Los Angeles County's child welfare system, as noted recently by this newspaper, is facing a critical shortage of foster homes. But a simple policy shift could go a long way toward eliminating this crisis. We need to provide better support for relatives who step up and become foster parents.
Relatives are the backbone of the county's child welfare system. They care for children with the highest needs at a moment's notice, and they provide stability in an otherwise chaotic system. Relatives can help children in county care remain connected to their families and provide them with a sense of community.
Unfortunately, the system as presently constituted fails to adequately support relatives who take in vulnerable young people.
Federal financial support for children placed in foster care is based on antiquated rules that have not been updated since 1996, and the bulk of children in foster care in California don't qualify for this federal support. The state takes care of those foster children who are ineligible, but only if they live with a non-related foster parent. California refuses to pay the same benefits for children placed with relatives.
What that means is that a relative in California caring for a child receives $351 a month while a non-related foster parent caring for that same child receives at least $799 a month, and more if the child has special needs.
When home placements aren't possible, group homes are generally the next option, but they are far more expensive. The cost per month for placement in a level 12 group home, the type in which most foster kids are placed, is $8,309. That's $7,958 more than what it would cost to house that same child with a relative.
To put this in perspective, consider Cara Wright, a college student who, since her parents died, is also foster parent to her three siblings. She receives $681 a month to provide for the family of four. Purchasing bus passes for the family eats up nearly half of that amount, leaving her with little left to cover other basic necessities for her brothers and sister.
Foster children placed with relatives, are still the state and county's responsibility. Most of these children have been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect and placed into the care of someone who has met certain standards (which are the same for relatives as they are for any other foster parent). It costs as much for a relative to care for a child as it does for a non-related foster parent. And yet, the children placed with relatives often receive a fraction of the financial support. Private investment from organizations such as the Conrad N. Hilton and Everychild foundations has helped fill in some of the gaps for foster families, but we need a greater public commitment of funds that would make it possible for more relatives to take in children in need.
California law mandates that relatives should be looked to first when trying to find homes for children in county care. Such placements can lessen the trauma and negative emotions experienced by children who have been removed from their parents. Making it financially feasible for more relatives to step up and provide caring homes for kids in need would mean fewer children living in group homes or with strangers. The system needs to support relatives who are willing to step up to the plate.
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Janis Spire is CEO of the Alliance for Children's Rights.