L.A. County Weighs Accessing New Money for Relative Caregivers

Tiffany Soto knew she would have to make some sacrifices when she took in in her 3-year-old nephew Elijah in 2010.

But Soto had little choice—if she didn’t take him in, foster care would.

Soto, who was 28 at the time, knew the system well. Growing up in Los Angeles, some of her family members had been involved in foster care.

But keeping her nephew out of foster care turned out to be a costly endeavor. Like many relative caregivers, Soto received roughly $360 per month in CalWORKs benefits as opposed to the $820 that non-relative foster parents regularly receive. Cash-strapped and not eligible for federal foster care benefits, Soto struggled to pay for Elijah’s tuition, behavioral therapy, clothing and food on her modest salary.

“I had to make a lot of sacrifices,” she said. “Everything I was doing to take care of myself—my gym membership, paying off my student loans, whatever it was—everything had to go on hold.”

Tiffany and her nephew Elijah
Tiffany and her nephew Elijah

In addition to tapping out her resources, the decision to care for her nephew cost her a job as a college admissions counselor. Instead of just dealing with work, Soto was focused on Elijah. She spent many of her days darting across Los Angeles to take Elijah to therapy appointments or to the California Department of Social Services, where it took several visits and more than four months to receive CalWORKs benefits.

For thousands of other relative caregivers in Los Angeles County, Soto’s struggles are an alarmingly familiar tale. But help may be on the way.

Los Angeles County is eligible to access a substantial pot of new funding set aside to provide equal funding for foster children placed with family members.

In June, California Governor Jerry Brown earmarked $30 million in the state budget to provide family caregivers the same level of funding that other, nonrelative caregivers currently receive. The Relative Caregiver Funding Option Program is available to all counties, but in order to qualify for the new money in 2015, counties must opt-in by October 1.

With the highest number of foster children in the state, Los Angeles County could see as much as $25 million in state funds go to family caregivers, according to advocates with the California Step Up coalition. They say the county’s participation in the Relative Caregiver Funding Option Program would lead to greater placement stability, better outcomes for foster children and significant cost savings to the county by avoiding more expensive placement alternatives such as group homes.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer from where we sit,” said Laura Streimer, the legal director at the Alliance for Children’s Rights. “Why not roll the dice and use it now? The majority of the $30 million allocation state budget would come to L.A. County because we have the most children who qualify for it. Why wouldn’t you take that?”

The county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is weighing whether or not to opt in. According to a statement emailed to The Chronicle of Social Change by DCFS Public Affairs Director Armand Montiel, Los Angeles County will “resolve the issue” by October 1.

“The Department supports equity for relative caregivers and is preparing a recommendation for our Board regarding this program,” Montiel wrote in an email. “At this point, the State has not finalized the methodology it will use to determine each county’s base caseload and funding level. Understanding the State’s methodology for determining the base caseload and funding is essential in making accurate projections regarding the potential county costs of this program for the first year and for outlying years.”

The clock is ticking.

In April, a report from the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection identified equal support for relative caregivers in Los Angeles County as one of most pressing issues facing the county’s child welfare system. A quarterly checkup report issued by Fostering Media Connections in August on progress made toward implementing the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations found little had been done to address the needs of relative caregivers, despite an easy opportunity to access money made available by the new relative caregiver funding program.

At a late August meeting of the transition team charged with seeing through the Blue Ribbon Commission’s reforms, focus turned to benefits of placements with relative caregivers.

“It’s costing the county approximately $100,000 per year per youth in group homes,” Streimer of the Alliance said at the meeting. “If L.A. County opts into this new program, relatives will receive $9,800 a year approximately, which is more than they’ve ever been receiving. This would enable them to keep these young kin out of the group homes, and these placements would now be funded fully by the state allocation.”

Relative or kinship caregivers serve as a crucial linchpin of support in Los Angeles: nearly 43 percent of all foster youth live with relatives, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project.

Number of Children in Foster Care in Los Angeles County by Type of Placement. Source: CCWIP reports
Number of Children in Foster Care in Los Angeles County by Type of Placement. Source: CCWIP reports

Despite recent research that shows that living situations with family members translate to better educational outcomes for foster youth than congregate-care placements like group homes, most relative caregivers receive a paucity of funding that lags behind the support given to unrelated caregivers.

Because of arcane eligibility rules based on the poverty standard from 1996, more than half of all foster children living with relatives do not qualify for federal foster care benefits. For relative caregivers who aren’t eligible for federal money, this means that the only support California offers them are CalWORKs benefits. This ends up being less than half the amount of money non-relative caregivers typically get from the foster care system.

The yawning gap in funding and support has hit family caregivers particularly hard, according to advocates. The scant funding and support provided to family caregivers is seldom enough to care for children who often have specialized care needs that result from experiencing trauma or abuse.

