A plan to establish a statewide 24/7 crisis hotline and mobile response system for California foster youth and caregivers has been given new life in the state legislature’s new budget after former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the project last year.
The state legislature’s budget, which was passed on Thursday, includes $15 million from the state general fund in the next fiscal year to roll out the project, plus $30 million annually through the end of 2021 to operate the system. Gov. Gavin Newsom has until July 1 to sign the budget bill.
The Family Urgent Response System (FURS) is intended to help increase foster placement stability by providing on-demand support for foster youth and caregivers when challenging situations arise.
“So often there are tricky and challenging times with youth in foster care. And youth and caregivers don’t know who to turn to in those moments,” said Susanna Kniffen, senior director of child welfare at Children Now, a California-based advocacy organization.
Social workers with crippling caseloads aren’t always available to answer the phone, especially after business hours when tensions between foster youth and their caregivers can sometimes escalate, Kniffen told The Chronicle of Social Change this week.
“Young people need someone they can call at any time when they’re struggling and have someone answer,” Kniffen said.
The 24/7 hotline would be staffed with operators trained to de-escalate situations and help callers work through conflicts and tension that could disrupt placements. They’ll also triage crises and determine when county mobile response teams need to go out and help with challenges in person. The mobile response teams will likely be made up of social workers, behavioral health specialists and peer partners, which could be former foster youth or caregivers.
Kniffen said there won’t be particular criteria for dispatching a mobile response team, it will be more based on what they’re hearing from the caller — how close the youth or caregiver seems to asking for a placement change.
The plan for California’s FURS is modeled on similar programs created by other states, including a long-running system in New Jersey.
New Jersey’s Mobile Response and Stabilization Services — which is available to all families in the state, not just those involved in the child welfare system — was developed in 2004. Since then, the mobile response program has resulted in an overall 94 percent placement stability rate for foster families that use the system, with that statistic climbing even higher in recent years — in 2017, stability rate reached 98 percent. Placement stability refers to youth staying with their current foster or kinship caregivers rather than the youth running away or either the youth or caregiver requesting a move out.
New Jersey’s system has also correlated with fewer youth being placed in out-of-home mental health treatment facilities. Reducing the need for residential treatment, improving placement stability and cutting unnecessary contacts between foster youth and law enforcement are the main goals of California’s model, according to Kniffen.
Similar programs are also in place in Milwaukee and Contra Costa County, California, where the service is provided by Seneca Family of Agencies, a nonprofit mental health agency.
Earlier this month, the Sacramento Children’s Home launched a version of a mobile response hotline for foster youth and resource families in Sacramento County with $3 million in funding from the Mental Health Services Act. By calling 916-SUPPORT, foster youth up to age 21 and their caregivers can receive help from trained mental health professionals. The service, called “The Source,” offers access not only through a phone hotline but also online chat and text message options, and will provide in-person support at schools and in the community as well as at homes.
“For kids, they would have the opportunity to get closer to permanency and to build better relationships,” said David Baker, CEO of Sacramento Children’s Home. “Every time we have to move a child to another placement…[it] creates another difficulty for that child.”
In recent years, California has been busy implementing the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), a set of changes to the foster care system intended to ultimately help each of the state’s nearly 60,000 foster youth find a family and reach permanency.
One of the major challenges CCR has faced is the state’s struggle to recruit new foster families and retain existing ones. Kniffen said that in talking with youth and caregivers about what was missing from California’s child welfare system and what would help stabilize placements, this kind of 24/7, on-demand support was one of the most frequent answers they heard.
“We think that this is actually the missing piece of CCR and what’s really going to make it really work,” Kniffen said.
Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this article.