California’s Katie A. Lawsuit Is a Symptom, Not a Solution for Child Welfare Woes

John Kelly, the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change, along with Chronicle reporter, Jeremy Loudenback, recently posted a well-written trilogy of articles discussing in detail the 12-year saga of the Katie A. v Bonta litigation in California. As a participant in the litigation settlement process, I encourage everyone to read these articles.

Unfortunately, Katie A. is just a symptom of a much more serious problem in California. Simply put, the care of the vulnerable, high-needs children and youth is not a priority. The state does good things for some children and youth not because it chooses to, but because it has been forced to by the courts or outside advocates.

In essence, there is no leadership at the state level. There is no champion for children.

In my 40-plus years of working with children and youth in both the public and private sector, I can say unequivocally that services to children and youth have not been driven by best practices or best interests, but instead by finances. To simplify the state’s approach even further, you could say they attempt to save money without causing too much damage.

Truth is, I cannot remember California initiating any great program for children and youth on its own. In the late seventies, the state was inundated with a burgeoning population of runaway, incorrigible and truant youth impacting the juvenile justice system.

Consequently, Assembly Bill 3121 was passed, which basically gave probation departments the green light to ignore and not serve this population of youth. This produced thousands of homeless and runaway youth throughout the state.

In the mid-eighties, in an effort to reduce the exorbitant cost of group home placements, the state created Foster Family Agencies (FFAs) to use as a low-cost alternative. But it never intended to fully fund this service. Thirty years later, FFAs are expected to operate on basically the same rates with no real cost-of-living adjustments. Again, it’s not about the kids or services, it’s about the money.

Let me illustrate this point further by pointing out all of the developments the state had nothing to do with, or worse, tried to limit.

In the early nineties, Intensive Therapeutic Foster Care (ITFC) was implemented as a pilot project. This was by no means an innovation initiated by the California Department of Social Services; it was the result of a tenacious, creative provider, Ken Berrick, CEO of Seneca Center, as a way to serve youth exiting their residential treatment program, which happened to be substantially cheaper than keeping them in the group home.

ITFC was soon implemented statewide, but the state itself basically ignored the program and made no rate adjustments to it until 2012, when it implemented an “interim” rate pending the outcome of the Katie A settlement. This action resulted from the passage of legislation initiated by the California Alliance of Child & Family Services to update and draw attention to ITFC.

In 1997, wraparound services were introduced to California – one of the best initiatives ever passed by the legislature – because another innovative provider (Jerry Doyle of EMQ) worked with then-Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (our current Senate President Pro Tem) to introduce and push the bill through the legislature.

It passed in the legislature only because it promised to save the state money by reducing group home placements and associated costs.

In 1998, California began providing Transitional Housing Placement Program (THPP), thanks to the efforts by the California Association of Children’s Homes.

In 2010, Assembly Bill 12 became law, extending foster care eligibility to age 21 and implementing a foster care version of THP for older youth. Again, this was achieved as a result of a strong coalition of child advocate organizations.

This is only a sampling of initiatives positively impacting the lives of children and youth in California, none of which originated because of innovative, intelligent leadership within our state agencies. In fact, the state has made a strong effort to minimize, stymie or outright kill these efforts through draconian fiscal measures.

I have come to learn that “Cost Neutrality” is actually code for “not a priority; we don’t care about these kids.” You certainly never hear about “Cost Benefit” for investing in children and youth now in order to prevent inflated future costs caused by inaction.

So, what is the solution, what is the fix? Leadership at the state level.

This isn’t going to happen soon with a governor, Jerry Brown, who has made it abundantly clear that health and human services is a very low priority, especially for children. The state legislature has the power to make changes, but since John Burton termed out, there hasn’t been a champion for foster and former foster youth.

As long as money is the driving factor in the state’s decision-making process for child and youth services, we will continue with the status quo. Foster and former foster youth and children will suffer from the effects of trauma and mental illness, because they don’t have lobbyists or contribute to campaigns. Therefore, it is incumbent upon child advocates and youth services providers to unrelentingly champion their cause.

I’m certain we will have a Katie A II and III…. But, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have an intelligent, conscientious effort at the state level to do what is best for kids, investing up-front in order to save taxpayer funds into the future!

How do we get there? Advocacy.

Jim Roberts is the CEO and  founder of the Family Care Network and a 42-year veteran of human services. 

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About Jim Roberts 19 Articles
Jim Roberts is the CEO and founder of the Family Care Network and a 43-year veteran of human services.


  1. I am also looking back on 40+ years of work in the field. My work has been in Texas. We have many wonderful advocates here, but our legislature has certainly not had children and families as a priority, nor has our governor, Rick Perry. We can expect no improvement from his successor, Greg Abbott.

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