As the state struggles to provide enough foster homes, California advocates and policymakers say one major challenge has been a lack of childcare for foster parents.
For first-time foster parents Irene Barraza and Amy Saucier of Oakland, adding a new child to their home forced them to come up with creative solutions to balancing childcare with work.
One evening last July, only weeks after becoming certified as foster parents, Barraza and Saucier got the call they had been waiting for. Could they take in a three-day old baby girl, an Alameda County social worker asked.
An hour later, after a last-minute dash to Walmart to pick up a car seat, formula, diapers and a set of onesies, the couple returned home from the county’s assessment center with their new daughter.
Even after adjusting to the all-hours demands of a new baby, childcare has proven the most difficult challenge for Barraza, 39, and Saucier, 38. For a while, they juggled sick days, parental leave and help from friends.
Because it’s a publicly subsidized childcare system that is already underfunded and at constant capacity, one thing that has not been available to them is a slot with providers like Early Head Start.
“The last couple weeks that I was off of work I was very stressed out,” Saucier said. “We knew [the girl] was going to go back to her grandparents soon, but we didn’t have a definitive date, and I knew I had to get back to work without childcare.”
Now, a statewide budget proposal aims to provide better childcare options for California foster parents like Barraza and Saucier, a factor that many believe could be hampering efforts to provide enough homes for children in the state’s foster-care system.
The $31 million budget proposal would address the issue by setting aside money for six-month emergency childcare vouchers for foster parents caring for children ages 0 to 3. Foster parents would be able to use the vouchers to purchase childcare from both licensed and license-exempt providers. Navigators would help foster parents negotiate the state’s byzantine subsidized childcare system and help them avoid childcare gaps. The proposal would also make training on trauma-informed care available to childcare providers.
Organized by the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, the plan has garnered support from the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the County Welfare Directors Association of California, Children Now, the Childcare Alliance of Los Angeles, First 5 LA and other organizations.
In Los Angeles County, the lack of easily available childcare for foster parents has been a persistent issue for foster family agencies (FFAs) and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
In 2015, DCFS social workers at the Children’s Welcome Center — where until recently many of the county’s abused and neglected children entered the system — estimated that 25 percent of children 0 to 5 at the center were denied placements because of concerns about childcare.
According to an October 2015 survey of FFAs in Los Angeles County, conducted by the Association of Community Human Service Agencies (ACHSA), two-thirds of participating agencies reported that a lack of reliable childcare had dissuaded potential foster parents. And even among current foster parents, nearly 70 percent described childcare as a factor that had discouraged their willingness to accept children, particularly younger children.
Supervisor Kuehl says the county is locked in a struggle to recruit and retain foster parents, made more critical in the wake of ongoing state efforts to move more children from group homes into family foster care homes.
Over the last decade, the number of foster parent applicants has dropped by 50 percent in the county, she said, prompting a series of outreach efforts to determine the causes of the gap.
The availability of childcare remains a key barrier in obtaining more foster parents, something that Kuehl describes as a major issue for the county.
“But we can’t really do this on our own,” Kuehl said. “We need help from Sacramento.”
The proposal comes at a time when many in the state capitol are calling for major investments in early care and education. According to new California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), the state still has not recovered from a reduction of funding for childcare as a result of the economic downturn in 2008, something he personally witnessed.
“The childcare cuts during the recession have been devastating for families across the state,” Rendon said in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “During that time, I was running a childcare nonprofit that saw our funding cut from $35 per child per day to $17 per child per day. Without that funding, I was forced to turn away families who desperately needed the services my organization provided.”
State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) called on California Gov. Jerry Brown to reinvest some of the state’s surplus, describing his failure to restore childcare funding as “a lack of a commitment to early-childhood education.”
Though she is yet to scrutinize the details of the plan put forward by the coalition of childcare and child-welfare advocates, Mitchell pledged her support in theory.
“Childcare should be part of the support we provide to foster families,” Mitchell said. “It’s a critical component of child development, and people cannot go to work if they don’t have a safe, supportive place to put their children.”
Children in California’s foster-care system are supposed to have eligibility as well as first preference when it comes to the state’s crowded system of subsidized childcare. But advocates and policymakers say that arrangement hasn’t always worked out well for foster parents.
The state’s subsidized childcare programs are nearly always full, but when slots do open up, they rarely align with the immediate needs of foster parents, including relative caregivers.
“One day they get a call: ‘Come pick up your granddaughter. She’s being put into foster care,’” said Molly Dunn, a senior attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights who has worked on the childcare proposal. “These families can’t plan ahead to get onto waiting lists or pre-arrange their work schedules and lives. Suddenly, they have these young children living with them.”
Advocates say that once children enter the child-welfare system, some childcare centers may erroneously no longer consider them “at risk,” thereby losing eligibility for subsidized childcare or priority enrollment status.
New foster parents Barraza and Saucier ran into a similar issue when they contacted the childcare centers that accept infants near their home. The couple filled out an application at their local Head Start office in October, and later at Kidango, a Bay Area daycare provider with dozens of locations.
Now, nearly six months after enrolling, Saucier and Barraza have yet to hear back from the childcare programs, still buried on a lengthy waiting list.
“We knew there was going to be a wait list, but not six months or to not even hear anything back from them,” Barraza said.
Their first foster child left to live with her grandparents in October. But in December, when the couple decided to take in another newborn, Saucier and Barraza soon found they had used up all their sick days and parental leave for the year. They were forced to hire an in-home care provider when no other affordable childcare options materialized.
“We didn’t even bother signing up the second baby for childcare through one of the centers because we had never heard back,” Saucier said. “We wondered, is it ever really available?”
The couple ended up spending between $400 and $500 a week for the part-time childcare help, far more than the $688 monthly assistance provided to caregivers of children from 0 to 4 years old.
“Since the county subsidizes so little, it’s really hard to imagine how we can continue to be foster parents,” Barraza said, “and yet we don’t want to stop doing this. It’s probably been the most rewarding things that each of us has done.”
Next month, members of the California legislature will consider the budget proposal. The plan heads to the California Assembly and Senate for budget subcommittee hearings on April 6 and 21, respectively.
Update: Click here to hear more about the issue of childcare for working foster parents from Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl on KPCC’s Take Two program.