In 2017, California began implementing statewide reforms of its foster care system, a sprawling initiative designed to reduce the role of group homes and rely more heavily on relatives and foster homes.
To find more local families, counties across California are looking to leverage a new $104 million pot of state money designed to encourage new and innovative approaches to foster parent recruitment and retention.
The Chronicle of Social Change examined how three counties in the San Francisco Bay Area — Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Alameda — are spending these funds.
A year and a half into the process, county leaders said the funds are helping them find more foster parents and relative caregivers. But there is no actual indication that the new state-funded efforts have helped to bolster the roster of foster parents in these counties.
Data points to a decline in foster homes in these same counties over the past several years, and even a slight uptick in the use of group homes.
Placing More Foster Children with Families
California’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) was created through a set of laws that aims to put more children in family settings and fewer in group homes. The goal is to improve the quality of foster home placements and increase the number of youth in care who are placed in those homes.
The push to find more foster homes is exacerbated by California’s statewide foster parent recruitment crisis. The number of foster homes in California declined by 752 between 2012 and 2017, according to a recent report by The Chronicle of Social Change.
To create more placements with families, California has set aside $104.16 million over the past three fiscal years for what the California Department of Social Services (DSS) has called Foster Parent Recruitment and Retention Services (FPRRS).
In 2016-17, California counties split up $43.5 million earmarked for giving abused and neglected children more and better-quality foster homes. The funding is divvied up based on how many youth are in out-of-home care and in group homes in each county.
The counties submit annual plans to the state on how they will use the funds. Among other projects, counties have been spending the money on advertising, hiring recruiters, hosting events and providing families with goods and services, such as smoke detectors or child care, to make it easier for them to take children into their homes.
Across the state, FPRRS money spent in 2016-17 ranged from just $2,573 in Modoc County to more than $13 million spent in Los Angeles County, according to data from DSS.
In Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Alameda counties, the number of youth in foster care has fallen from 4,160 in July 2015 to 3,684 in July 2017. Nevertheless, the mandate to place more children in family settings makes it important for these counties to find more foster homes.
Contra Costa County Sees More Applications, Fewer Homes
Contra Costa County, which had 1,098 youth in foster care on July 1, 2017, according to data from the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, spent about $1 million on foster parent recruitment and retention through FPRRS between July 2016 and June 2017, according to a county spokesperson.
The FPRRS money was provided to child welfare departments as well as probation departments, which need to find homes for foster youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system.
In Contra Costa County, the Employment and Human Services Department (EHSD), which runs the foster care system, spent $721,305 out of its $729,066 allocation in 2016-17. The county’s Probation Department was allocated $370,859 in FPRRS funds for 2016-17.
Lori Castillo, the interim resource family recruitment manager for the EHSD, said her agency has spent the money to support several projects and to hire a contracted recruiter, but not to hire any full-time staff.
Older foster youth were also paid $15 an hour to go to events and recruit foster parents. According to a report made to the state on August 31, 2016, $12,383 was used in that year to pay the foster youth recruiters.
Advertising efforts placed commercials on television and in movie theaters and ads were posted on buses, Castillo said.
Funds were also used to help relatives and extended family members cover certain expenses when they chose to become foster parents, such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
For retention of foster parents, a quarterly newsletter was revived to inform caregivers about the services available to them. The county also used the money to fund its annual brunch to show appreciation to 100 current foster parents.
So far, these efforts have corresponded with a rise in applications to become foster parents, but a net loss in capacity. On June 30, 2017, the county had 233 licensed foster homes, down from 259 a year earlier.
Like most California counties, Contra Costa does its own recruiting of foster parents, and also contracts with foster family agencies (FFA) to manage more.
Contra Costa County’s foster homes licensed through a FFA have risen by a small margin from 193 in 2016 to 202 in 2017, according to data provided by DSS. That comes after a large decrease from a few years prior. The county had 264 FFA homes in 2012, and saw it drop to 193 by 2015.
Castillo says that although her department’s supply of homes has not increased yet, applications submitted to become foster parents are up to 430 this year from 375 last year.
“This money has been extremely helpful,” Castillo said. “It doesn’t go toward staffing, which is unfortunate because our staffing hasn’t increased but our applications and certifications have.”
The county has seven full-time employees certifying applicants. Castillo said that the department could certify applications faster if they had more certification staff. She does not know whether some applicants drop out of the process due to long wait times for approval.
“Their caseloads are probably up in the 80s. That’s a lot,” Castillo said.
Though Contra Costa County used the FPRRS money to hire a contracted recruiter, counties can use the money to hire full-time staff, said Michael Weston, a spokesperson for DSS.
