beds in government subsidized housing available in the county even though 300 foster kids are emancipated locally each year. Social workers try to help kids find jobs, she said.

“But that doesn’t always translate into the child being brought to this worker’s place, sitting down doing that (job-application) work, taking time out of their school day or after school, coordinating with the group home to get the rides," Draper said. "Caseloads are so high.

As a result, Draper said, most foster kids on the cusp of leaving slip through the system’s cracks. And all of us, she noted, are to blame.

“As a state we have decided that a foster child’s parents are not good enough to be their parents," Draper said. "Each one of us through our tax dollars has said we can be better parents. And if we are going to accept that responsibility, then we need to make sure that we are better than the homes we have taken them from. And right now, I think that we fail at that.”

Evidence of that failure lies in the numbers. Nearly 40 percent of foster kids become homeless. Only 3 percent earn college degrees. By age 24, just 50 percent have jobs. And the federal government spends nearly $6 billion a year on foster kids, who can’t function on their own, through public assistance and other expenditures.

“Financially, what we’re doing makes no sense,” Draper said.

But reform requires influence. Bob Fellmeth, executive director of The Children’s Advocacy Institute, said children have none.

“Children are not politically powerful," Fellmeth said. "They don’t vote. They don’t give campaign contribution money. They’re not organized. Of the 1,200 lobbyists in Sacramento, there’s a very, very small, tiny voice (advocating for children) and these foster kids are the tiniest of the tiniest."

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Saturday, April 02, 2011

Reentry into foster care

Santa Cruz County's foster kids re-entry rate spikes, prompting review
Hoppin, Jason. San Jose Mercury News, March 28, 2011.

SANTA CRUZ -- The number of local foster children removed from their home after being reunited with parents has spiked in recent years, prompting Santa Cruz County officials to take a new look at how those cases are handled.

At one point, nearly one in five foster children who returned home did not stay for more than a year, with the county's so-called re-entry rate of 18.5 percent rate topping the statewide average by more than 50 percent.

While that number has since declined, children in Santa Cruz are still more likely to re-enter the foster care system than children elsewhere in California.

"We don't know what changed to make it go up," said Judy Yokel, the county's director of family and children's services. "We just know that it did." The statistic is particularly disappointing to Santa Cruz advocates, since local numbers once beat state averages.

The county's current re-entry rate of 15.2 percent now easily outstrips the federal standard of 9.9 percent.

That has prompted the county to change the way it analyzes each case, bringing together groups of people key to a child's welfare before making any decisions on their future.

"We now hold one before we return any kid home," Yokel said. "No kid goes home anymore without team decision-making." Such cases are among the most heartbreaking scenarios for those who work within the foster care system, with parental drug and alcohol relapses often playing a large role.

Storey, a social worker at Felton-based New Families, a regional foster care organization, said courts and the county can often take too punitive of an approach, quickly removing children when parents relapse but offering little help with recovery.

"What they don't understand is that there's a process of healing," Storey said. "The majority of professionals that work in recovery know it takes two years for people to get themselves straight."

Few seem to know what happened to flip the county's number so dramatically. In March 2005, the re-entry rate was 5.3 percent - less than half the state average.

One possibly explanation is the economy -- Santa Cruz County first exceeded California's average during 2008, when the economy was thrown into chaos.

"It's possible. Hard economic times certainly make it difficult for parents to care for their child adequately," Yokel said.

But those statistics reflect the previous 12 months of cases, seemingly predating the economic downturn. And the overall number of foster care cases did not go up, Yokel said.

The re-entry rate is one of the few clouds in an otherwise bright sky. Several years ago, the county formed a committee to oversee improvements to the family care system. Since then, referrals for abuse or neglect are down, the timeliness of adoptions remains high and three-fourths of foster children are reunited with their families within a year.

Ken Goldstein, executive director of CASA of Santa Cruz County, which assists in the court process once children enter the system, said he is aware of the re-entry problem. But he also had few answers.

"Adults learn slowly," Goldstein said. "Sometimes it takes some time to change."

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