Out of County, CA: Limited Options

Out of County, CA is a series of stories about the experiences of out-of-county foster youth in California. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

After child protective services in California removes a child from his home for abuse or neglect, his care becomes the responsibility of the county that removed him.

Every child entering the system is assigned a social worker, who bears the tremendous burden of parsing through limited options to find that child a place to live.

For each case, social workers must wrestle with questions about the child’s situation and the availability of certain types of care before choosing a placement–including those that are out of county.

All social workers make these decisions in accordance with the California’s Department of Social Services Child Welfare Services Manual. The manual provides guidance and protocols for placing youth in out-of-home care. The regulations form the base of the complicated decision-making process for placements. Social workers must use their judgment to interpret the manual to make decisions about where to send children and youth.

According to the manual, a child should be placed in the “least restrictive, most family-like environment.”

But finding that optimal “environment” changes from case to case, said Katherine Mason, a social worker for San Mateo County.

“You consider placing siblings together or close by, consider a home that has a similar cultural makeup or that allows the kid to be close to their home community,” Mason said.

But a less subjective factor may be more influential in determining where a youth may be sent.

“It’s sad, but I’d say the biggest factor is where the placements are available,” she added.

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Types of Care

Social workers can put youth in one of four types of placements: Kin care, foster families (either though the county or a foster family agency), group homes and community treatment facilities.

The state’s preferred type of placement is kin care. It is designed for youth with relatives willing to care for them after they are removed from their parents’ home.

If no relative is able or willing to take the youth in, social workers must choose another type of placement for the youth.

The least restrictive option is a foster family home, either licensed by the state or certified by a foster family agency to care for youth. The Child Welfare Services Manual lists this as the second priority option social workers should consider in placement.

Youth with special needs for behavioral, health or mental health treatment are placed in group homes or community treatment facilities. Social workers can only assign youth to these types of care when a youth needs special treatment and can only be served at a group home or facility. These are the most restrictive options and can only be used as a last resort for treatment.

Although regulations and guidelines exist, Michael Weston, spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services, said there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to place youth.

“[Social workers] are assessing the child, and the needs of the child,” Weston said. “[When] you’re looking at children, there’s no boilerplate strategy.”

OutofCountyplacements2 | Create infographics

Out-of-County Placements

In one in five cases, social workers and the juvenile dependency court decide that sending a child out of county is the best option they have.

Counties retain responsibility for youth they send away. The sending county must specify the youth’s needs and outline its duties in relation to the youth’s care with the receiving county. According to the state’s manual, a written agreement clarifying each county’s role must be executed.

However, sending youth out of county, according to California’s state regulations, should generally be a last resort for social workers. If kin care or a suitable in-county placement isn’t possible, out-of-county placements can be chosen.

Some counties in California, as of 2014, had no treatment facilities. Youth needing high-level care from those counties would have to cross county lines to receive treatment.

According to data from the Center for Social Science Research’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project, nearly 36 percent of all group-home placements in the state were out of county.

Social workers are not always able to place children in group homes in their county of residence because of the limited number of group homes in the state. But financial considerations may be driving disparities in counties where group homes are located, according to Patrick Gardner, founder and president of Young Minds Advocacy Project.

“There are certain counties that have developed a certain capability for group homes and part of that is because it’s cheaper to operate in some places than others,” Gardner said. “Counties with a higher cost of living have a tendency to place kids in less expensive places.”

Counties also might have to send youth away because of a lack of foster family homes.

“Sometimes [out-of-county foster family homes] are chosen just because there are not enough families in county,” Katherine Mason said. “You just don’t have a choice.”

About Out of County, CA

Over the next two weeks, The Imprint will present a series of stories about the experiences of out-of-county foster youth in California.

The county-run system that has emerged is riven with conflicting goals, pressures and incentives. Significant disparities have emerged between counties, with stark differences in the types and availabilities of services to children in care.

For California’s 12,626 out-of-county youth—1 in 5 of all children in the system— the journey across county lines is a frequent and largely unacknowledged experience in the state’s mammoth child-welfare system. 

As part of our Out of County, CA series, we examine several different placement types to better understand what the decision to send children out of county means—including both the costs and benefits—to a group that often travels hundreds of miles in search of safety, stability and permanency.

We know there are even more stories left to tell for a group that often escapes wider attention. If you’ve got a comment, idea or tip, please let us know. We look forward to your comments and perspective.

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