YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The State

State Revises Foster Care Standards

Changes settle a lawsuit with child advocacy group and call for audits of relatives caring for foster children to ensure health and safety.

October 25, 2002|Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writer

A San Francisco child advocacy group sued the state of California Thursday, saying it had failed to ensure that foster parents who are related to their children meet federal health and safety requirements. The group then immediately agreed to settle the suit in exchange for reforms.

The settlement, which will be monitored by the court, requires uniform, statewide standards for foster parents who are related to the children in their custody. It also calls for audits and requires counties to help unqualified relatives meet the standards, rather than simply not considering the relatives or taking the children away from them. The state will set aside $1 million a year to help those families.

"What the relatives get out of this is help from the counties -- if they're basically good homes," said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, which filed the suit. "And they get due process, so it's not as arbitrary a process as it's been in the past."

The settlement may also help the state in a dispute with the federal government, which earlier this year began reducing grants to California to pay foster families, alleging that the state was not properly screening relatives, who care for 38% of the state's foster children.

"What this is doing is really part of convincing the feds that we are in fact ensuring that the relative homes are in compliance with [the Adoptions and Safe Families Act]," said Blanca Castro, spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services, which oversees the counties' child welfare programs.

As part of the settlement, the state will immediately audit 620 foster cases involving relatives across the state and will require counties to use the same assessment form. The oversight, and creation of an appeals process for relatives, will cost about $3 million a year, Castro said.

Federal rules have required states to hold both relatives and nonrelatives to the same standards since January 2000. For much of the ensuing two years, California and the federal government have been arguing in letters about whether or not the state meets the standards.

The state held that it was sufficient to require counties to assess relatives and unrelated foster parents against health and safety standards, even if those standards are different. The state passed emergency legislation a year ago that raised some of the standards for relatives, but did not create a mechanism to oversee the counties' reassessment of those homes.

"I don't have a quick answer ... for why we didn't do it two years ago," Castro said. "To be honest with you, we thought that we were in compliance."

In March, Los Angeles County released a study of 200 randomly selected foster homes involving relatives. The study found that only 1% would meet the health and safety standards that the state imposes on foster parents who are not related to the children they raise. The violations ranged from crowding to unsanitary or hazardous conditions. Weapons and ammunition were not secured in eight homes, and 25 relatives were not checked for criminal records or against the state's child-abuse registry.

The findings were significant because Los Angeles County is home to more than a third of the state's foster children who live with relatives.

So far this year, the federal government has withheld $37 million in grants, which California claimed as reimbursement to support foster families. The state is challenging the reduction, asserting that every foster home for which it billed the federal government met federal standards, Castro said.

Castro said many counties have already reassessed all of their relatives, including Orange County, and many others expect to finish by the end of the year.

Los Angeles County officials said earlier this year that it had begun using the stricter standards for relatives in new cases and intended to hire a staff to reassess those relatives who are already getting paid to care for children.

Los Angeles Times Articles