As California shifts away from its reliance on group homes for children and youth in foster care, the first domino to drop is the elimination of 30-day emergency shelter facilities.
As California rolls out the ambitious overhaul of its foster care system, advocates who pushed for the reform are hopeful that shortening timelines for placement, and other imminent changes, will disrupt the system and transform it into one that better serves children. But, some local service providers are skeptical that meeting new shortened timelines for placement can be achieved, especially when most counties across the state are facing a serious foster parent recruitment crises.
Counties use emergency shelter facilities to place children when they first enter foster care or in between placements as social workers try to find them a home. Until now, the shelter care facilities have been set up to house a child for a maximum of 30 days at a time.
Assembly Bill 1997, passed in 2016, reduces the number of days they can stay in shelters, from 30 to 10 – an amount of time that the California Legislature deemed sufficient to find a placement for a child.
AB 1997 was a follow-up bill to Assembly Bill 403, passed in 2015. Together, the two bills comprise Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), the legislation that charts California’s movement away from congregate care and toward placing children in family-like settings with foster families or relatives. These bills took effect on January 1, but they are being rolled out gradually over the next few years.
Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center (YLC), a public interest law firm that has spent decades advocating to reduce or eliminate the use of shelters for foster youth, feels that these policy changes are necessary.
“If you have a shelter where you can leave youth for a long period of time while you develop another plan, [social] workers take advantage of that,” Rodriguez said. “They’re overloaded and overwhelmed and have a lot of cases they’re dealing with.”
Rodriguez wants the system to start treating the placement of a child in a shelter as an urgent situation and to move quickly to place children with families that are equipped to meet their needs.
“Those are all young people who need a high level of individual support and attention and nurturing and understanding, and shelters are just not equipped to be able to provide that,” Rodriguez said. “Even a perfectly run shelter is a very, very difficult place for a child or youth who’s in crisis. It’s not where we would want any of our kids.”
The changes to emergency-shelter stays are part of a set of wider changes under CCR.
Only a small number of counties place children in emergency shelters. Many others use emergency 30-day placements in group homes, a practice that is also threatened under the new reforms.
Now, group homes in the state are expected to transition to a clinical model of care. Under the new short-term residential therapeutic program (STRTP) model, the facilities will be designated only for youth with high mental health needs, not simply for housing hard-to-place youth.
“The goal is to ensure that children are living with nurturing permanent families that transition them to adulthood,” said Michael Weston, communications director for the California Department of Social Services (DPSS), the agency that oversees the state’s child welfare system.
Some Counties Move to 10-Day Shelters
Fewer than 10 counties in California – including Imperial, Kern, Orange, Placer, San Diego, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Solano and Sonoma counties– operate emergency shelter facilities.
County officials that oversee these shelters are currently taking guidance from the state on how to change them to 10-day shelters.
In Orange County, Orangewood Children and Family Center, a 30-day emergency shelter, is implementing changes to prepare for the shorter time frame while it waits for further direction from the state, said Elizabeth Denbleyker, a public information officer for the county’s Social Services Agency.
Orangewood houses 43 children per day on average, and their average length of stay is 28 days, so moving to a 10-day model is a “huge transition,” Denbleyker said.
Recent changes made to prepare for shorter stays at Orangewood include working to save foster care placements by having team meetings and requiring a deputy director’s approval when a foster family decides to end a placement and have a child sent back to Orangewood, Denbleyker said.
In San Diego County, Polinsky Children’s Center, a 30-day emergency children’s shelter, took heed of the changes coming from CCR and began operating as a 10-day shelter through a pilot program in October 2015, said Lilian Nguyen, protective services program manager for the county’s Health & Human Services Agency, in an email.
“Most children and youth are able to be placed within the 10 day time frame,” Nguyen said in her email, but added that some children need additional time there, especially children with significant mental health or medical challenges.
Ventura County is home to Casa Pacifica, a licensed group home that the county set up 22 years ago. Looking at the CCR legislation being implemented, Casa Pacifica Director Steve Elson said his facility’s best option is to become a STRTP group home, not to become a 10-day temporary shelter.
“We’ve been nationally accredited for 15 years and have had a mental health contract since we opened,” Elson said. “In terms of that criteria for an STRTP, we’re already there and we’ve submitted our application to the state.”
It has become more and more common for counties to contract with group homes for this type of temporary care.
Los Angeles County is one of those counties that now relies on several residential settings, including David and Margaret Youth and Family Services in La Verne, to provide 30-day care on an emergency basis.
Based on their license, these group homes do not have to become 10-day temporary care shelters, said both Weston with California’s DPSS and Assemblyman Mark Stone, who sponsored the bill. The group homes are exempt from that provision, which was targeted directly at shelters that counties either operate themselves or contract to an agency that is only authorized to provide 30-day emergency care.
But that does not mean these group homes can rest easy. They still need to meet the new STRTP requirement to stay in business. That means an increased focus on providing mental health services in a more clinical setting.
Why 10 Days?
During the legislative process, 10 days was deemed an adequate amount of time to assess a child and find a foster care placement, said Weston of DPSS.
“In a typical situation 10 days should be an adequate amount of time,” Weston said. “The counties are going to have to work on that time frame, but it’s really to get them to start on day one in looking for that quality placement and not waiting until day seven or day eight.”
“And obviously if counties have individual circumstances where the 10 days may become too restrictive that’s something that we would be providing technical assistance on,” Weston said.
Some would argue, though, that 10 days is not enough time to find a proper placement.
Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, said social workers should be given enough time to make a child’s first foster care placement a good fit.
“You’ve got to find out who’s in a child’s life.,” Schroeder said. “You’ve got to look at matching. It’s really a difficult task. So, I really don’t know what the rationale is behind the 10 days.”
Bruce Saltzer, executive director of the Association of Community Human Services Agencies (ACHSA) in L.A. County, says it takes at least 30 to 45 days to assess a child’s needs.
“You’re not going to solve the problem simply by imposing a shorter timeline, unless you really get to the root of the problem, which is kids’ needs that aren’t being met properly,” Saltzer said.
Under the current 30-day limits at group homes L.A. County contracts with for emergency shelter, children are sent from one shelter to another simply because 30 days have passed, Saltzer said. ACHSA provided data from one group home providing emergency shelter care, not identified by name, in which 109 out of 267 children admitted throughout the year were discharged to other shelter care programs.
These moves add instability to children’s lives to meet bureaucratic timelines and are not in a child’s best interest, Saltzer said.
Instead, Saltzer says children should remain at those shelters until an assessment can be completed and that L.A. County needs to better fulfill its duties to conduct assessments in a timely manner.
Rodriguez of YLC, on the other hand, said assessments conducted while children are in group homes do not gauge a child’s needs and are more reliable when conducted while a child is in an emergency foster home – a smaller, more family-like setting.
Rodriguez said her vision of having more plentiful emergency foster homes might require a new payment structure, in which counties pay foster parents to keep beds available for emergency placements.
Saltzer is more skeptical. CCR is built on the premise that there will be an adequate number of foster homes available, and right now there is an “epic crisis” in foster parent recruitment, he said.
“For the state to think that all of a sudden because we’re going to make it a priority to do more recruiting, that suddenly an adequate number of foster homes are going to pop up, is pure folly,” Saltzer said.