The Price of a Placement: Recruiting Foster Families in San Francisco’s Million-Dollar Market

Out of County, CA is a series of stories about the experiences of out-of-county foster youth in California. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


The median cost of a home in San Francisco County tops out at $1,075,200, a fact at the epicenter of a nationwide conversation on gentrification.

According to real estate database Zillow, this median home value has increased by 12.7 percent in the past year, which is nearly three times the average increase in home values across the Golden State. Rental rates are rising equally quickly; the median rental costs $4,287, and has jumped by 67 percent since just 2011.

Behind these inflated real estate and rent prices is the story of San Francisco’s unprecedented demographic change; young professionals flood the city, homeowners cannot believe their luck, and renters hang onto their leases for dear life.

However, according to experts and advocates, one unseen consequence of this expensive climate is the dire situation of foster parent recruitment; in the overvalued city, finding parents to foster has grown increasingly more difficult.

As The Chronicle of Social Change has reported throughout its Out of County, CA series, an average of one in five California foster children are placed beyond the lines of their county of origin when they enter the system. However, the number of San Francisco youth living out of county is three times the state average, at 60.8 percent. Despite the fact that San Francisco is a small county and moving beyond its borders often just requires an easy car ride, the proportion of out-of-county placements has grown inordinately in recent years, mirroring the growth of the city’s meteoric real estate market.

According to the recently launched Urban Displacement Project, gentrification in the Bay Area has caused major changes in almost every San Francisco neighborhood. And, as the city’s economy booms, foster-parent recruitment in San Francisco lags, creating a financial and demographic environment that is simply not conducive to fostering the city’s most vulnerable children.

A Trew Story

Jordan Trew and her husband, Stan Lake, probably would not be foster parents if they lived in San Francisco.

The former child welfare worker and teacher used to live in Oakland, and watched in astonishment as costs rose around them. They wanted to foster, but after contacting a local foster family agency five years ago to discuss their options, they quickly realized that paying for the square footage needed to support multiple foster children was impossible if they also wanted to stay in Oakland.

Jordan Trew and her daughter.
Jordan Trew and her daughter.

In the past two years, they have received their first two placements, both infant girls from San Francisco. They have also made the decision to move with their girls to the city of Antioch, on the other side of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County.

While Stan has a long commute to work and they miss their Oakland community, Trew said the low cost of living in Antioch allows them the flexibility to really commit to their role as foster parents.

As a former child welfare worker, Trew recognizes her experience with San Francisco recruitment as relatively typical. She has seen the impact of San Francisco’s gentrification from the sidelines, watching as her foster family agency struggled to find local placements for their girls before deciding an out-of-county placement was the best option.

“San Francisco has significantly fewer parents than many cities, hence it has significantly fewer foster parents,” she said.

Trew emphasizes the importance of physically being there as a foster parent, especially in the early years. She has stopped working in order to fully commit to her role as a foster mother. The lower cost of living in Antioch makes it possible for the family to stay afloat on one income, but “it’s still a significant pay cut.”

The couple has willingly and happily committed to their role as foster parents, but they have had to weather dramatic changes to do so, changes that likely are not available to most.

The Economics of Fostering

The cost of living in San Francisco is dramatically higher than in almost any other county in the state, but statewide foster parent compensation rates do not take this fact into account. According to San Francisco’s Executive Director of Health and Human Services Trent Rhorer, a San Francisco foster parent is given the same compensation and resources as one in the middle of the state. This rate stands between $600 and $850 per month, depending on the age and special needs of the child.

In the experience of Erika Dirkse, program director at San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (SFCASA), there is a common misconception that foster parents make money fostering. However, in San Francisco, this would be next to impossible. A dollar simply does not go as far in the city as it does elsewhere in California, and for San Francisco’s low- and middle-income families, fostering could mean financial sacrifice.

“People moving are spending close to $1000 per square foot to buy in San Francisco,” Dirkse said. “This cost means that they are less and less likely to give that space over to a youth in need.”

Jordan Trew and her daughter.
Jordan Trew and her daughter

The explosive economy means that every square foot comes at a premium, and so the numbers game of fostering is not realistic for many families. 

But foster parents are not the only ones impacted by rapidly escalating rents; the increasingly unaffordable housing market has also pushed out the relatives who take in out-of-county foster youth in California.

That may mean that children who have been removed from their San Francisco homes have fewer opportunities to stay there with family members, according to Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services.

“In San Francisco, tons of kids get placed out of county because no one can afford to live in San Francisco. The families of kids being removed just don’t live there.”

