Life on the Bubble

State-level worries about the cost of extending foster care have left California’s counties holding the bag; but unless something changes it is the 2,000 foster youth who will turn 19 who will really pay the price.

With only weeks until his 19th birthday, David C.’s future looks bright. In June, he will graduate from his Contra Costa County high school in the top one percentile of his class, and is excited about starting his college career at the University of California- Berkeley in the fall.

“They have a good physics club there,” the teenager says. “It’s gonna be hecka fun.”

But for David’s understandable exuberance at this pivotal moment in his life, the next months could be very rocky, as he may be cut off from foster care on his birthday because of the way the state’s new law extending care is structured.

With the passage Assembly Bill 12 in 2010, California set itself on a path to extend foster care to age 21. Despite a federal match on funding foster youth until that age, state lawmakers opted to phase the extension in over time to save money.

The way the law is written, David and the other 2,166 youths who turn 19 this year will lose state-funded support services on their 19th birthdays; May 6, in David’s case. On Jan. 1, 2013, David and other youth who are “on the bubble” like him will be eligible for foster care again when the age range expands to 20.  In May of 2013, he will again lose that support until January of 2014 – that is if the legislature takes the extra step of extending care all the way to age 21.

This leaves California’s 58 counties with a tough choice: keep teens like David connected to services without financial assistance from the state, or cut them off. It is unclear whether some, or any, will continue to support the foster youths caught in the state coverage “bubble.”

Last year, as the legislature worked on clean up legislation, CWDA highlighted the Solomonic position counties would find themselves in if the state would only fund youth until their 19th birthday in 2012.

But, according to some members of the sponsoring organizations, the California Department of Finance reported that the cost would be too high – killing CWDA’s effort in the state Capitol, and effectively pushing this tough decision onto counties and ultimately juvenile dependency court judges – who in turn choose whether or not youth like David should be left to themselves or be given the added support that may help them excel.

“The bubble occurred in the process to get AB12 signed,” says CWDA Executive Director Frank Mecca. “And beyond how horrible it is for the kids in this situation, it puts counties under pressure to allow kids to stay with the county’s the only ones paying.”

Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation, understands the unenviable position counties find themselves in, but is disappointed that an argument over cost in Sacramento at the 11th hour has left the fate of so many young people up to chance. “If we did this kind of planning with our own children, we would be called irresponsible parents,” Lemley says. Lemley points to the second round of AB12 clean up legislation currently being considered in Sacramento as a good opportunity to fix the issues faced by “bubble kids” like David.

The “bubble” created by AB 12 is worth noting on the national level. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which allows states to use federal foster care funds under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act to extend services to youths between 18 and 21.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has approved had plans to implement IV-E extensions past age 18 to 10 states and the District of Columbia.

Tough fiscal times have forced many of those states to make only small steps toward expansion. Washington is among the 10 that have received approval from the Department of Health and Human Services for an extension of care to cover foster youths up to age 21.

So far, the state has enacted extensions that State Representative Mary Helen Roberts (D) says amount to “baby steps.” Services were extended to age 19 in 2011, but only for youths who were still in high school and had yet to graduate. This year they expanded the supports to include college students, but again only until 19.

“We don’t have the money to do it bigger,” Roberts, who is among the state legislators pushing to extend foster care supports for older teens, says.

California is not yet among the states approved to use IV-E funds for older foster youths. But AB 12 is by far the most comprehensive expansion of foster care since Fostering Connections was signed by Bush.

That AB 12’s graduated age expansion has created bubbles may give other states pause in pursuing that course, rather than say a law that expanded to 21 all at once but took effect years down the road.

In California, the 19-year-olds in “bubble” situations can still appeal to juvenile court judges to maintain their status as dependents of the court, and David, through his attorney, has done just that.

“The dependency courts need to know that they have the power to maintain jurisdiction,” says Angie Schwartz, policy director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights. “The responsible thing for the courts to do is keep kids in care.”

On May 4th, two days before his 19th birthday, Contra Costa County juvenile court judge Joni Hiramoto will decide whether to let David stay in care or not. Contra Costa’s Deputy County Counsel Patricia Lowe has moved to terminate services, arguing that when the legislature passed Assembly Bill 12, it intended the three-year transition period in which certain youth like David – would be ineligible.

David’s attorney, Darren Kessler, has filed a brief arguing that closing David’s case is against the intent of the law, and is further in violation of equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

In a brief submitted in April, Kessler argues that even if the law “was designed to be an incremental step towards addressing the needs of NDMs [non-minor dependents],” excluding youth like David must have some plausible rationale, and that the fiscal savings won through such a practice do not meet the “rational basis” test used in such an equal protection challenge.

David, who has been in foster care since 2005 and who has three siblings who have also been in the system at one time or other, understands the interplay of state and county budgets on the lives of kids better than most.

“We know funding is very tight right now,” he says ‘”The whole U.S.i s in debt. I know we need to cut them [Contra Costa County] some slack, but then again, when you are leaving these kids to go out and be homeless and not financiallystable or to end up in jail, that isn’t good either.”

John Kelly and Anna Jacobi contributed to this story.

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Daniel Heimpel
About Daniel Heimpel 191 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.