Parity in Sight for Relative Caregivers, but Counties Must Act

By Tim Morrison

In June, Governor Jerry Brown and the Legislature set aside $30 million to end California’s sad distinction as the only state in the country where foster children placed with relatives do not receive state foster care benefits. The new program, called the Approved Relative Caregiver (ARC) Funding Option, fills a critical gap, but in order to qualify for the new money in 2015, counties must opt-in by October 1.

As the deadline to accept the fund looms, counties are considering their options and seeking to understand the nuances of the new program before making a final decision.

What’s at stake? 

At last count, 20,871 foster children in California live with their relatives, and 2,217 of them live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Throughout the state, when child protective agencies remove abused children from their families, they look for relatives who will care for them. It’s widely acknowledged that family-like settings are preferable to institutional group homes (and much cheaper).

In California, it’s always been unfair that, while relatives are the backbone of our child welfare system, they receive dismally inadequate compensation for their caregiving duties, despite being held to the same home approval standards as non-relative foster parents.

Grandparents represent the largest number of family caregivers of foster youth, but are also the most vulnerable, often living only on Social Security or retirement benefits.

A relic of outdated political compromise, the eligibility criteria for relative caregiver subsidies defy logic. Foster children in the care of kin can receive modest household subsidies ($820/month) if their birth parents are very poor, but receive maddeningly less ($369/month) if their birth parents have incomes above the 1996 federal poverty income threshold. Quick math (since 44 percent of California’s foster youth are ineligible for the federal subsidy) suggests that approximately 9,183 foster children stand to benefit from the new program. That’s the equivalent of 190 school buses full of abused and neglected children who, until now, have been neglected by public law.

It’s a no-brainer: Counties should act

To opt in, counties must share their July 2014 caseload data; in so doing, they’ll receive full funding for their July 1, 2014 caseload.  Counties are eligible for this funding in each future calendar year, but they’re concerned that they will be on the hook for funding any caseload growth in foster youth placed with relatives following July 1, 2014.

However, growth in relative placements is unlikely to result in increased costs to the county. That is because the new program will only result in growth in the number of youth placed with relatives if the county stabilizes more youth in relative homes and moves youth out of more expensive group home placements.

For every one youth that a county keeps out of a group home, it saves enough money to pay the cost of care for ten children in a relative placement.

Therefore, growing the population of youth placed with relatives through these mechanisms actually results in additional savings to the county.

Furthermore, if anything doesn’t pencil out, counties can opt out of the program at any time. With these safeguards in place, counties need not fear funding shortfalls.

From where I sit, I see 9,183 good reasons for counties to opt-in, and no reason to delay.

Tim Morrison is Senior Policy Associate at Children Now.

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