Foster Care Reform Requires Flexibility

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Each year, close to three quarters of a million of California's children come into contact with our child welfare system. More than half are 5 or younger. Foster care can provide life-saving protection for children who are unable to safely remain in their own homes. However, too many children experience foster care as a long-term saga rather than a short-term refuge.

Many children who have been placed in foster care struggle to find stability. They are confronted with a revolving door of new placements, disrupted schooling, lack of contact with siblings and extended family, and the inability to enjoy a normal childhood. As a result, it is not surprising that foster youth often experience difficulties as adults. More than a third of children in our foster care system earn neither a high school diploma nor a GED. Fewer than half of young adults were employed 12 to 18 months after they aged out of the foster care system, and more than one-fifth of former foster children will become homeless at some time after age 18.

Momentum exists to change California's child welfare system. The legislative Select Committee on Foster Care and the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, among others, are seeking improvements among the many agencies and organizations that affect the lives of these vulnerable children. The time is ripe to change the way our state meets the needs of abused and neglected youth. But improvements that could help our state's most vulnerable children cannot be made without more flexible funding options.

Federal government funding mechanisms have imposed a straitjacket on the foster care system. Federal funds dedicated to supporting children in foster care cannot be used until children are removed from their homes, even when there is compelling evidence that they would be better served by keeping their fragile family units intact. This creates a perverse financial incentive to break families apart.

"Simply put, current federal funding mechanisms for child welfare encourage an over-reliance on foster care at the expense of other services," the non-partisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care noted in its 2004 report, which recommended specific reforms. The Pew Commission's recommendations require stronger accountability for how public dollars are used to protect and support children who have suffered abuse and neglect. They propose redirection of current funding, allowing states to decide whether foster care is the right choice for an individual child, or whether there are options.

As we await federal reform of foster care, states have taken advantage of an interim alternative. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 authorized the federal government to approve funding "waiver" projects that give states more flexibility in spending federal money.

During the past 10 years, 18 states have implemented 26 child welfare waiver demonstration projects to test innovative approaches. States that received waivers point to positive results with cost-neutral strategies for diverting children and families away from foster care. Pioneering programs in those states that provide a continuum of services -- from prevention, to treatment, to support for children once they leave the foster care system -- have demonstrated success. This ability to innovate, however, is at risk. Unless Congress intervenes quickly, the door will close on the waiver option. States like California, whose waiver application has been pending for nearly two years, and other states that want to apply for waivers will be shut out from the process.

"Foster care is often seen as the only available way to respond to children at risk, both in terms of the numbers of children placed in care and the length of time they stay there," the Pew Commission reported. "Neither state nor federal officials are happy with this status quo."

Last April, the Legislature unanimously passed Assembly Joint Resolution 10, urging Congress to create more flexible federal child welfare funding. This past week, legislative leaders called on Congress anew to promote broader reform of foster care funding and to preserve existing opportunities to innovate under funding waivers.

Now is the time for leaders on both sides of the aisle to provide waiver authority for states to embark on innovative, successful programs to help preserve families at risk. States have achieved real success in foster care reforms supported by existing federal waivers. The waiver program must be reinstated and broader action taken to address restricted federal funding of foster care. This is the least we can do for our most vulnerable children and families.

Judy ChuU, D-Monterey Park, represents the 49th District in the California Assembly and is a member of the Select Committee on Foster Care. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is executive director of the Children's Law Center and Home at Last. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.