After years of stalled progress on improving support for children and youth in foster care, compounded by the harm young people experienced during the pandemic, California simply can’t wait any longer to make foster youth a priority.
Roughly 60,000 youth are the legal responsibility of the state of California, removed from their family homes after suffering abuse and neglect. The trauma of abuse and the separation from their families puts them at high risk for adverse consequences throughout their lives — from homelessness and suicide to exploitation and sex trafficking.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Young people can and do recover from trauma, reunite with family members, and thrive because of the support from caring professionals and nonprofit organizations that are deeply rooted in communities across the state.
Yet too many are left in harm’s way because California’s initiative to transform foster youth services, known as “Continuum of Care Reform,” has not been fully funded to truly meet the needs of all foster youth. Severe gaps remain in services.
California can’t leave vulnerable youth waiting any longer. State leaders must commit in 2023. Here’s how:
• Stabilize programs for youth with the greatest needs. Youth experiencing the most severe effects of trauma heal best with intensive therapy and support, delivered in settings that feel like a home, not an institution. Despite the growing need of this intensive care model, short-term residential programs are rapidly disappearing because state funding hasn’t kept pace with soaring costs of providing care, and costly new federal rules are accelerating the closures. Unless California significantly increases its financial support for this model, organizations will be forced to close more of these programs.
• Increase foster family retention and support. The stress of the pandemic and rising costs of raising a family are taking a toll on all families, making it harder to find, recruit and train foster parents (also known as “resource families”). Nonprofit agencies succeed in this difficult work because of their close ties to communities, but they can’t do it alone. California must dedicate state budget funding to ensure vulnerable youth don’t have to worry if they’ll have a bed to sleep in or a family to support them.
• Prevent family separation. Child abuse and neglect can be prevented, and entry into the child welfare system can be avoided. The vital work of family resource centers, 500 trusted community partners across California, helps families ease stressors in the home and reduce the likelihood of separation. With families under more pressure than ever, keeping families together means the state must commit significant funding to prevention.
• Stop the pipeline from foster care to the streets. Nearly 1 in 3 foster youth become homeless after they exit the child welfare system — a devastating and shameful reality. For California to succeed in mitigating homelessness, leaders must commit to preventing foster youth from ever reaching the streets. A portion of the $1.5 billion lawmakers have already dedicated for a new Behavioral Health Bridge Housing Program should be used for partnerships between counties and community-based organizations that assist with housing youth ages 18-25.
• Respect, support and pay critical staff. Children who have been abused and traumatized count on talented and dedicated workers to support them during a vulnerable and challenging time in their lives. This work is fulfilling but intense, leading to burnout and high turnover. California must increase the rates it pays to care for children so we can retain these invaluable professionals and their quality of care.
Children in California’s child welfare system had little to no say about the circumstances that brought them into foster care. No budget shortfall, lack of political will or mixed-up priorities should further delay support they need to thrive.
State leaders must honor their duty to the children in their care.
Christine Stoner-Mertz is CEO of the California Alliance for Child and Family Services. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.