Video provided courtesy of the Alliance for Children’s Rights: http://vimeo.com/88670676.
Photo from a video provided courtesy of the Alliance for Children’s Rights: http://vimeo.com/88670676.

California is “forcing families—primarily low income, single women, and a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos—into deep poverty to keep their families together,” Kinship in Action Director Joseph Devall wrote in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. Kinship in Action supports the rights of family caregivers in South Los Angeles.

Grandparents have traditionally represented the largest number of family caregivers, but under current funding, they are also among the most vulnerable. Grandparents are often living on Social Security or retirement benefits, and taking in a family member can result in kinship caregivers falling in debt, taking out loans and possibly losing their housing, according to Streimer.

“When you’re living on a fixed income, you have to make really draconian choices,” Streimer said. “Am I going to pay this bill this month or am I going to feed these kids?”

For Soto and Elijah, things worked out. In 2013, Soto adopted the now 5-year-old Elijah. She says he wakes up happier these days, free from the bad dreams and the screams that would rouse her almost every night.

Bryan Soto, Eliah and Tiffany Soto on Elijah's adoption day
Bryan Soto, Eliah and Tiffany Soto on Elijah’s adoption day

Jeremy Loudenback is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 304 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.

7 Comments

  1. Tiffany is my sister. I am Elijah’s biological mother, Carissa. Although we finished all our parenting classes, conflict resolution, anger management, and another set of classes I had to finish upon getting out of jail and pay 1300 dollars, we were still denied in court. We had another child in 2013. It was a girl. My sister also called DCFS on us for this child, but the case came back as unfounded and the social worker said I should file a complaint against her but I chose not to. My daughter is 4 years old and has not met her brother. Tiffany has cut off our entire family and Elijah is unable to see anyone in his biological family except for his aunt, my sister, of course. I’m not sure if she has had children of her own, but I think not. We both have child abuse felonies and are unable to get a decent job. Remember, we are still raising our daughter, Elayah. My question is, how does having a felony and having this challenge with our employment help out son Elijah? How does him not being able to see anyone in his biological family help him in the long run. Tiffany also changed his last name. So somehow I am his aunt and mother? Tiffany makes it seem like this was dumped on her, but she fought to keep Elijah from being in our care. It did not have to be this way. She talking about “not being able to take care of herself” She was making upwards of 50,000 dollars, has no felonies, and her husband was in the military. She goes in the mountains and takes drugs from Shamans for clarity. She called the police on my father years ago and almost got him a charge. If we are such unfit bad parents, how did DCFS find our case with our daughter to be unfounded and why would Tiffany make it seem like we were some abusive, crazy, drug addicted parents who chose to be absent? We actively fought to get our son back, and she actively did everything to make sure that didn’t happen. A self made hero.

  2. DCFS policies do not make it easy for a relative caregiver to receive financial aid. It took 3 months before I received any financial assistance for my grandchildren and I was collecting unemployment at the time they were placed in my care.

  3. I am a L.A. county worker. What the article does not tell you is that the relatives who received CalWorks has nothing to do with the County, but that the child was determined not eligible for benefits due to the parents’ issues. If the parents would call back the eligibility workers, most kids would be eligible for the full amount of money that regular county foster homes receive, starting at $671.00 per month. And, this part I don’t agree with, if the parent was working at the time of detention, the child / caretaker is not eligible for any money.

    • I agree with Christina and know her information is accurate. Who do we talk to to change this eligibility practice? The reason eligibility workers cannot reach the parents is the same reason the children were removed for their own safety. Drug-addicted, alcohol abusing, victim’s of domestic violence, indigent, transient, physically abusive parents are hard to find! This law/policy/protocol needs to be changed

    • Another factor that needs to be considered are relative caregivers that are working and have children of their own. Childcare is a major factor for these caregivers. Perplexed at how to find funding for childcare. The reality is that the money that is given cannot provide for the additional expenses of transportation, food, clothing AND daycare! Why should our family have to suffer because we did something positive and didn’t want to see a baby go into the foster care system?

  4. The data here doesn’t mean much since we already know LA County DCFS fraudulently assigns or decides on who exactly is kinship care.

    My children were given to people that are not even our nationality or were born in our country but the fraudulent workers say these people are kin. My children and I have no relation at all to these people.

    LA County will commit this fraud when it finds a family or organization that will work with them to keep your children from you. Those are the ones they assign and pay as your kin. It’s flat out FRAUD.

  5. Thank you for this excellent piece on a topic of great importance. My comment is that it needs to be published/posted to a general public outlet as soon as possible, given the October 1st deadline, as well as in the Chronicle of Social Change. I hope there are plans for that to happen.

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