Santa Clara County Adds Social Workers with Recruitment Funds
Santa Clara County, which had 1,095 youth in foster care on July 1 of this year, spent $1.6 million in FPRRS funding in 2016-2017, according to DSS.
The county reported that its child welfare agency spent $447,091 in that year. The agency was allocated $826,887 for the year, DSS data shows.
Santa Clara County has spent its FPRRS money on “enhanced recruitment, placement, support services, advertising, and foster parent and resource family appreciation efforts,” according to a summary of recruitment activities provided by Dana McQuary, a spokesperson for the county.
During fiscal year 2016-17, DFCS also added two social workers in new positions dedicated to recruitment and assistance with the application process.
“In order to recruit you’ve got to shore up your infrastructure, so that’s what we have done in order to support the number of referrals that are coming in and retaining the current population that we have,” said Tracy Bowers, a program manager who leads recruitment for the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency.
The department hired consultants to devise and implement a recruitment plan, evaluate current recruitment methods and train agency staff.
In addition, the agency has also used FPRRS money to put advertisements in movie theaters and hospitals and on buses and mall kiosks, and to participate in community events such as fairs, conferences, festivals and professional and amateur sporting events.
For the current holiday season, the team is offering information about fostering at San Jose’s “Christmas in the Park” event. In May, recruiters will host an annual event to celebrate National Foster Care Month.
But approvals of resource parents have not increased since Santa Clara County started spending the FPRRS money. Santa Clara County approved 99 foster parents in 2015-16, the year before FPRRS funding was provided. In 2016-17, with the state funds, they approved just 68.
There could be an increase this year if approvals maintain the current pace. At the end of November, five months into the 2017-18 fiscal year, the agency had approved 43 resource families, putting it on pace to top 100 approvals before the year ends on June 30.
The county’s supply of FFA homes fell from 169 in June 2012 to 132 in June 2015, according to DSS data.
Then it rose to 138 in June 2016 before dipping again to 127 in June of this year.
Alameda County Hires Client Advocate, Plans a Recruitment and Retention Push
Alameda County, which had 1,491 youth in foster care as of July, spent $602,043 in FPRRS funding in 2016-17, according to DSS data.
The Chronicle’s requests for information via email did not yield enough detail to provide a complete picture of how Alameda County spent that money.
But it is clear Alameda County spent far less than its allocated amount last year. For 2016-17, it received almost $1.8 million in FPRRS funding, including $840,661 for its child welfare agency and $910,853 for its probation department.
An outcomes report that the county’s Social Services Agency submitted to the state on Sept. 29 included just one expense: $132,000 in FPRRS funds to hire a client advocate in 2015. The client advocate’s job is to support both youth and caregivers.
Alameda County has been allocated $1.4 million in FPRRS funding for the current fiscal year. This year, the agency plans to launch a $300,000 recruitment media campaign, according to an allocation plan report that it submitted to DSS in October and provided to The Chronicle.
Through the campaign, which is scheduled to begin in January 2018, Alameda County aims to improve the public perception of fostering and adopting, and spotlight the placement needs for youth who require a high level of care. These messages will be delivered through billboards, social media and networking with local news reporters, according to the report.
Both reports also explained the agency’s plans to implement two initiatives aimed at equipping and supporting foster parents, although no dollar figures for these initiatives were listed.
The first is the Youth Law Center’s Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI), which is an approach to strengthening foster care by creating more high-quality foster homes.
The second is the introduction of caregiver mentoring circles, informed by the “Mockingbird Family Model,” which was developed by the Mockingbird Society in Seattle. Under this plan, some highly experienced foster parents run “hub homes” wherein they receive a monthly stipend for providing support to other foster parents.
“We are hopeful more caregivers will feel more trained and prepared to care for our clients that often present with challenging behaviors that threaten to jeopardize and even end their placements,” it states in Alameda County’s plan for 2017-18.
Though it is not clear how many licensed foster homes Alameda County has available, due to a lack of information provided, DSS data shows that the total number of FFA homes in the county has decreased slightly over the past few years, from this past June.
Group Home Uptick
The state’s Continuum of Care Reform plan hinges on converting group homes into short-term, residential treatment facilities, where only children and youth with serious medical or mental health needs will be placed. If this is successful, there will be a greater demand for foster parents and relative caregivers – also called resource families.
But data in the Bay Area suggests recruitment of new homes is still declining, while reliance on group homes has increased.
Contra Costa County saw its number of kids in group homes increase from 86 in July 2015 to 103 this past July, according to the Child Welfare Indicators Project.
In Santa Clara County, the number of children and youth in group homes fell slightly from 2015 to 2017, but the percentage of its youth placed in group homes increased from 9 percent to 11 percent.
In Alameda County, the number of children and youth in group homes has also been rising, from 120 in July 2015 to 158 this past July.