In California Wine Country, Child Welfare Responds to Wildfires

When wildfires ripped through northern California’s wine country in October, the devastation reverberated through the local communities, where more than 40 people were killed and more than 14,000 homes are partial or total losses.

The child welfare communities in Sonoma and Napa counties were not immune to the destruction. As the holiday season approached, efforts to stabilize foster care placements moved quickly. Solutions for the region’s transition-age youth have proven to be trickier to address.

In immediate response to the fires, agency staff went to work just to ensure that children in the foster care system and the families caring for them were safe.

“We made sure every family and child was accounted for,” said Meg Easter-Dawson, program development director with Sonoma County. “We just split up the list and started calling.”

The agency created a spreadsheet that helped them track if foster families, relative caregivers and transitional age youth had been evacuated, where they were staying, and what needs they might have. In some cases, caseworkers made trips to local grocery stores to get gift cards and supplies for families who had been displaced. The county was able to quickly account for every one of its roughly 700 kids.

During those chaotic early days, the county also reached out to birth parents notifying them if kids and their foster families were evacuated. Also, the weeks that the fire was burning out of control in most cases visitation was cancelled as well.

“With visitation it was, especially with the first week, it was pretty touch and go,” Easter-Dawson said. “We were also being told by law enforcement to stay off the road. Surprisingly, everybody was just trying to maintain, including birth parents, and everyone was pretty understanding.”

Members of VOICE Youth Advocates, a program of On the Move, gathered to make encouraging signs to post around Napa and Santa Rosa

With everyone accounted for, the agency then went to work locating placements for the 17 children who had to be evacuated from the county’s emergency shelter. Several foster parents who were just completing licensing or who currently weren’t accepting new children stepped forward to help care for the displaced children, Easter-Dawson said.

“Within a couple of days we had them moved into placements,” Easter Dawson said. “Families were willing to stretch themselves.”

Now that the immediate needs have been taken care of, the county is shifting into the long-term task of addressing issues of the fire causing additional trauma to already traumatized kids and ensuring that families are stable who may have experienced loss of wages during the time when the fires were burning and any issues with a tightened housing market.

Already working with the International Trauma Center as part of the state’s Continuum of Care Reform, the county asked for the organization’s help in addressing any additional trauma impacts the children and families were experiencing.

“In the middle of October we brought them in for coping groups with caregivers and staff,” Easter-Dawson said. The groups provided caregivers and caseworkers ideas for how to talk to kids about the fires and resources that might help the kids cope.

For transitional age youth living in the area, an added layer of challenges have come to light following the fires. Contracted to work with that demographic of individuals in both Sonoma and Napa counties, area nonprofit On the Move’s staff also went to work immediately to contact the youth they work with to ensure their safety when the fires first broke out.

“We initiated our emergency phone tree system,” said Amber Twitchell, associate director of On the Move. “The immediate need was to make sure they were safe. Secondary was making sure they had a place to stay.”

On the Move was able to account for all 600 transition-age youth in the two counties they work closely with within the first day. Since then, they’ve had further outreach to the more than 1,200 total transitional age youth they work with. While only a few lost housing, many of the youth lost wages while the fire raged through their communities.

“Lots of them lost wages because the fires shut down two cities for two weeks,” Twitchell said.

Many of them already struggling to meet day-to-day needs of paying for bills, being out of work for several days created extra challenges for many of them. On the Move has been helping to fill in the gap for many of the youth to help them remain stable in their housing and jobs.

“We’re working with them to replace groceries, pay rent, pay bills,” Twitchell said. “Every piece of this is imperative to them. One thing changes and they can’t make their rent and then they’re homeless.”

In addition to making sure their physical needs are met, many of them also have been struggling with mental health needs after the fires that have added more strain to their lives.

“We’ve seen an uptick in mental health visits,” Twitchell said.

Having this natural disaster hit is something difficult for Twitchell to see since On the Move has worked so hard to reduce the homeless foster youth population in the area in that last few years from more than 1,100 down to around 400 recently. She worries that the fire will have the ripple effect of putting more youth on the streets.

While both Twitchell and Easter-Dawson have concerns about the long-term impacts of the fires on the child welfare community, they both also believe that the community has weathered the natural disaster relatively well.

“I’m shocked with as many homes that were lost that we didn’t have caregivers who lost homes and no kids were injured,” Easter-Dawson said.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel, Managing Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Kim Phagan-Hansel, Managing Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 115 Articles
Kim is Managing Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change and Editor of Fostering Families Today magazine. Reach her at