And so, kids are sent out of county, away from their families, communities and a city whose economy has outgrown them.

The Demography of Fostering

However, the shifts occurring in San Francisco are not exclusively economic; they are also demographic.

“It’s an issue of the age, interests and capacities of the people coming in,” said Dirkse. “Most young professionals aren’t in the position to settle down and care for children. In more suburban and rural parts of the state, retirees and parents are moving in and more prepared to foster. Fostering requires a lot of professional flexibility, which a lot of people working hard in San Francisco just don’t have.”

Both Dirkse and Trew emphasize that foster parenting should be looked on as a full-time job with an abundance of resources in place, particularly when caring for high-needs children.

“It’s very commonly misunderstood that babies don’t have trauma, but they definitely do,” Trew said. “There are issues of attachment and exposure to drugs, violence and neglect. You have to be available, and that’s hard to do if both parents are working.”

Furthermore, establishing a sense of community for a child is an important piece of parenting. For child welfare professionals, placing foster children with people of their own ethnicity or community background in an attempt to minimize the stress of placement is considered best practice. However, Dirkse points out that this is a particularly difficult task in San Francisco because very few African-American families are moving into the city.  

According to census figures, San Francisco’s  newcomers are predominantly affluent, young and white. Today, less than 6 percent of the city’s overall population is African-American. However, kidsdata.org shows that more than 55 percent of the city’s foster children are African-American; the city simply does not have the foster parents to adequately support these children.

The Out-of-County Option

In terms of percentage, San Francisco sends more children out of county than any other county in the state. According to UC Berkeley’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project, of the county’s 1,033 foster children, 60.8 percent (or 628 children) are currently placed out of county.

In districts across the state and the country, the number of children in the foster care system has dropped precipitously since 1999, when 1,379 San Francisco children were placed outside county borders. However, those 1,379 children made up only 49.9 percent of the county’s total foster system population at that time. In the past 15 years, San Francisco has gone from placing one in two children out of county, to two in three.

However, Rhorer disagrees that the local economy has a tangible impact on foster placement. Foster parent recruitment in a city like San Francisco has always been a challenge, Rhorer said. He maintains that these challenges have been relatively similar to those experienced statewide and over time.

“About half of our foster child placements have been out of county for 20 or more years,” Rhorer said.  “It’s been an historic pattern. San Francisco is a small county, so when we move kids to a nearby city, they’re crossing county lines. This geographic distance needs to be taken into consideration.”

However, a recent Chronicle article that referenced data furnished by kidsdata.org shows that since 2012, San Francisco has been moving its children farther and farther away. With 57 percent of foster children living 11 or more miles from their place of origin, San Francisco places its foster children farther from home than any other California county. In the practical terms of foster child placement, these 11 or more miles could be just enough to find parents who have escaped the impact of San Francisco’s economy.

“This wouldn’t be an option for the average middle-income family in the city,” explained Trew, as she outlined some of the compromises she and her husband made in the fostering process. “Unless both parents are working, it’s simply not financially viable. And these kids need so much attention. Gentrification results in some tough moral choices.”

Meiling Bedard and Maria Akhter contributed to the data visualization for this story.

About Out of County, CA

Over the next two weeks, The Chronicle of Social Change will present a series of stories about the experiences of out-of-county foster youth in California.

The county-run system that has emerged is riven with conflicting goals, pressures and incentives. Significant disparities have emerged between counties, with stark differences in the types and availabilities of services to children in care.

For California’s 12,626 out-of-county youth—1 in 5 of all children in the system— the journey across county lines is a frequent and largely unacknowledged experience in the state’s mammoth child-welfare system. 

As part of our Out of County, CA series, we examine several different placement types to better understand what the decision to send children out of county means—including both the costs and benefits—to a group that often travels hundreds of miles in search of safety, stability and permanency.

We know there are even more stories left to tell for a group that often escapes wider attention. If you’ve got a comment, idea or tip, please let us know. We look forward to your comments and perspective.

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Lisa Martine Jenkins
About Lisa Martine Jenkins 41 Articles
Lisa is the marketing coordinator for The Chronicle of Social Change and a recent graduate of University of California-Berkeley. Find her at lisamartinejenkins.com or on Twitter @lisa_m_jenkins.

2 Comments

  1. What is the best way we can give to Foster programs and foster parents? Please contact me on my website. I’d like to help spread the word. I’m based in San Francisco. Thanks, Sam

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