California Needs to Step Up Its Support of Our Most Vulnerable Kids & Families

Blog post Cathy Senderling-McDonald

In California, at any given time, about 55,000 children are living in foster care – young people for whom the State of California has legally taken on parental responsibility. Child welfare services, including foster care, is run by counties in California, with state oversight. Though counties run the system on the ground, state leadership is essential to ensuring children and families have access to resources and supportive services to help them avoid abuse and neglect, overcome trauma, and move forward in a healthy way. 

Since 2015, the State of California and its counties have partnered in a bold transformation to lead a national shift away from group homes and toward family settings.  Seven years into this process, called the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), it’s time for the state to acknowledge that serious gaps remain in care and services for youth, families, and caregivers, despite counties’ best efforts to implement this massive system change. Much more – moreleadership, more resources, and more accountability throughout the various systems that serve our children and families – is needed to uphold the state’s commitment to these children and youth, to the families we hope to reunite them with, and to those who step up to care for them in the meantime. 

This must start with strategic, on-going investments in the budget that will be finalized soon for the 2022-23 fiscal year. 

Counties Need Ongoing, Statewide Resources to Find and Support Family Caregivers

To meet the vision of a family home for every child in our child welfare system and a solid connection to kin, California counties need to identify, engage, and support more caring families. We appreciate funding proposed in the Governor’s May Revision to assist counties in identifying and engaging relatives but note that it is proposed as a one-time program, not statewide, and requires every county to match the state funds with their own dollars or receive nothing for this critical work. This will leave some foster children behind because many if not most counties cannot afford such a match without shifting funds away from other needed services and supports for children and families. Some will simply opt not to request funding because they can’t provide the match. 

Further, the one-time nature of the proposed program means counties will be left with a hole to fill when state funds run out. California learned in the early years of CCR implementation that counties’ success in engaging family members to care for children has resulted in a need for continuous recruitment, engagement, and support for families, both related and non-related, as we successfully reunite children and biological families or achieve permanency through guardianships and adoptions.  

CWDA has proposed a $100 million ongoing investment in the Foster Parent Recruitment, Retention, and Support (FPRRS) Program, with funds allocated to all counties up front for activities to find and keep resource families, especially relatives of children brought into care. In addition, CWDA has requested $100 million ongoing to fully fund the actual costs of state-mandated Resource Family Approval (RFA) activities, a comprehensive approach to licensing families ready to welcome foster youth into their homes. The Legislative Budget Package released last week provides full funding for RFA activities, adding $50 million General Fund to the $50 million proposed in the May Revision for a total of $100 million, and adds $50 million to the proposed $150 million for family engagement and support activities. We urge all of these funds to be included in the final package as well as statutory language supporting flexible, statewide use of these funds with accountability in the form of reasonable reporting by counties on the use of funds and related outcomes. Additional targeted investments in the legislative budget package should also be sustained in the final deal.

Services to Complex Youth Are Being Dismantled, Not Increased

A small but critically important group of foster youth have experienced such severe trauma that their needs continue to outpace the availability of services within the state of California. Counties are facing an impending moratorium on out-of-state placements, but the number of providers available within the state to care for these youth has decreased over the last year, not grown as we would have expected given Legislative attention and agreement from the Administration to add funding for services and support for these youth. This included funds to develop a Continuum of Care Crisis Pilot program targeting the youth with the highest behavioral health needs, but no RFP has yet been released for the pilot despite statutory timelines that called for funding to have been awarded by the end of March 2022. 

Additionally, counties are still waiting for a report required by AB 2083 (Cooley, Statutes of 2018), which tasked the state with developing recommendations to fill gaps in the state’s continuum of care for children with needs that span multiple system, such as child welfare, behavioral health, developmental and cognitive delays and related issues, and special education. The report was due on January 1, 2020. A second report required by the bill, the development of a multiyear plan for increasing the capacity and delivery of trauma-informed care to children and youth in foster care served by short-term residential therapeutic programs and other foster care and behavioral health providers, was due in June 2020 and has never been released. 

Recent federal changes are further restricting access to care for youth with complex needs. California’s residential treatment providers no longer meet the federal interpretation of “Institutions of Mental Disease (IMDs)” and must either significantly restructure and reduce capacity or face closure altogether. In the last two years California has lost more than 1,000 residential treatment beds providing intensive therapy for youth with the most complex needs.

In the meantime, counties continue to struggle and youth with significant, unmet needs continue to move from one placement to another, sometimes spending time in a county office, a hotel room, an Airbnb under supervision of social workers, or – worst case – on the streets. The national youth behavioral health crisis is not sparing our children, and the situation counties are grappling with is not improving despite the best efforts of our partners in other county departments and the service providers and caregivers, including family-based homes and residential treatment providers, with whom counties do their best to work closely with locally.

What Is Needed?

We continue to sound alarms for needed state leadership, statewide resources that are available without delay, implementation of previously enacted statutory requirements, and true partnership. These things include:

  • Support budget investments and related policy changes: Earlier this year we outlined a comprehensive set of budget requests and policy changes needed to support the particular needs of this youth population. 
  • Support legislation sponsored by CWDA and other organizations: Several pieces of legislation are moving through the process, including CWDA sponsored bills and bills sponsored by other stakeholder groups. For example, AB 2317 by Assembly Member Ramos, would create a new system of psychiatric residential treatment facilities for youth, a much needed step to help youth transition from immediate psychiatric crises. 
  • Provide oversight on state implementation efforts: Stepped-up Legislative oversight is also needed to ensure that programs prioritized through the budget process are implemented in a timely manner and to allow for course corrections as lessons are learned. 

We don’t need to wait for the state to complete long-overdue reports to share counties’ insights on what is needed. The time is now – the need is urgent – the children and families we serve cannot wait any longer for the care and support they need to heal and thrive.