There’s no doubt in Veronica Morales’ mind that placement in a caring foster family is far superior than placement in a group home.
The Turlock resident, who spent much of her childhood in family foster care, said her brothers seemed like “robots” after their stay in a heavily structured group home. She believes they were overly medicated -even being given sleeping pills to get to sleep right at 8 pm. “You’re not surrounded by actual family,” she said. “For the kid, there’s a lack of any kind of connection with a friend or loved one.”
Morales is thrilled with the recent approval of Assembly Bill 403, known as Continuum of Care Reform, which will sharply decrease the number of foster youth in group homes and shorten the length of their stay in such places. The law goes into effect Jan. 1 with implementation occurring in stages until 2021.
According to a January report issued by the state Department of Social Services, research shows that kids in group homes have increased risk of arrests, higher dropout rates and lower graduation rates.
The sweeping changes in the new law means group homes will have to transition to become short-term residential therapeutic centers, and foster family agencies will have to offer additional mental health and counseling services for foster families. The goal is to provide services to the foster youth in one spot – preferably a stable family – rather than shifting the young person from place to place.
But making that dream a reality will be a huge challenge – it means finding many more foster families to take in children who have been previously placed in group homes. Foster agencies say that they’re having a hard time finding enough foster families as it is.
There are roughly 62,000 children and youth in foster care in California with about 3,000 staying in group homes for more than a year and 1,000 remaining in group homes for more than five years, according to a report on Continuum of Care Reform submitted in January by the state Department of Social Services. Kids often end up in group homes because they have behavioral problems or mental health issues that are difficult for foster families to address.
“There’s great intention with all this, it’s a great idea but unless we find enough foster homes, all we’ll end up with is a bunch of kids with nowhere to go,” said Bill Richardson, district administrator at Koinonia Family Services in Loomis.
Koinonia was awarded a $733,535 contract by Placer County to find 15 families willing to become emergency foster homes and accept children in need of care at any time and five families who can provide temporary respite care for foster families. Once this happens, Placer County will shut down its children’s emergency shelter.
Richardson said he’s been doing more to recruit families than he ever has before, placing ads in newspapers and magazines, speaking to service clubs and using social media. He has placed ads for “professional foster families,” who would receive an as yet-to-be-determined monthly fee to hold beds in their home for foster youth who may show up at any time.
While there are people who would love to care for these kids, not all have the ability to do so. It’s best if at least one parent is not working and is available to be with the children. “Empty nesters tend to be the best,” Richardson said.
He especially needs families who can deal with teens who may have emotional or behavioral issues. Banetta Bacchi, who works at Koinonia as a foster parent coordinator and was a foster parent for nearly 30 years, said foster parents who take in these kids need compassion and flexibility. “If you can look past the scary way they may look or feel and treat them just the way you treat your (kids), that goes a long way,” she said.
Twyla Abrahamson, acting client services program director for Placer County’s children’s system of care, said that when officials remove children from their parents, there’s a serious reason like domestic violence, abuse or neglect. When they are placed in a group home, it’s often because they haven’t been successful in a foster family. They have behavior issues. “They need some intensive trauma-focused work,” Abrahamson said.
Placer County has a relatively smaller population to manage – there are only 280 kids in foster care (including probation), 30 of which are in group homes. That’s in stark contrast to Los Angeles County, which has 20,000 children in foster care. As of March, 1,042 of those were in group homes, said Karen Richardson, Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services manager. Continuum of Care Reform is one of the biggest changes in decade.. “It’s huge, it’s massive,” she said.
Chanel Boutakidis, chief executive officer of Five Acres, which serves foster children in the Los Angeles area, said many group homes aren’t up to the challenge of meeting the requirements to become short-term residential therapeutic centers and will shut their doors. She said there are only beds for 18,000 of Los Angeles County’s 20,000 foster kids as it is.
“The fact that LA County has not built up capacity is going to be a huge challenge for foster children,” she said. “There will have to be more adoptions and family reunifications. That’s not the trend we’re seeing right now. If they don’t time it well, if they don’t build capacity to fill the need before they make this shift, they’ll have a lot of foster children with nowhere to go.”
San Joaquin County, which has 1,455 kids in foster care including 163 in group homes, hired a new employee to focus on finding relatives willing to take kids out of group homes. The employee’s work will include helping these relatives go through the extensive foster family credentialing process. The county also hired a second Spanish-speaking foster family recruiter.
Mikey Habbestad, deputy director for San Joaquin County children’s services, said the biggest barrier to foster family recruitment is that the state hasn’t yet defined a new reimbursement rate structure.
Another challenge in implementing Continuum of Care is that the new law requires relatives wanting to take in foster kids to go through the same licensing, approval and training processes as non-related foster parents, said Deborah Moss, Marin County child welfare director. In the past, relatives had fewer hoops to jump through. All families interested in taking in foster children will have to go through psycho-social assessment approving them for adoption and guardianship.
The state is shifting away from the old system where some families would foster dozens of children over several decades. The goal is to get all families to consider adoption and guardianship. “We always say be open to (taking a child in for) a day or a lifetime,” said Jeannie Imelio, chief operating officer of ASPIRAnet foster family agency in Turlock. “That’s not for everyone but that’s what the system is asking.”