Calif. Budget Shift Could Jeopardize Budding Transition Program

A key compromise in two-year-old legislation in California promised the expansion of Transitional Housing Placement Plus, a well-regarded transition program for older foster youth with high needs. Now, proponents of the program fear that the circumstances of a proposed state budget realignment may steer many of the state’s 58 counties away from it.

Expanding THP Plus became a trade-off in 2010 negotiations over AB 12, the state legislation that gradually expanded foster care to 21. The administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to exclude the most expensive foster care option -group homes – as a placement option for almost anyone over 18.

But realignment plans now include the removal of THP Plus as a required program, rendering it optional.

Michael Weston, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, said nothing is certain yet about how child welfare funds will be restricted under realignment.

“No final decisions have been made,” he told The Chronicle. “The realignment process is ongoing.”

The proposed elimination of a dedicated spending level for THP now “honestly feels like a bait and switch,” said Amy Lemley, policy director at the San Francisco-based John Burton Foundation, a San Francisco-based group formed by current California Democratic Party Chairman and former Congressman John Burton. “We took the group home restriction, and now there’s no THP.”

Excluding group homes for older foster youth was a significant factor in the AB 12 expansion. California has reduced its use of congregate care in recent years, Lemley said, and the youths who remain in group homes at 18 would be tough to place with a foster parent or kin (presumably, attempts to do so would already have been made).

In return for support on that, the legislation included the promise that a new version of THP Plus –THP Plus Foster Care – would be implemented as a primary foster care option for youths who would be forced to leave a group home at 18.

THP Plus was established in 2001 as a way to help 18-year-olds in foster care move into adulthood, and it currently serves about 2,000 former foster youths between 18 and 24 each year. THP Plus involves a combination of affordable housing and common-sense supportive services, such as educational and vocational training.

A study of participants leaving the program in 2010 and 2011 showed relatively meager academic gains, including a high number of participants who entered college during THP Plus but dropped out.

The program did have enormous success connecting participants to housing stability: 92 percent of participants maintained stable housing at THP-Plus exit, with only five percent exiting into homelessness, an emergency shelter, or other unstable housing and three percent exiting into incarceration.

In 2007, the program was serving about 20 percent of the approximately 3,200 youth who were homeless after leaving foster care, according to an annual report on THP Plus produced by the John Burton Foundation. In 2011, the program served 60 percent of approximately 3,645 homeless former foster youths.

Right now, the program is funded entirely from state money. All but nine of California’s 58 counties are implementing it, Lemley said, using money that flows to them from the state. The only way to get funding for THP, in fact, is to demonstrate its implementation in the county.

Most THP Plus participants do not enter the program directly from foster care; many experience homelessness first, and are directed to THP Plus. The idea under AB 12 was that the new version, THP Plus Foster Care, would usher 18-year-olds directly into the program.

That plan was based on the presumption that the state would connect its expansion of foster care to the offer of federal funds for older foster youth, which was made possible when President George W. Bush signed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act in 2008. Counties could fund part of THP Plus Foster Care with reimbursement from the federal “IV-E” foster care allocations.

But California has yet to get its state foster care expansion plan approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). And now, a proposed realignment of state funds this summer would hand counties a large block of money from the Department of Social Services, and give the counties more freedom on how to use those dollars.

Where THP Plus funds were once tied to actual implementation of the program, under realignment it would simply be one option for spending a pot of money that  covers a wide range of social services for children and adults.

The amount of funding available in this pot depends in large part to the state’s sales tax revenue. With California’s economy improving mildly, Lemley said, realignment might actually send more dollars to THP programs in the short term. But the sales tax scheme leaves a vague future on the horizon.

“Really the concern is medium-long term,” Lemley said. “There’s no certainty about sales tax revenue, and when counties are in corner, fiscally, the money could address things like pensions” instead of child welfare services.

Even within the child welfare arena, Lemley said THP funding is at risk because it is an expensive program that targets a relatively small amount of the youth known to a county system.

Lemley said about 20 percent of the 18 year-olds in California foster care live in group homes.  “The promise was made that [THP programs] would be the step-down option,” she said.

Diane Cummins, a former fiscal advisor to Burton who is handling realignment for the Department of Finance, did not respond to requests through the department’s press office for comment about THP Plus.

Counties will be forced to seek “hail mary” placement options for teens aging out of group homes, Lemley predicts. There is a Supervised Independent Living Placement option. It offers foster youths affordable housing during a transition out of the system, and requires that they meet with a caseworker once a month.

“Imagine being in a group home, with 24-7 services,  and moving from that to one visit per month,” Lemley said.

Lemley voiced concern over the plan in a letter to Department of Social Services Deputy Director Greg Rose earlier this month. The letter addresses the potential gap for high-need youths coming out of group homes.  It also suggests that, if the state receives federal reimbursement approval for its AB 12 expansion plan, removing the dedicated line for THP Plus will violate federal requirements that aspects of an approved IV-E plan.

“Counties do not have the legal authority to ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’ of parts of a federal entitlement which California has included in its Title IV-E State Plan and for which it is claiming federal financial participation,” the letter said.

Weston said Rose did receive the letter, and that the agency sees the realignment process as “fluid right now.”

Weston said that if THP Plus is optional under realignment, a county could choose to partner with another county on one program.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change

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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.