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State's Plan to Upgrade Foster Care Approved

The proposal is a result of a federal threat to withhold funds for child welfare services.

June 26, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

The federal government this week approved an ambitious California plan to improve child welfare services within two years, including reducing incidents of abuse in foster care and setting uniform training standards for social workers and foster parents.

State officials said the plan is designed to improve the safety of children, particularly in Los Angeles County, which has 40% of the state's 97,000 children in foster care. But they also expressed concerns that the state budget shortfall could slow funding of the reforms.

The plan, approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, followed a federal audit in January that gave the state failing grades in its handling of abused and neglected children. Federal authorities threatened to withhold $18 million unless California submitted a detailed blueprint to improve services, and said the state might still face penalties if it did not achieve goals in a timely manner.

Major features of the plan include providing more supportive services to troubled families and less court intervention to remove children from parents' care. Biological parents will have more say in what happens to their children even if there is a need to place them outside the home.

The state intends to create a more vigorous monitoring system and hold counties accountable for meeting new standards, issues that children's advocates have long urged the state to address. The approved plan seeks to reduce the number of children who are repeatedly abused, limit the movement of children from foster home to foster home, bolster efforts to reunify children with their biological parents and streamline adoption services.

"What we are promising here and the strategies and tactics we're proposing to use will ensure better services and more guaranteed well-being of children and their families," said Rita Saenz, director of the state's Department of Social Services, who conceded that the current child welfare system had become "unmanageable."

Officials had not determined how much the plan could cost over the next few years but said the state's budget crisis could hinder efforts and lead to federal sanctions. As a start, child welfare officials are asking the state Legislature to shift $28 million from existing welfare funds to help implement the plan.

The federal audit harshly criticized services in Los Angeles County, especially for the lengthy stays children endure in foster care. The county's audits found that children often languish for 60 months before an adoption is final. John Oppenheim, chief deputy director for the county Department of Children and Family Services, said officials want to cut that time in half and improve other services.

Carole Schauffer, an attorney with the Youth Law Center, an advocacy group that has sued both the state and county over their handling of foster children, called the new plan a huge step in the right direction.

"A big part of this plan is stressing the control and oversight of the state agency over all of the counties: to say this is one state and we're not going to let the care of our children be a county-by-county process and in particular, we're not going to let Los Angeles County function on its own anymore," she said.

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