Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Grand Jury faults foster care system


Of the 38 young adults who left the foster care system last year, 12 became homeless within six months, according to a Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury report that gave a less-than-stellar grade to the county’s Department of Child Welfare Services.
The report credits many of the shortfalls in the county’s foster care system to lack of continuity of foster care as children bounce from home to home and social worker to social worker. It also cites a vast shortage of social workers, which has been exacerbated by an 81 percent increase in caseload over the past five years.

The lack of stability once in the foster system compounds what is no doubt an already complicated situation for many of the county’s 584 foster children. And when many of these children reach the age of 18, they leave.
But without family, friends or support systems, there are few places these young people can turn for help once plans begin to unravel. And as a result, it’s little surprise many former foster care children end up on the streets.
“Even with the best parents, most children are not fully independent upon turning 18, and they still have a parental safety net and a family home to return to,” according to the report. “Not so with foster children. The Grand Jury heard that all too frequently emancipated foster children leave their foster home or group home with just their personal belongings and begin ‘couch surfing’ until they find a permanent home.”
While the 12 youth who wound up on the streets last year seems like a relatively high percentage at 32 percent, it is about par with national statistics.
According to The Teen Project, a California nonprofit dedicated to reducing youth homelessness, anywhere from 24 to 50 percent of foster care youth in the country end up homeless within the first 18 months of leaving foster homes.
Casa Esperanza homeless shelter Executive Director Mike Foley said he’s not surprised by the statistic cited in the report. However, he said it’s important to remember the remaining 26 youths presumably found jobs or went to college.
“The good news is we have a better system now than we’ve ever had in Santa Barbara,” he said.
Kathy Gallagher, director of the county’s Department of Social Services, which includes Child Welfare Services, said she doubts this statistic is correct.
“I’m not sure where that came from,” she said. “I don’t think that’s an accurate statistic for us.”
When asked what she believed a more accurate representation would be, Gallagher said she didn’t know exactly, only that it was lower than the number the grand jury found.
Foley said it's difficult to determine exactly how many foster youth end up at Casa Esperanza, but he knows 160 young people, or about 15 percent of the entire homeless population served there, are under the age of 25.
The county provides a number of services to foster youth who are preparing to leave the system, including La Morada, an eight-bed shelter for youth that aids young people in their transition. In their early teens, foster youth also participate in an independent living program.
But the success of both of these programs hinge on participation. And when it comes to an 18-year-old who has been placed in a number of different foster homes, and has seen a handful of social workers come and go, it’s no surprise to Foley that many forge out on their own and refuse these services.
When things go wrong for these young people, Foley said they aren’t allowed to return to the umbrella of the social services system. In fact, Foley said it could be beneficial to allow young people to resume receiving services until the age of 21.
He said all that stands between many former foster youth and staying off the streets is a safety net.
Foley told a story of one young man who left foster care and quickly became homeless. He said the young man’s mother was homeless and residing at Casa Esperanza. The man joined his mother and, after finding a job, he disappeared, Foley said. A couple of months later, he said the man was found living with a friend in Lompoc, where he managed to reside for a year. But when the friend moved, the man found himself on the streets again.
Foley said he returned to Casa Esperanza for help, and was hooked into Job Corp. in Ventura, where he found work and is currently doing well.
In this case, Foley said the young man entered foster care at the age of three and had been placed in 18 different homes over the next 15 years.
He, unlike many young people, sought out the services at Casa Esperanza and was able to get on his feet. Foley said this trait is unusual in many young homeless people, who he said often shy away from receiving services at an adult shelter.
This young man’s story ties into the brunt of the grant jury report, which focuses on what it calls a lack of continuity in the foster care system.
On average, the report notes a foster child will have a minimum of three different social workers by the time they are placed in a foster home. This is due in part to a system in which the social workers specialize in specific areas, and a skyrocketing turnover rate among social workers in the county.
Between 2003 and 2007, the report shows the turnover rate with social workers rose from 6.9 percent to 31 percent.
“The average time a social worker stays with Child Welfare Services is now less than two years," according to the report. “Since it takes three months of training before a social worker is assigned to a working unit, the system is highly inefficient.”
A number of the grand jury's sources reportedly indicated social workers do not receive sufficient support from supervisors and administrators.
When asked about these numbers, Gallagher said she was unsure if they were accurate. She said her department is preparing an official response that will be completed in the next 60 days.
“Just on the surface, I can’t verify the info I see in the grand jury report,” she said.
Gallagher did say the Child Welfare Services has a current operating budget of $9.7 million, 94 percent of which comes from state and federal money. She said the remaining 6 percent, which comes from the county’s general fund, wasn’t cut during the last budget cycle, nor was the other funding.
But she said during her five-year tenure, the department hasn’t been funded sufficiently to account for the steep rise in caseloads, which between 2002 and 2007, rose from 322 to 584 children.
Gallagher said the increase is widely attributed to climbs in methamphetamine abuse, which often causes parents to neglect or abuse their children.
While there hasn’t been any recent budget cuts to the department, Gallagher said a proposed 10 percent cut to Child Welfare Services at the state level could cripple the current situation in Santa Barbara County.
“A1 0 percent cut in the Child Welfare Services, even under the best of circumstances, would be very serious,” she said.
With a majority of the department’s funding coming from state sources, Gallagher said she must lobby the state for additional funding, and she has. Each year, she has documented the increase in caseloads and funding has trickled in. Although Gallagher said she wasn’t sure exactly how many social workers are on staff, she said over the past five years, “There certainly have not been any big increases. The growth in the case load has not been completely funded.”
The report is available at www.sbcgj.org.

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