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California Backs off Group Homes, Looks to Lean on Foster Families

As California dismantles its beleaguered system of youth group homes, state lawmakers bet big on expanding foster care.

Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation aimed at fixing the state’s broken juvenile group home system. The homes are meant to provide therapy and care for the state’s most troubled youths. In recent years, several homes have come under intense scrutiny because of sexual abuse allegations, violence, and frequent runaways.

The newly signed law, based on a 56-page report from the state’s Department of Social Services, promises to overhaul this form of care, which is largely viewed as outdated and ineffective. Under the new law, group homes will undergo an accreditation process, retrain staff, and serve children strictly and intensively on a short-term basis. The legislation also aims to improve the process by which children are assessed, so that they are placed in group homes tailored to treat their specific needs. And DSS will create a new, more rigorous method of oversight.

“This reform effort is a fundamental shift in how California will care for children who have to live away from their own homes,” said DSS Director Will Lightbourne in an Oct. 11 statement announcing the bill’s passage.

But in order for the legislation to work, California must meet a number of challenges, one of which has bedeviled the state for years: recruiting and training compassionate, skilled foster families or relatives of foster children who can care for kids who have suffered years of trauma and exhibit severe, often hostile or violent behavior.

The idea is that if the state can find such families, fewer children will need to enter the group care system to begin with. Group homes would then be reserved only for children whose mental health needs are most intense.

“Getting the legislation passed was the easy part,” said Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance for Youth and Family Services, which represents social service agencies statewide. “We have got to find those foster families, get them approved and trained and make sure they are getting the services and support they need to be successful.”

The legislation authorizes more than $17 million toward foster care recruitment. Counties are required to tell DSS how many families they need to recruit, how they’ll do it, and how much it will cost by Dec. 1.

Currently, several California counties face a severe shortage of foster families. In Los Angeles, for example, the number of beds in homes of foster parents who are not related to foster youth has plummeted. The Los Angeles Times has reported that in 2000, there were 22,000 beds – now there are 9,000.

Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director for the County Welfare Directors Association of California said county governments aren’t quite “despairing” over the recruitment push but they aren’t “expecting it to be easy” either.

She said many of her members have been waiting for support from the state and now that they have it they are hopeful they can provide appropriate resources to families who agree to care for troubled children.

Several child welfare experts anticipate that many California group homes will close rather than meet the bill’s new requirements and worry that if the foster family recruiting effort fails, the bill will only increase pressure on an already stressed system.

Marie K. Cohen, a former social worker in the District of Columbia, sees this as a major flaw in the legislation and has written about it for the Chronicle of Social Change, a California-based child welfare website.

“If you have a drastic shortage of foster homes and you are closing group homes, where are these children going to go?” Cohen said in an interview with ProPublica.

Michael Weston, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, defended the legislation. He said the bill provides plenty of money for counties to find and retain foster families, or relatives, to care for foster children and the state will help them do it.

Over the last year, ProPublica has published more than a dozen stories about group homes in California and elsewhere. We examined two homes in California, one in Davis and another in Long Beach. Each experienced months of tumult— children disappearing for days at a time and becoming involved in violence, sexual assaults and drug abuse— before DSS aggressively intervened.

Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay, who drafted the bill, told ProPublica the collapse of these homes helped spotlight the need for reform and the new legislation would have helped prevent it.

“That Davis home would have been completely different if this legislation were in place at the time,” he said. “The length of placement would have been different, the age and number of kids at the facility would have been different. The kids would have been there on much shorter stays and they would have been getting a much different kind of service.”

Administrators who run facilities similar to those in Davis and Long Beach worry that under the new law, they’ll undoubtedly have to admit children whose behaviors are more extreme than what they’ve dealt with in the past.

“It makes me feel a little anxious,” said Steven Elson, chief executive officer of Casa Pacifica, a large group care company in Southern California. “But it’s also an opportunity. This is being called a once in a generation reform effort. We need to get it right.”

In an emailed statement, Weston rejected the notion that children entering the group home system will be any more problematic than in the past.

“There is no additional subclass of children,” he said.

However, he added that the bill also requires DSS to revise how much group homes are paid to account for any “higher level of service” that children living in them may need.

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