California Considers a “Bat-Signal” for Foster Youth in Distress

Article Chronicle of Social Change

By Susan Abram

The woman used a thick extension cord on her foster children.

Welts rose. Bruises formed. Fear became the norm inside the Watts neighborhood home in Los Angeles where LaToya Cooper and six other children were sent to live.

But no one believed the then-fifth grader. Not Cooper’s teachers. Not the police.

“I snuck and called the police and they came out and said ‘we received a call,’” said Cooper, now 23 “They came in. They looked in every room. They said, ‘Are you OK?’ I was scared to death. I shook my head like ‘yeah,’ [but] I didn’t feel comfortable saying anything to them. [My foster mother] was standing right there.”

Cooper said a hotline operated by those who understand foster youth, such as the one proposed in the California legislature earlier this year, would have helped her and others who encounter abusive caregivers. It could also help caregivers reach out for help.

“If I would have had a number to call to give [social workers] information, it would have been more beneficial,” Cooper said. “[The police] believed her over me. We need somebody who can understand what we’ve been through. It’s worth it because it could change lives.”

Under a new state plan, law enforcement officers would no longer be the first responders to crisis situations involving the state’s 60,000 foster youth.

Research suggests that upwards of 80 percent of foster children are experiencing some kind of significant mental health need. That can often be a source of trouble for caregivers of these children, who are often more likely to fall back on law enforcement for help when behavior issues spiral out of control.

The result, youth advocates say, is an ongoing criminalization of foster youth who remain at risk of entering California’s correctional system.

Assembly Bill (AB) 2043, introduced this year by state Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D), aims to stem that reliance on law enforcement to solve behavioral concerns and also to help foster youth have a stronger voice in unsafe situations in foster homes. AB 2043 would provide funding to establish a statewide hotline that would link foster youth and their caregivers to a mobile team that would roll out to crisis situations seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

The teams, made up of clinical social workers and trained peers, would respond to calls from caregivers, as well as current or former foster youth day and night so that there is an alternative to involving law enforcement. The goal is to help both foster youth who need someone to talk to and caregivers who need help if a traumatized youth’s behavior becomes a challenge.

A hotline and mobile response team are both key pieces still missing from Continuum of Care Reform, said Diana Boyer, senior policy analyst for the County Welfare Directors Association of California.

Signed into law in 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown, the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) restructured the state’s child welfare system in an effort to surround foster youth placed in homes with consistent services. Those goals have been challenged by youth entering the state’s foster-care system, Boyer said.

“It’s structured in such a way that doesn’t offer that immediate support,” Boyer said of CCR. “With higher caseloads, we can’t get to foster youth and their families as quickly as we’d like.”

The proposed system would cost the state $15 million to set up for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. After that, the hotline would require $2.3 million every year to cover staffing and administration costs. The mobile response teams would mean an ongoing $27.3 million per year, said Boyer, whose group leads the effort to support AB 2043.

“We want [foster youth and caregivers] to feel supported, to have access to immediate support in their homes,” Boyer said. “We’re bringing the services to them, as opposed to them going to services.”

Because children placed in foster care are almost always impacted by trauma, sometimes those experiences manifest into behaviors that can be challenging for families.

Without consistent support for services, foster youth would be more likely to become reliant on the public welfare system, pregnant, incarcerated or victims of sex trafficking, she added.

“Helping kids heal from trauma will have a long-term economic benefit so there are fewer calls to law enforcement,” Boyer said.

New Jersey established a statewide hotline and mobile response team almost a decade ago to help any youth and their family through a crisis. Two years ago, the state added services specific to foster youth and families.

Preliminary data show that a high percentage of those youth are able to maintain placement with their caregivers, said Kathi Way, area director with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, Division of Child Protection and Permanency.

“We have seen a success in stabilizing the placements by having mobile response teams when a child is placed in foster care,” she said.

Contra Costa County in California already has a similar program in place, not just for those in foster care, but all youth and families who may have a crisis at home. A hotline is open 24 hours and a mobile response team travels to the youth and family to provide immediate crisis-intervention and mental health services.

“If you think about a youth who is in crisis, the current state system tends to rely either on child protective services, emergency services or psychiatric services, [none] of which are really geared toward helping a youth in a crisis,” said Ken Berrick, CEO and founder of Seneca Family of Agencies, which works to meet the needs of children in group homes and foster family care. “What the mobile outreach unit does is it creates a service that is specifically designed when youth are in crisis. It does fill an important gap. We’re getting 50 percent diversion from hospitalization. Instead of kids being sent to the hospital they are going into services.”

Berrick said he’s worked with youth for 30 years, and said the proposed state bills winding their way through committees show a commitment to helping foster youth avoid becoming entangled with the justice system.

“The combination of the welfare directors, the state Department of Social Services, and mental health directors coming together is absolutely remarkable,” Berrick said. “It shows a depth of understanding in the needs of child welfare.”

Laura, a 19-year-old foster care advocate who works for Seneca Family Agencies, said the proposed hotline could be like a “a bat signal” for foster youth. When she was in foster care, a man who had abused Laura befriended her foster mother.

“They were sitting on the couch together,” said Laura, who did not wish to give her last name.

She had no one to call. The police would not have helped, she added.

“An officer would have told me you’re in no immediate danger,” Laura said. “For him, the way he sees it, I’m not. But for those of us who grew up in the system, that is dangerous. That’s an emergency.”

Laura also said she’s seen foster youth incarcerated for small offenses which can lead to more problems for that youth.

“Having a miscommunication with somebody is not a criminal thing,” Laura said. “I’m just like, why didn’t anybody think of [a hotline] when I was younger. I really could have used it. It’s a great thing to have. There is only a selective amount of people who can understand us.”

For Cooper, who works with foster youth at the RightWay Foundation in Los Angeles, a hotline would have cast a spotlight on her abusive caregiver and Cooper could have had different kinds of memories of her formative years.

“I still have bruises,” Cooper said. “At that time, we would have benefited by a hotline.”

Susan Abram is a freelancer writer in Los Angeles.

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