Reed Connell: Three Things to Know About California’s Realignment

California counties are preparing for a recent shake-up in state funding, known as realignment. Instead of the state’s government allocating budgets for child welfare services within each county, they will now give a lump sum of money directly to the counties for them to prioritize what is most important in their region. While some of the details are still being hammered out, just about everyone seems to agree that realignment is happening, and that the structure proposed by the Governor will be the law of the land come July 1, 2012.

This change has the potential to dramatically change how foster care and other child welfare services in the state of California are run, and many leaders are trying to prepare for the change to be as effective for the children and youth they serve as possible.

One of those leaders is Reed Connell, executive director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance. We asked him via email three questions about the definition of realignment, what it means for youth in care, and how it will affect the system in ten years. Check his answers below, and let us know what you think in the comments section.

1. How would you explain realignment to a fifth grader? 

In California, almost all social safety net and health services are actually delivered to the people who need them by county governments. These programs include child welfare and foster care, children’s health, mental health, and some services for seniors. Yet our state government has always set both the rules and priorities for these programs through the process of making laws and setting budgets.

Realignment eliminates these roles for the state legislature – revenue from taxes and vehicle licensing fees will now flow straight to the counties, and counties will be able to make more of their own choices about how to run and prioritize programs.

This could be a good thing, because local county Boards of Supervisors can tailor their safety net programs to meet the unique needs of their communities. However, there are some serious risks. Realignment is happening at a time when there still isn’t anywhere near enough money to do all of the things that Californians need and expect their governments to do. The new revenues flowing straight to counties won’t provide enough money, so it will be local Boards who will have to find places to cut, rather than the legislature. Because all 58 counties will be making their own choices, there’ll be even bigger differences between what’s available from one county to the next.

Also, when all the decisions were made in one place – the state Capitol – advocates could focus their energies to create positive change that would then spread across the entire state. With realignment, advocates will now have to learn to work with local Boards – there are 58 of them, and they all work differently – and the impact of victories and challenges will be unique to each county.

2. What should youth who are currently in care be prepared for?

First, much of what we call “foster care” is a federal entitlement. Youth in care have a right to safety, housing, health and mental health care, and the support of social workers and lawyers. Realignment doesn’t change those rights, which are still defensible in court when necessary. With AB12, those rights extend to age 21, and given realignment, that’s a very good thing because most of the aftercare programs that were previously all that existed to help emancipated foster youth  – like THP-Plus, or Emancipated Youth Stipends for things like furniture, rent, or book money – are not entitlements. They are basically optional. This is why there have always been huge differences between counties in how much support is available to emancipated youth. But now, with AB12, foster youth have the right to housing and other supports, regardless of [the] county in which they reside.

However, because there’s not enough money in total, and because counties will still have to make sure to fund programs that youth have a right to (so they don’t get sued) they may have to take money from the programs that are optional. So thank goodness for AB12, since it came just in time to make sure that we don’t turn back the clock to a time when youth came up in foster care and got turned out at 18 with nothing.

Youth in care should definitely think very hard before choosing to opt-out of AB12, because there’s no guarantee that there’ll be any other support available. Youth advocates, like those in Californa Youth Connection, should start to learn about how their local government works – meet with Boards of Supervisors, learn how hearings work and budgeting decisions are made – so they can continue to effectively fight for the changes they want to see.

3. In ten years, how do you think child welfare leaders will explain the effect realignment today had on the system for the next decade?

First of all, I think ten years is really the right kind of timeline we need to be using when thinking about what’s going to change under realignment. In California and across the country, most of the major changes in how well our social and safety net programs serve the needs of our communities are the result of changes in policies about money – whether there’s enough, the rules about how it can and should be used. Realignment is a huge change in the money part of our social programs. In the first couple years, it will be hard to know if any particular change is part of a trend or not – if it’s the exception or the rule. But over a decade, it becomes much easier to spot trends – the likely outcome rather than one particular outcome.

I think we’ll definitely see much bigger differences between the experiences of foster youth from one county to the next. When we say “foster care” we’re really referring to an interconnected web of services provided by different programs, some of which are part of realignment, and some which are not. Realignment changes the relationships among all these programs, and scrambles up the fiscal incentives and pressures for each program. I can’t really predict how it’s all going to shake out – we’ll have to look at ten year trends – but I do think that we’ll eventually see realignment as the point after which everything started to change. Whether that’s for the worse or for the better will depend on how effectively counties, communities, and advocates navigate the new reality.

I’m worried that there just won’t be enough money to do what we need and want to do. For at least ten years, we’ve focused on making foster care smaller – reducing the size of the system by moving kids to permanency. And we’ve been very successful – California’s gone from 100,000 kids in foster care to 60,000 in the last ten years. We’ve definitely made a smaller system, but I’m not sure we’ve made a better system. A smaller system is definitely cheaper, but I think a better system might wind up being more expensive. I’m worried that when we start to think about how much money we need for foster care and the other programs that support foster youth, we’ll stick to our budget crisis thinking – fighting for what we’ve got now, rather than thinking about what we need to get to where we want to be. Very few of us got into this field to defend the status quo, but after years of budget cutting, it’s far too easy to look at ten years of “it could have been worse” as a victory. We need to raise the bar – and now have to figure out how to do that in the context of realignment, which I think is going to be hard.

-Ryann Blackshere

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