Two Big California Counties to Cover “Bubble” Teens; Will Other Counties Follow Suit?

Two of California’s largest counties, Alameda and Los Angeles, have announced they will protect foster teens facing a disruption in foster care coverage because of the structure of Assembly Bill 12, a 2010 law that gradually expands foster care services to age 21 by 2014.

AB 12 is currently only extended to the age of 19, so more than 2,100 foster youth turning 19 this year will lose their services and benefits. While they can re-apply in January 2013 for services when AB 12 extends to age 20, it still leaves a “bubble” of non-coverage for these kids.

The announcement essentially halves the number of teens who will lose services as the foster care age escalates to 21. Los Angeles County is home to 853 “bubble” teens, and Alameda is home to 139, according to a database shared by the California Department of Social Services and University of California at Berkeley.

Combined with the 75 in San Francisco, which has also announced its intention to cover “bubble” youths, just over half of the teens affected by the situation will retain foster care services.

Teens whose services are disrupted stand to lose: housing, financial assistance, and medical benefits, as well as mentorship and transitional services. California has a county-administered system of social services, so counties must decide whether or not to use county funds to keep kids in while AB 12 phases in

Child welfare advocates would like to see the other 56 counties follow the lead of Los Angeles and Alameda, which are both in the midst of a waiver program with their federal funding. But officials in Los Angeles and Alameda aren’t even sure how they’re going to pay for the teens yet.

The question both counties face is: Can it spend federal money to keep the teens in, or must it all come from county accounts? California became one of six states approved for the Title IV-E Waiver in 2006. Alameda and Los Angeles counties were approved for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Capped Allocation Project (CAP) in 2007, which allowed both counties to receive a set amount of funding regardless of the foster care population.

A report issued by The National Center for Youth Law stated that both Alameda and Los Angeles counties received more in funding since the waiver was granted than they had averaged in years leading up to it.

“Both counties have an excess amount of waiver dollars to use on these young people,” said Angie Schwartz, policy director for the Alliance of Children’s Rights,

“Waiver counties should lead the way in rolling out AB 12,” said Sokhom Mao, a member of California Youth Connection’s (CYC) Board of Directors.

It might not be that easy. The established rules for the waiver may restrict these counties from using the extra money to fund AB 12 implementation.

“When we negotiated for the waiver it did not include extended foster care,” says Alan Weibert, Children Services Administrator for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.  He says waiver negotiations mandate the funds be used for a specific purpose – “preventative services” – so the county has to use other funds to keep their children in.

Kenneth Shaw, a child welfare supervisor for Alameda County’s Independent Living Skills Program, says Alameda County is following a slightly different set of rules that closely align to the AB 12 phase-in process.

“If a young person is under 19 we can use waiver dollars for their care and we are seeking to use it to age 21,” said Shaw, but the county cannot renegotiate waiver terms until January 2013 when the waiver is set for renewal.

While Alameda and Los Angeles Counties are using their county dollars to cover youths on the bubble, it is unclear how the state’s other 56 counties are going to fund the gap of coverage for the kids in their system.

Among the other counties with the largest populations of “bubble” teens: San Bernardino (141), San Diego (128) and Sacramento (123).

“We don’t have a systematic survey for all the counties,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of California’s Child Welfare Directors Association (CWDA), “A lot of counties are putting their budgets together for next year so there’s still a lot to be figured out.”

The state law addressing the “bubble” issue goes before to the state appropriation committee in Sacramento on May 25.

Anna Jacobi contributed to this article.

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