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Accord Hikes Foster Care Budget

Members of both parties embrace the addition of $83 million in funds for children who should have `the very best.'

July 18, 2006|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assemblywoman Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, stood on a Capitol balcony several months ago talking about the plight of foster children, most of whom have been abused or neglected.

Nearby, Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, a Republican from Monrovia, happened to overhear.

"We're the caregivers of these children," interjected Mountjoy, who is as conservative as Bass is liberal. "We ought to do the very best we can."

The realization that this sentiment existed on both sides of the political aisle led to a big boost in what the state will spend on foster children this year. The rare agreement of Sacramento Democrats and Republicans to increase social services spending makes foster youths one of the few groups to get more money this year than last, an increase of more than $83 million.

The funds will help the 75,000 or so California children, from infants to teenagers, who are taken from their parents for their own safety, sometimes for a few days, sometimes forever.

Legislators also have written a raft of bills aimed at improving these bleak statistics: Within four years of leaving the foster care system at 18, roughly one-quarter of youths are homeless, one-quarter are incarcerated and one-third receive welfare. Fewer than 1% graduate from college.

"These kids get into this critical situation through no fault of their own doing," said Assemblyman Bill Maze (R-Visalia), "yet through our system we have brought additional disadvantage to them. I don't think we are by any means doing all we can for them."

The attention from politicians, as well as changes at the federal level, make some who work with foster children hope they are on the verge of genuine reform, not just a period of government hand-wringing.

They credit Bass, who has vowed to make foster care a top priority until term limits end her Assembly tenure in 2010, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wrote in May to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) that "we have an obligation to act" given the "sobering statistics" about foster youth.

"They're not just people who vote aye," said Frank Mecca, who represents county social workers as director of the County Welfare Directors Assn. of California. "They're champions."

In Los Angeles County, roughly 21,000 children are wards of government. Some are taken in by volunteers. Others live in privately run, government-funded group homes. Most have been neglected by single parents with such serious problems as mental illness, drug addiction or poverty.

California's system of judges, social workers and foster parents costs federal and state taxpayers $4.3 billion a year. But in testimony earlier this year before a foster care committee created by Bass, young people in the foster system said it fails to give them a good start in life.

They complained of social workers too overwhelmed to return their calls, caregivers who abused them, brothers and sisters they could not reach and guardians who forced prescription drugs on them, claiming they were needed to treat behavioral problems.

"They across the board say that they do not feel that there is an adult who is not paid that cares about them," said Bass. "And that they are moved too many times, and that sometimes they don't even know why they're moved.

"They complain about the medication they take and not knowing why they take it or that they are taking too much. What they request from adults is a mentor, an adult who is in their lives who is not paid."

Many of the problems they describe, Bass said, could be resolved if social workers had more time to spend with their charges.

Of the new money, $50 million can be used for hiring social workers. Those county employees normally juggle at least twice as many cases as recommended in a study the Legislature ordered six years ago.

"If you're a worker and you've got 50 different families," Mecca said, "it's a certainty that you cannot possibly be providing the level of monitoring and case management and personal attention and assistance the family needs so they can be reunited."

The budget includes $4 million to help the thousands of foster children who find themselves without a place to live when they are emancipated.

"Every year around 4,300 kids age out of foster care, and two of three have an imminent housing need," said Amy Lemley, policy director of the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, a nonprofit founded by the former state Senate leader.

The increased funding is expected to allow other counties to replicate a program used in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. There, youths recently emancipated from the foster system can pay an escalating portion of rent on subsidized apartments.

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