A path for California to confront disparities in child welfare

Blog post Cathy Senderling-McDonald

What if families had the support they need to stay together and prevent their children from entering foster care?

That’s the opportunity before California now that $1 billion in federal matching funds are available to fund services that help families grow stronger.  More than 60 organizations supporting children are urging California legislators to unlock this opportunity and change an unacceptable reality: Black and Native American children are three times more likely to be removed from their homes compared to white children. Disparities among other racial and ethnic groups, as well as the responses and outcomes for our children and youth who identify as LGBTQ+, also exist and persist in the system.

These statistics are among the troubling findings of a study in the American Journal of Public Health and recently reported by Mother Jones. Looking at all children born in California in 1999 and following Child Protective Services records through 2017, researchers found roughly one in four came to the attention of child welfare officials before their 18th birthday. Among Black and Native American children, this rate rose to one in two. 

“Poverty and not having the basics they need” are the primary reasons families come into contact with child welfare, the former head of the federal U.S. Children’s Bureau told Mother Jones.  That means for children to grow up healthy and safe, what most families need is support, not separation.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s recently updated budget proposal would dedicate $122.4 million over three years to help implement the federal “Families First” prevention program—or $40.8 million per year.  It’s a welcome investment, but this proposal must be strengthened in the final, adopted budget in order to catalyze the seismic shift our child welfare system needs. Specifically, more funds need to be made available for a broader array of services, and the prevention planning must occur statewide, not just in counties that opt in.

The Senate and Assembly Joint State Budget Plan proposes $100 million in addition to the Governor’s proposal, which would be ongoing rather than one-time. It’s the level of investment that our diverse state needs to begin building a system where families receive mental health, substance use, parenting skills training and other services as well as financial support to help them stay together, avoiding foster care whenever possible.  We believe that listening to families, rather than telling them what they need, is the way to help them build resilience and strength and to reduce racial disparities and other known inequities in child welfare.

The Governor’s and Legislature’s proposals are complementary, as communities will need initial funding for planning, to expand or enhance existing programs, and to get new programs up and running. These two proposals are not an either/or but a both/and solution to the issues we know exist. Counties and local communities working together will need both upfront and ongoing funding to build a true prevention continuum in California and to ensure culturally responsive and sensitive programs are available to promote racial equity and reduce racial disparities. 

Reimagining child welfare services is the challenge our state leaders must meet, as budget negotiations conclude in the coming days.

Let’s chart a new direction for California and move away from jarring statistics showing disproportionate representation of children of color and other inequities in the child welfare system.  We can improve the chances for children to grow up healthy and strong, and to do so together with their families.  And, when families are in crisis, we could make California a state where a call from child welfare officials brings with it meaningful support to strengthen families and keep children safe at home and in their communities whenever possible.