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Foster kids miss out on sports and music. A new California plan aims to help them catch up

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Foster kids miss out on sports and music. A new California plan aims to help them catch up

Foster kids often miss out on Little League or music lessons. That’s one of the consequences of changing homes, or living with a family on a tight budget.

Now California has a new plan to give them opportunities for the kinds of extracurricular activities that can build character and community.

It’s included in a proposed revision to how the state pays for foster care that’s intended to make more money available to high-needs kids. Youth advocates are especially enthusiastic about the funding for extracurricular activities, which would come in the form of a monthly stipend of at least $500.

“These kids are always underfunded,” said Brian Blalock, senior directing attorney at the Youth Law Center. “And especially when the kids are with grandma and the kids are with relatives, often on fixed income. It’s where we most want these young people as a system, and as a consequence, grandma’s maxing out credit cards to keep the grandbaby in basketball and dance and tutoring.”

The California Department of Social Services put forward the proposal last month, as part of a restructuring to the state’s foster care payment system that was prompted by a 2015 law. Lawmakers are expected to consider it in budget deliberations this spring. By law, the state must adopt updated foster care pay rates by Jan. 1, although the changes would not roll out until 2026.

Aside from the money for activities, the proposal includes a new scale for payments to foster families and money earmarked for support services like therapy and mentoring. Children with greater needs would receive more money.

If the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom sign off on the plan, the department estimates California will spend about $1 billion a year by 2028-29 on foster care payments.

Some money will come from the federal government, but the vast majority will be put up by the state’s general fund. For comparison, California spent a total of $459 million in foster care pay in 2023-24.

State officials say the proposal is meant to create room for positive experiences in foster care.

“Most importantly it is attuning to the fact that all of these children have strengths, and focusing on those strengths and building those strengths is really key to addressing that trauma and improving the well-being of all of our children,” said Angie Schwartz, deputy director of the Children and Family Services Division at the California Department of Social Services, during a webinar in March.

Assessing children’s needs in foster care

Under the state’s proposal, compensation for caregivers would be based on a tiered system of kids’ assessed needs. This would range from $1,788 a month for most kids to $6,296 for kids with the greatest needs for support.

That would replace the current model which bases a caregiver’s pay on where a child is placed. Right now group homes are paid a higher rate than grandparents or foster families, for example.

The acuity of a child’s needs will be evaluated with a tool known as the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths assessment. While this assessment is used today, it doesn’t determine funding. Kids are usually assessed every six months.

This assessment takes into account a number of things, including kids’ behavioral and emotional needs, risk behaviors and how the child is doing in school, socially and physically.

Foster care services providers and the Legislative Analyst’s Office have raised questions about the reliability of the assessment tool and whether it will be done consistently.

“There’s real worry about children potentially being scored at a lower tier or at a lower level, and then that determining the tier of services that they would get,” said Christine Stoner-Mertz, CEO of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, which represents organizations that work in child welfare.

Stoner-Mertz said the state needs to figure out a process for when children switch tiers, especially if their level of need begins to decline and they are bumped down to a lower funding level.

“How are we working with families to prepare them for what could often be perceived as losing those supports that are, in fact, making the child more stable in their home?”

For the first time, children and their caregivers may also be eligible for “immediate needs” dollars, which would fund support services like therapy and mentoring.  This would come in amounts between $1,000 and $4,100 a month and would be reserved for the 25% of children with the greatest needs.

Supporting home-based foster care

For the past several years, the state has been working to place more kids with families rather than in group homes. Research shows that kids tend to do better at a home with a family. The state has decreased the number of children being placed in congregate settings by almost 60%, according to the social services department.

Organizations that support foster families are watching the state’s proposal closely, and some are worried it does not provide enough money for the nonprofits that do the work to place kids in homes.

The nonprofits, known as foster family agencies, play an important role in this process by recruiting foster parents and training them, as well as providing social work support.

The California Alliance of Child and Family Services notes that the rate paid to foster family agencies has remained mostly flat for almost 20 years.

A recent survey by the alliance showed foster family agencies have high turnover rates of social workers because they cannot compete with the salaries offered by other employers. The survey also showed 68% of foster family agencies are at risk of downsizing because of insufficient funding.

As proposed, the state would pay the nonprofits $1,610 a month for most children and up to $7,213 for kids with the greatest needs. The alliance representing the nonprofits says the monthly rates need to be between $2,245 and up to $10,650 to be sustainable.

“We want to have more home-based care, and this is what (foster family agencies) do and support,” said Adrienne Shilton, vice president of public policy at the California Alliance of Child and Family Services. “So we’re perplexed by that, in terms of stated goals and then (the rates) we see here.”



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