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California and the West

Lawmakers Vow to Improve Foster Care

Legislature: Leading Democrats are working on 13 bills to help child welfare agencies and make them more accountable.

April 18, 2001|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Leading Democratic lawmakers vowed Tuesday to make improving California's troubled foster care system their top priority this year.

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and a broad array of powerful legislators have introduced a $300-million package of 13 bills intended to provide child welfare agencies with greater resources while holding them more accountable for results.

The bills would improve training for adoptive parents, reduce caseloads for social workers, boost money for foster care providers and expand government programs for former foster children moving out on their own, among other things.

The legislative push is a response to increasingly stark statistics showing that the children receiving foster care in California are often mistreated and later struggle to become productive members of society.

"California cannot continue failing these kids," Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) said in a Capitol news conference attended by former foster children and children's advocates such as Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

Problems with the state's foster care system, which has about 100,000 youths, or roughly 20% of the nation's foster population, reflect a troubling national trend. According to recent national studies on children after they leave foster care:

* 75% perform below grade level in school.

* 60% of girls have children within four years of leaving the system.

* 50% do not complete high school.

* 45% are unemployed.

* 30% go on welfare between ages 18 and 24.

* 26% spend time in jail or prison.

* 25% become homeless.

After years of clamoring for help, Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) and other lawmakers active in child welfare issues have succeeded in getting the attention of the lower house's legislative leadership to tackle the problem this year.

The group of lawmakers carrying foster care bills features not only Hertzberg but virtually every member of his Assembly leadership team. They include Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco), the floor leader; Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek), the speaker pro tempore; Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), chair of the Appropriations Committee; Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), chair of the Judiciary Committee; and Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar), chairman of the Budget Committee.

"Foster youth don't vote," said Johnny Madrid, a former foster child who bumped through 19 homes before reaching adulthood, once surviving on "Dorito bags" after nearly being starved by an abusive woman. The articulate 19-year-old, now an undergraduate at Stanford, told lawmakers, "You have to make this commitment from the heart."

The legislation falls into three categories: improving the child welfare system, making the system subject to specific performance benchmarks, and helping foster children go to college and enter the working world.

Hoping to reduce social worker caseloads, which are often twice the recommended levels, AB 364 by Aroner requires the state to implement new workload standards for county workers over the next five years. Another Aroner bill, AB 557, establishes a program to help counties find and retain foster parents, who are perennially in short supply.

A bill by Steinberg, AB 636, would create a system of benchmarks to review and judge the performance of county welfare agencies based on what happens to the children and families they assist. Another bill, AB 899 by Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge), creates a bill of rights for foster children.

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