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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