Foster Care Learning Curve
Local pols push for child welfare progress despite state spending cut
By Joe Piasecki 06/17/2010
Like many other Californians in need of a helping hand as the state struggles with economic crisis, kids in foster care — who by no fault of their own depend on government for their very survival — have also felt the sting of massive cuts to public services.
Last year, $80 million in state cuts forced mass social worker layoffs and rollbacks of higher education entitlements for foster kids, a $17 million impact in LA County alone, and more bad news is expected from Sacramento this year.
Some local officials are hoping to reverse that trend, however, with Pasadena state Sen. Carol Liu pushing forward legislation that would tap increased federal support for foster care, and LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina expanding a San Gabriel Valley program helping foster kids graduate from high school.
Liu is co-author of Assembly Bill 12, also known as the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, which promises a win-win for state taxpayers and disadvantaged kids.
AB12 would allow federal dollars to replace current state spending for support of grandparents and others who take in the children of family members to keep them out of strangers’ homes.
Perhaps even more significant, the bill would also extend support for housing and other basic needs to many foster kids after they turn 18, again tapping Washington. Numerous studies show dismal rates of homelessness, unemployment and educational attainment for kids who simply “age out” of the system without supports.
“I couldn’t imagine letting any of my children just go off entirely on their own at 18,” said Liu, a mother of three. Foster kids “are not there by their own choice,” she said, and should be entitled to the kinds of help and guidance into adulthood that families would provide.
Compared to other cities in California, Pasadena is home to a disproportionally high number of foster children, many of whom are struggling in school.
A 2006 county study found that nearly one in 50 PUSD students was in foster care, a figure amplified by the fact that hundreds more foster children are enrolled in charter schools or programs at group homes.
At PUSD, foster youth are twice as likely to require special education services, six times less likely to enter gifted and talented programs and half as likely to pass standardized tests, reported the Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council.
These troubling realities have Pasadena school officials eyeing Molina’s foster care education project, which employs social workers on high school campuses in Pomona, Montebello and other area districts to keep foster kids — especially those who bounce from home to home and, consequently, school to school — on track to graduate.
In addition to improving grades and attendance, social workers focus on helping foster kids overcome instability by making sure previously earned academic credits are transferred and, in many cases, enrolling youth in summer, night and online courses to catch them up.
“Social workers didn’t think much about education until the past few years. We kind of thought of it as the schools’ job,” said LA County Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn. “But in LA we’re understanding that it’s not just about finding young people a safe and permanent home, but that we’re responsible for their general well-being — education included.”
The county reports that two-thirds of foster children who graduated in Pomona and Montebello last year would not have done so without intervention of the program, and that four in five participating graduates have enrolled in college despite a national average of only one in five foster youth seeking higher education.
Ja’ne White, who graduated last year from Ganesha High School in Pomona, said she was dozens of academic credits behind and planned to drop out to pursue a GED before an in-school social worker intervened.
“She got me into adult school and into Saturday classes, which I didn’t even know they had,” said White. “I didn’t want to quit anymore because I felt I’d be letting down more people than myself.
Stories like White’s make sense to Pomona Unified School District Superintendent Richard Martinez, who worked with the county to bring the program to his district and is himself a former foster youth.
“Students are looking for people who care and they will seek out your support, and the moment it drops they don’t get that continuity of care,” he said.
Molina started the program in 2008 with $400,000 in discretionary county funds.
Pasadena Unified School District officials work with DCFS liaisons to give special attention to foster youth enrolling in school, but say they could use more hands-on support to help foster kids finish strong as well, and plan to seek funding from the county for a similar program.
“I think it would be integral to the success of foster care students here,” said Sonia Rodarte, the district’s director of child welfare, attendance and safety.
Martinez said he feels giving special attention to the needs of foster kids is not so much innovative as “doing what we’re supposed to do.”
A 2004 state law (AB 490) requires that foster youth be allowed to access the same opportunities as others to school stability and achieving high academic standards, including remaining in the same school whenever possible, even if their foster care placement changes.
“Everybody knows [school stability] is supposed to be an overarching mission. We’re trying to put some meat on this bone, put something behind it,” said Molina spokeswoman Roxanne Marquez. “Ideally, you’d like to have this take place countywide.”
Taken with AB 490’s school stability requirements, AB 12’s proposed extension of foster care rights from 18 to 21 is in many ways aimed at implementing similar provisions of the 2008 federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.
“In California, all the pieces are coming into place to make the broader well-being and education of foster youth just as important as their safety and [home placement] permanency,” said Daniel Heimpel, a Los Angeles-area news reporter turned activist who now heads Fostering Media Connections, a project to help media outlets report on foster care issues and watchdog state and local implementation of reforms at the federal level.
And when it comes to following through on the promise of educational stability and success for foster youth, the mandate of AB 490 and the federal law, Heimpel said expanding programs like the one funded by Molina is essential.
“One supervisor’s district isn’t enough. This kind of work needs to be taking place in all of LA County and throughout the state,” he said.