California legislators have introduced two new bills aimed at easing the funding delays facing thousands of new foster parents in the state, an unforeseen byproduct of the state’s foster care reforms.
As the state implements broad changes to its child welfare system through the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), one of the biggest challenges has been moving foster parents and relative caregivers through a new approval process.
Since the start of last year, many new foster parents and relative caregivers — both now known as resource families in California — have struggled to make their way through the resource family approval (RFA) process as a result of more stringent requirements for relatives.
Because the state now prevents families from receiving reimbursements for children in their care until they are through the RFA process, thousands of families in the state are currently taking care of foster children without a regular funding source, including many relatives who have accepted an emergency placement.
According to a survey of 44 California counties in December, only 26 percent of RFA applications in those counties had been approved. Nineteen percent of applications had been withdrawn and 54 percent, or 8,831 families, were still waiting for approval.
In Los Angeles County, only 5 percent of approved families made it through the RFA process within 90 days — the amount of time the process is supposed to take — in 2017. In December, more than 1,052 families in the county had been waiting for approval — and subsequent foster care payments — for more than five months while taking care of a child.
Assembly Bill (AB) 2183 would create an immediate source of funding for resource families who take in a child on an emergency basis. Introduced by Assemblywoman Blanca E. Rubio (D), the bill calls on the state to use two existing pots of money to support resource families during the process: the state’s allocation of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, and the state’s Approved Relative Caregiver Funding Program.
Those funds would cover monthly reimbursement payments to families for foster children for up to 12 months. The current basic rate in California is $923 a month per child.
According to the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), which oversees the county-run foster care agencies in the state, about 4,600 homes have been approved through the new approval process. But about 3,100 families in the state remain in limbo and are taking in children as an emergency placement before completing the RFA process, preventing them from receiving reimbursements for foster care.
Some of these households are eligible for CalWORKs payments (California’s version of TANF), but that is often half or less of monthly foster care payments from the state. L.A. County currently provides a $400 emergency stipend for three months to caregivers who have taken in a foster child while they are working with through the RFA process.
Angie Schwartz, policy director with the Alliance for Children’s Rights, said that emergency placements often fall hardest on relative caregivers, who take in children with little preparation or warning. In practice, this has meant that some caregivers have had to deal with months of financial strain and hardship, leading to the disruption of some placements, according to Schwartz and other advocates.
“While it’s well-intentioned to have a more robust approval process, the unintended consequence of that is when we do what we know is good for kids, which is to connect them with people they know, it’s families that are bearing the price of that reform,” Schwartz said.
By the end of 2019, all children living in the home of a relative caregiver or foster family in the state must pass through the new approval process. According to the most recent numbers from the state, there are more than 41,000 children in the state placed with either relatives or foster parents.
The bulk of these homes will need to convert by the end of next year, putting pressure on advocates and policymakers to prevent further strains on the system.
That’s the focus of a bill from state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D), Senate Bill 1083. The legislation aims to streamline some parts of the approval process to make it easier on families taking care of kids now and prevent a potential exodus of caregivers at the end of 2019.
SB 1083 would grandfather in existing caregivers, allowing them to bypass parts of the cumbersome approval process. It would also require counties to complete the RFA process in 90 days when relative and non-related extended family members are involved. Failure would prompt a family court judge to set a hearing within 14 days to assess progress of the application.
The legislation would also clarify language to make sure that existing guardianship and informal placements with caregivers aren’t jeopardized by the new RFA process.
According to Ray Sotero, Mitchell’s communications director, California needs to take quick action to resolve the backlog of RFA applications and ensure that it does not jeopardize longtime caregivers.
“If they’ve been in the system for a number of years, they have already been vetted,” Sotero said. “Social workers visit their home pretty regularly, so we’re confident that they are able to take care of these kids.”
Sotero said CDSS is supportive of the bill so far and is working with the senator’s office about how to grandfather in caregivers who have been part of the state’s foster care system prior to January 1, 2017. He said that the bill will likely mandate background checks and some sort of security check, like fingerprinting, for existing caregivers who want to continue taking care of the children in their care.
Schwartz of the Alliance said that the coming conversion of thousands of caregivers is a “looming issue” for the state as it seeks to create more placements in foster homes and fewer in congregate-care settings like group homes.
“We’re trying to address this issue before it becomes a problem,” she said. “The counties haven’t start converting [those caregivers] yet because they’re still busy trying to approve the new families that are walking through the door.”