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U.S. Docks State $18 Million in Foster Care Flap

Children: Federal officials say California isn't holding relatives and nonrelatives to same standards for homes. But state insists that it is.

July 10, 2002|EVELYN LARRUBIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dispute between the state and federal governments over how California screens foster parents will cost the state more than $18 million in grants, according to federal officials, and could eventually drain hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers.

The federal government maintains that California has yet to implement a 2-year-old federal mandate that relatives be held to the same standards as professional foster parents to receive federal grants to care for foster children in their homes.

California has insisted that it always met the rule, because it tests both kinds of caretakers for health and safety concerns, even though the actual requirements may vary between the groups.

State and federal officials have been arguing about the issue in letters for more than a year. For much of that time, the federal government has been threatening to not pay for relative foster homes until the state equalizes the standards.

It made good on that threat this month.

Sharon Fujii, head of the Pacific region of the Administration for Children and Families, said Tuesday that her agency reduced California's July-September grant award by 17%, which it determined was the portion of foster families that did not meet federal requirements. Fujii said the state requested $109 million for that period, but was approved for only $90 million "for failing to implement relative licensing provisions of the Adoptions and Safe Families Act."

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services declined to comment, saying that her agency had only been told orally of the reduction and that any decision to challenge the reduction would be made after receiving it in writing.

Fujii said the federal government will also be auditing the state's bills for foster care for the last two years to determine how much was paid for relative caretakers who did not meet the same standards as nonrelatives, a first step toward reclaiming improper payments. One state estimate circulated last year put the amount in jeopardy at close to $300 million.

The federal government does not dictate all the health and safety standards that states can use to assess foster homes.

Since January 2000, however, it has required that whatever rules states chose must be applied to relative and professional foster homes.

States were given nine months to equalize their standards.

California passed emergency legislation in October that it said was meant to clarify that the standards are equal, but many acknowledge that it did raise some safety standards for relatives.

Counties were required to implement the new standards by January.

Los Angeles met that deadline for new homes, according to county documents. But it has been a slow process to assess the county's more than 9,000 relatives who were approved as foster parents under the old standards.

A study of 200 randomly selected relative foster parents released in March showed that only 1% would meet current standards. The problems ranged from overcrowding, with children sharing beds with adults or sleeping on mattresses or in sleeping bags on floors, to unsanitary or hazardous conditions, including roach infestations, plumbing problems and homes and yards filled with garbage.

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