When Serena Skinner was 17 years old, she entered Los Angeles County’s foster care system. She was soon placed with a newly licensed foster mom in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.
Skinner was struggling with trauma from the abuse she and her siblings experienced before she entered care. She feared that her new foster mother would be abusive, too.
“My foster mom in that home mostly was very unprepared to handle that,” Skinner said. “She never knew the struggle that I was going through because I was always behind doors, locked in my room, and she never really asked much about my wellbeing.”
Now 21, Skinner has aged out of the foster care system. Looking back, she thinks that more effective foster parent training would have helped that particular foster mother to recognize and deal with the mental health issues that she was facing at the time.
Today, as the state is rolls out new child welfare reforms that aim to place more foster children in stable, family-like settings, making sure that foster parents are prepared to meet the needs of these youth is important.
According to Kids Data, nearly 14 percent of children in foster care have spent time in three or more placements.
Though Skinner was only in foster care for about a year before she went off to college, she spent time in three different foster homes. Frequent placement disruptions can create distress for foster youth and make creating stable, supportive relationships with adults more difficult.
As a member of the Oakland-based advocacy organization California Youth Connection (CYC), Skinner is advocating for a bill that would reconfigure the way California trains foster parents, or resource families as they are now called in California. Under the proposed legislation, social workers would help foster parents to develop training plans that are tailored to fit the needs of the children in their homes.
Under current law, foster parents are required by law to take 12 hours of training before they become certified. After that, they must complete eight hours of additional training every year. But social workers are not required by California law to oversee foster parents’ training plans.
Under Assembly Bill 507, county child welfare agencies would consult with foster parents and recommend training topics specific to the needs, goals and case plans of the children in their homes. The number of required training hours would remain the same, but counties would have the power to require that a foster parent or applicant receive additional specialized training for certain populations that may be at high risk of placement disruption.
According to the bill, specialized training topics may include caring for victims of commercial sexual exploitation and children who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, as well as best practices for monitoring the use of psychotropic medications.
Introduced by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), AB 507 already passed through the state assembly. It now awaits further action in the state senate’s appropriations committee, which is scheduled to meet again on Aug. 21, after the legislature returns from summer recess.
The bill stems from an idea that a group of CYC members had during their policy conference last summer.
According to Vanessa Hernandez, CYC’s legislative coordinator, what led CYC to make the foster parent training bill its top priority this year is that right now, California is rolling out monumental reforms to its foster care system. Through a series of laws called Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), the state is trying to move more children out of group homes and into family settings.
This reform effort will require counties across the state to recruit and retain more foster parents. To make the effort successful, Hernandez said, foster parents need to receive better training and support.
“We believe to the core that we need to support training resource families in a relevant, adequate way, and so if we do not do that CCR isn’t viable,” she said.
While AB 507 passed with overwhelming support on the assembly floor – with 76 yes votes and four abstentions – its proponents are facing opposition from the Department of Finance.
The Department of Finance analyzed the bill in March and opposed it based on the “potentially significant” cost it would impose on the state if social workers were tasked with overseeing training plans.
The department wrote in its analysis that an estimate of the bill’s financial impact was currently unavailable. They posed the hypothetical that if the requirements added two hours to each caseworker’s monthly caseload, the resulting cost for counties would be $13 million annually. Since the bill does not provide appropriations, the legislature would need to pass a budget act appropriation along with it.
Hernandez of CYC is questioning the department’s assessment. Because the state does not currently require that social workers ask foster parents how they would like to be trained, this appears to be a new duty, but social workers should already be doing it, she said.
“Good social workers in best practices already engage families in their training plans,” Hernandez said.
Nikki Latshaw, a former foster youth and foster parent who has fostered seven children in Los Angeles County through a private foster family agency, said she supports the idea of specialized training for foster parents.
Having already been a foster parent for several years, she often has no choice but to repeat classes she has already taken, she said. Latshaw finds most useful the classes that focus on dealing with trauma caused by abuse and neglect.
Requiring more foster parents to take classes on addressing child trauma would improve foster parent retention, but would not necessarily boost overall numbers, Latshaw said.
“I don’t know that it would increase the number of foster parents who go forward with the process because I think it’s very eye opening – what it takes to foster, to help these children heal,” Latshaw said. “But I do think it would make the ones who commit to it more successful, and I definitely think it would make the children’s experience more positive.”