California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation yesterday that aims to drastically reduce the number of children placed in group homes as well as the length of time they spend in such placements, part of a package of reforms that will reshape the state’s foster care system.
Introduced by Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), AB 403 will phase out the way treatment and services are currently provided at group homes by January 1, 2017, in favor of measures geared toward providing greater support to foster families. The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) will be charged with establishing and administering new accreditation standards and payment rates for group homes and foster family agencies.
Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services (CACFS), calls the bill “a once in a generation opportunity to get foster care right.”
According to National Center for Youth Law Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez, the passage of AB 403 caps more than 15 years of work to create reform for congregate care.
“This is the first significant effort that aligns our state’s policy with what developmental science is telling us, that congregate care is really detrimental to the development and well-being of youth in foster care,” said Rodriguez, who spent time as a group-home resident during her youth.
The primary driver of reform in the bill is the establishment of short-term residential treatment centers (STRTCs), a model that would take the place of existing group homes in the state. STRTCs would be licensed by the CDSS to provide only short-term, specialized and intensive treatment to those children with demonstrated need, and all such placements would require a case plan and timeline for moving the child to a less restrictive placement.
Stays of more than six months can only be provided with the approval of senior county welfare directors, and most facilities would be incentivized to provide health services that resemble hospital stays rather than semi-permanent living arrangements.
These centers will be subject to a monitoring system based on yet-to-be-created standards and inspection plans. The bill instructs the CDSS to develop the infrastructure for those quality control efforts, along with stepped-up monitoring of foster homes provided through contracts with foster family agencies.
AB 403 would also require counties to pay attention to the needs of foster youth involved with the probation system (so-called crossover youth). The bill calls for the creation of STRTCs aimed at crossover youth, as well as the implementation of strategies aimed at recruiting and retaining specialized foster homes for these youth, and increased supports that would allow them to live with relative caregivers when possible.
Under the current system, many of the state’s children with the highest level of mental health needs reside in group homes. Under AB 403, greater resources would be directed toward providing intensive treatment and therapeutic programs in foster homes, including wraparound services.
As part of the efforts to provide family-based care, AB 403 would boost the amount of money provided to counties to recruit, retain and support foster parents and relative caregivers. Families will be able to receive financial support for child care, family-finding activities and other supports.
The reforms included in AB 403 follow recommendations submitted by a CDSS work group in January 2015. The product of three years of work examining the outcomes of foster youth living in congregate care, the Continuum of Care Reform report serves as a foundation for many of the ideas included in AB 403.
Concerns about upsetting the state’s child-welfare system have torpedoed previous attempts at reform.
“We’ve been dealing with this like a child welfare worker who’s always in crisis,” Rodriguez said. “You never get to the overall reform because people are worried, and saying ‘But what will we do with these kids?’ That’s what we’ve seen in congregate care.”
Implementing the sweeping overhaul of the state’s group-home policies will prove challenging. Now counties will need to quickly forge greater coordination with mental health agencies and find ways to create improved opportunities for family-based care, Rodriguez said.
“For better or for worse, our experience in California has never been that bills can instantly self-implement,” she said. “They always phase in over a very long period of time. [AB 403] sets a course for us. Now that we have to do it and we can’t postpone these changes any longer, we’re going to be forced to deal with the other issues, like resources for family-based support.”
The biggest test for implementation may come in the way that the reforms coordinate mental health care and other supports for families and relative caregivers.
“You have to find more resource parents, more people in the community who can take care of these kids,” Schroeder said. “Finding those people and supporting them with services to provide permanency for the kid is going to be a huge piece. Without that part, the whole thing could fall apart.”