Extended care for foster kids in peril

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to make it optional for counties to implement a portion of a new state law that extends foster care to age 21 could leave thousands of young adults without appropriate housing, opponents say.

Foster care advocates begged the governor to rethink his proposal at a budget hearing on May 2, but the revised budget plan released Monday does not reflect the suggested changes.

About 2,000 foster care youths living in group homes will turn 18 this year, and the majority of them aren’t ready to live independently, said Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation, a nonprofit that monitors foster-care issues.

The governor’s proposal gives counties the choice of implementing a Transitional Housing Program specifically designed for former foster children. Lemley worries that if the THP-Plus Foster Care program is made optional, it will fall prey to budget cuts in future years, leaving thousands of young adults in the lurch.

“THP-Plus Foster Care is an integral part of the implementation of successful foster care and without it we know many young vulnerable people will not make a safe, successful transition and will instead experience homeless and incarceration,” she said.

Brown’s proposal aims to give local governments more flexibility as part of the budgeting realignment of child welfare services, said Michael Weston, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services.
“The focus of realignment for child welfare services is to give the counties as much flexibility as possible to operate, shifting responsibility to determine what services will best meet the needs of children to the local level,” he said. “THP-Plus Foster Care is part of a wide array of services available.”

Under the governor’s proposal, the state would license THP-Plus Foster Care facilities, giving counties the ability to opt in to the program.

Advocates of the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, or AB 12, say THP-Plus Foster Care should be mandatory, because there aren’t other programs like it available to young adults.

Assemblywoman Holly J. Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, chair of the budget subcommittee on health and human services, said she believes AB-12 should be implemented as it was approved by the legislature.

“Releasing kids who have ‘aged out’ of foster care to homelessness is clearly not in the best interest of anyone’s child… mine or yours and shouldn’t be California’s policy,” she said.” I am committed to working to ensure we keep our commitments to these kids.“

After winning bipartisan support from legislators, AB 12 was signed into law in September 2010 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most portions of the law went into effect Jan. 1, but counties are still waiting on the state to issue guidelines for THP-Plus Foster Care.

The Department of Social Services plans to send out a letter to the counties in the next two or three weeks that will allow them to take steps toward implementation, Weston said.

AB 12 calls for the state to offer housing and support services for young adults in foster care between the ages of 18 and 21, as long as they are enrolled in school, working or making progress toward those goals, or are disabled. Foster care youth who turn 18 this year, the first group under the new law, have the option so far to stay with their foster families, live with relatives or be placed in a Supervised Independent Living Program.

However, those three options aren’t viable for about 20 percent of teens — those living in group homes, Lemley said. These teens typically don’t have the life skills to live on their own, but the independent living program may be their only option.

Drew Howell is one such teen. He’s been in the foster care system since age 17, after running away from his home in Ukiah a year prior.

Howell would like to participate in THP-Plus Foster Care after he graduates from high school on May 25, but since it hasn’t been implemented yet, he’s going to try the independent living program.

He’s not sure he’s prepared to live on his own — he’s still working on getting his driver’s license and finding a job — but he’s going to give it a shot, he said.

“Where else am I supposed to go?” Howell said. “I still have parents but a lot of other kids out there don’t and once they graduate they’re not going to have much of a choice — they can either try it or be homeless. That’s pretty much the gist of it.”

Even if it becomes optional, most counties in the state are committed to implementing THP-Plus Foster Care, because they believe it’s a good option for some young adults, Lemley said.

Ventura County is among several counties that are eager to get the guidelines for implementing the program, said Elaine Martinez, senior program manger, with Ventura County Human Services Agency. She estimates that the program could be up and running about 60 days after the state issues the requirements.

In large part, Brown appears committed to implementing AB 12, Lemley said. He allocated an additional $53.9 million for its implementation over the next three years in his revised budget Monday.

But the governor’s plans to make THP-Plus Foster Care optional won’t give foster care teens the reassurance they need that help is out there, Howell said.

“I feel that it is necessary and it should be authorized for everybody because everyone’s created equal, but some of us don’t have the good life and some of us need the help until we’re 21,” he said.

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