• Alyse DiNapoli

Family First and the 20-year Trend of Foster Care in California

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

Not quite a year ago, President Trump signed the Bipartisan Budget Act, which not only kept the government afloat in the midst of a shutdown, but also signified the passage of an important piece of bipartisan legislation. The new child welfare law, or the Family First Prevention Services Act, now allows states to use their federal Title IV-E funding for family services that could prevent children from entering foster care. Previously, this funding could only be used for children already in care, such as maintenance payments to foster families or program management costs. With certain exceptions, it also limits the length of time that children can stay in group home placements.

While it sends an important message to states to rely less on residential homes, this is actually not the first of its kind. In fact, if this is modeled after other significant child welfare policies over the past couple of decades, then there is good reason to be optimistic. After all, the number of children in foster care has decreased steadily from 6.4 (per 1,000 children) to 4.8 between 2000-2015 in the US. In California, the downward trend was even more profound, with the rate dropping from 9.7 to 5.8 within those same years.

Sonja Lenz-Rashid, Associate Professor of Social Work at San Francisco State University, says that the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which encouraged timely placements of foster children into suitable homes, played a pivotal role in lowering rates.

“They focused a lot more on family maintenance interventions, which is keeping kids in their homes and providing the family with services. So by the late 1990s and early 2000s, the focus was about how to preserve families, and make sure that child welfare workers are not just removing kids,“ Lenz-Rashid said.

In addition to ASFA, California’s decrease in caseloads could also be attributed to a number of statewide policies and programs implemented over the past 20 years, such as California Kin Gap, AB 403 and AB 12, which have all emphasized permanency for foster care children. In fact, the state adopted their own Kin Gap program-which allows funds to be used for foster children placed in the homes of relative guardians-8 years before it was federally adopted in 2008. Investing in preventative services using Title IV-E funds is also not completely new to California either. The state was granted waivers so that select counties could use federal aid to design programs that focused on placing children in their districts into permanent, reliable homes. While it’s hard to analyze each policies’ effect on the decrease in children in care, there has clearly been progress on various fronts.

However, despite an overall downward trend since 2000, the number of children in care has fluctuated a bit more since 2013. The national rate increased to 638,000 children in 2013 (total number of children in care within the fiscal year) and has been steadily climbing since, although it is still below early-2000s levels. California’s rate increased from 86,255 children in 2013 to 87,07 in 2014, and it took a couple of years to get back down to pre-2013 levels. Lenz-Rashid mentioned that the opioid crisis could be attributing to this, but there are a handful of other challenges that may exacerbate the problem. While several statewide programs and policies claim to emphasize family units, the financial incentives offered by government agencies oftentimes seem to reflect the opposite message, since group homes tend to receive more reimbursement.

“Their rates have always been significantly higher than foster family rates, but in order to recruit committed, long term foster families, I think we need to increase the foster care rate even more so than we’ve done,” said Lenz-Rashid.

As of July 2018, California’s “basic rate”, or the minimum monthly amount a foster family can receive per child, can start roughly between $960 to $1,100, which can be higher if the child has special needs as well. A group home can be reimbursed $2,652 per child for the lowest level of service and up to $11,238 for the most intensive type of care.

Another issue is that, while AB 12 allows older youth to be in care until they are 21, she says it’s still challenging to find local foster families for teenagers, and perhaps increasing the payments to foster families will help them stay a little bit more invested in keeping a challenging teenager in their home.

“In California, the rates have increased over the years, but it is still lower than it should be in order to recruit more foster families, [especially] those who are phasing out of group homes and are really down to their last years in foster care. How are we going to house these teenagers?”

But higher rates for families are only one part of the solution. After all, maintenance payments in California for foster families have steadily increased year after year, despite recent increases of children in care (the basic rate was just $373 in 2011-2012). While it may not necessarily affect the number of children entering care, ensuring social workers have the resources to place children in permanent, safe homes as quickly as possible may help prevent a backlog of caseloads and therefore stabilize an uptick.

“I think in the Bay Area in particular, it’s really difficult for counties to retain their workers. Some counties do a better job of it than others. Maybe they have stronger unions or they have higher pay. But I think it’s really difficult, because the salaries for child welfare workers are low. Retaining trained workers is a huge issue that most counties are facing.”

Social worker salaries are indeed notoriously low. The average salary for an experienced social worker in California is about $51,181 per year, and in the Bay area, with the median price for a home pushing $750,000, it's no wonder why attracting well-trained workers is a continuous struggle.

But the idea is, that by investing in preventative services, perhaps there will be more funding available down the road to put towards higher salaries and resource family rates. Family First could be an important step that reinforces prior legislation, such as ASFA and Kin Gap. However, now it will be up to states and counties to make sure their funds are used to adequately provide these services encouraged by Washington. Hopefully this will be just the push needed to get back to a consistently downward trend in caseloads.

Sources: (in order of appearance)

Families First Prevention Services Act, Overview.

“Children in Foster Care”. Kids Data.,4,59,364&tf=1,84

Lenz-Rashid, Sonja. Associate Professor of Social Work, San Francisco State University.

Adoption and Safe Families Act. Child & Family Services Reviews. Department of Health & Human Services.

“The Title IV-E Guardianship Assistance Program (GAP): An Update on Implementation and Moving GAP Forward”. September 2015.

“After 18 Program”, AB 12 Fact Sheet. California Department of Social Services-Independent Living Program Policy Unit.

AB 403 (Stone): Foster Youth: Continuum of Care Reform. California Department of Social Services.

Title IV-E California Well-Being Project. California Department of Social Services.

Trends in Foster Care and Adoption. Children's Bureau, Office of the Administration for Children & Families. US Department of Health & Human Services.

Group Home Standard Schedule of Rates. California Department of Social Services.

Foster Family Agency Rates Schedule: History of Standardized Rates Fiscal Years 1990-91 through 2018-19. California Department of Social Services.

Social Worker Salary in California. Sokanu.

“Bay Area Home Sales Rise in February; Median Sale Price Up Close to 13 Percent Year Over Year for Second Consecutive Month”. Data Brief. CoreLogic. February 2018.

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