California has a lot to be proud of when it comes to leading the country in reforming child welfare. It has been at the cutting edge of efforts to improve academic outcomes for foster youth and that leadership should continue with implementation of the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) combined with preservation of Foster Youth Services (FYS)
Thanks to the 2010 passage of Assembly Bill 12, the state was also one of the first in the country to provide extended foster care for youth who would otherwise have aged out of the system. And California was ahead of much of the country in its efforts to place youth who need to be removed from their parents with relatives in order to maintain family connections and increase placement stability.
But the Golden State lags behind the vast majority of the country in financially supporting some of these very same relative foster parents. Only 44 percent of Californian foster children currently qualify for federal foster care benefits due to antiquated eligibility rules, and this rate is declining every year. The state bears the full cost of care for the 56 percent of youth removed from their parents who are deemed ineligible for federal support.
In most placements, the state picks up the slack when a youth is not federally eligible and provides comparable benefits to those received by youth who are federally eligible. For youth placed with a relative, however, California is one of the few states in the country that does not provide state-only foster care benefits when the child is not federally eligible, leaving these kinship foster parents without any foster care benefits at all.
This means that Californian relatives who are caring for foster youth that aren’t federally eligible are being shortchanged. These relative foster parents are instead provided with CalWORKs benefits, which average just $351 per month for one youth and $715 for three siblings.
To put that in perspective, in California the average monthly benefit for federally eligible youth who is placed in a foster home or a relative’s home is $799 for one foster youth and $2,397 for three siblings. So relatives caring for one federally ineligible youth are receiving less than half of what the state believes is necessary to provide care for our foster children, and those caring for three siblings are receiving about 30 percent of the estimated cost.
This creates a perverse incentive whereby youth not eligible for federal benefits are actually better financially served by going into foster care with a non-relative as opposed to being placed with a relative, which is at odds with federal and state policies establishing kinship arrangements as the preferred type of placement.
Worse, putting relative caregivers in this precarious financial predicament ultimately jeopardizes child well-being, as children who grow up in poverty have poorer financial, academic, and health outcomes.
These relative foster parents are approved by the exact same standards as a non-relative foster home and are expected to provide the same level of support to these foster children as any other foster home, but are receiving less than half of the support. This inequity is compounded by the fact that a typical relative foster caregiver faces considerably more challenges than the typical non-relative foster parent. They are twice as likely to be a senior citizen, three times as likely to live below the federal poverty line, and 38% have a limiting condition or disability. They also do not receive comparable training but are held to the same home licensing requirements.
Despite these challenges, they have agreed to provide care for a young relative. These caregivers and the foster youth they are caring for deserve the same resources that are being provided to federally eligible youth or to those youth who are not federally eligible who are placed with a non-relative.
Both the state and the federal government share blame for this black mark on California’s child welfare record. Congress needs to get its act together and repeal these outdated eligibility standards, which are are linked to a program that expired almost two decades ago and have never been adjusted for inflation.
The federal government should have an interest in providing care for every child who has been removed from their home regardless of the income levels of their parents.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways that the income standards could be phased out or repealed as detailed in a recent GAO report.
Meanwhile, until Congress acts, California can and should bolster financial state support for relatives caring for federally ineligible youth.
The Alliance for Children’s Rights has been doggedly raising awareness about this discrepancy with elected officials and most recently at last week’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) meeting in Sacramento (contact Angie Schwartz for more on those efforts).
Those of us interested in ensuring that children in kinship care have the best chance to succeed should join them in this important fight.
Sean Hughes is a member of The Chronicle of Social Change’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant working with child welfare organizations in California and Washington, D.C, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer.
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