Tiffany Soto knew she would have to make some sacrifices when she took in in her 3-year-old nephew Elijah in 2010.
But Soto had little choice—if she didn’t take him in, foster care would.
Soto, who was 28 at the time, knew the system well. Growing up in Los Angeles, some of her family members had been involved in foster care.
But keeping her nephew out of foster care turned out to be a costly endeavor. Like many relative caregivers, Soto received roughly $360 per month in CalWORKs benefits as opposed to the $820 that non-relative foster parents regularly receive. Cash-strapped and not eligible for federal foster care benefits, Soto struggled to pay for Elijah’s tuition, behavioral therapy, clothing and food on her modest salary.
“I had to make a lot of sacrifices,” she said. “Everything I was doing to take care of myself—my gym membership, paying off my student loans, whatever it was—everything had to go on hold.”
In addition to tapping out her resources, the decision to care for her nephew cost her a job as a college admissions counselor. Instead of just dealing with work, Soto was focused on Elijah. She spent many of her days darting across Los Angeles to take Elijah to therapy appointments or to the California Department of Social Services, where it took several visits and more than four months to receive CalWORKs benefits.
For thousands of other relative caregivers in Los Angeles County, Soto’s struggles are an alarmingly familiar tale. But help may be on the way.
Los Angeles County is eligible to access a substantial pot of new funding set aside to provide equal funding for foster children placed with family members.
In June, California Governor Jerry Brown earmarked $30 million in the state budget to provide family caregivers the same level of funding that other, nonrelative caregivers currently receive. The Relative Caregiver Funding Option Program is available to all counties, but in order to qualify for the new money in 2015, counties must opt-in by October 1.
With the highest number of foster children in the state, Los Angeles County could see as much as $25 million in state funds go to family caregivers, according to advocates with the California Step Up coalition. They say the county’s participation in the Relative Caregiver Funding Option Program would lead to greater placement stability, better outcomes for foster children and significant cost savings to the county by avoiding more expensive placement alternatives such as group homes.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer from where we sit,” said Laura Streimer, the legal director at the Alliance for Children’s Rights. “Why not roll the dice and use it now? The majority of the $30 million allocation state budget would come to L.A. County because we have the most children who qualify for it. Why wouldn’t you take that?”
The county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is weighing whether or not to opt in. According to a statement emailed to The Imprint by DCFS Public Affairs Director Armand Montiel, Los Angeles County will “resolve the issue” by October 1.
“The Department supports equity for relative caregivers and is preparing a recommendation for our Board regarding this program,” Montiel wrote in an email. “At this point, the State has not finalized the methodology it will use to determine each county’s base caseload and funding level. Understanding the State’s methodology for determining the base caseload and funding is essential in making accurate projections regarding the potential county costs of this program for the first year and for outlying years.”
The clock is ticking.
In April, a report from the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection identified equal support for relative caregivers in Los Angeles County as one of most pressing issues facing the county’s child welfare system. A quarterly checkup report issued by Fostering Media Connections in August on progress made toward implementing the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations found little had been done to address the needs of relative caregivers, despite an easy opportunity to access money made available by the new relative caregiver funding program.
At a late August meeting of the transition team charged with seeing through the Blue Ribbon Commission’s reforms, focus turned to benefits of placements with relative caregivers.
“It’s costing the county approximately $100,000 per year per youth in group homes,” Streimer of the Alliance said at the meeting. “If L.A. County opts into this new program, relatives will receive $9,800 a year approximately, which is more than they’ve ever been receiving. This would enable them to keep these young kin out of the group homes, and these placements would now be funded fully by the state allocation.”
Relative or kinship caregivers serve as a crucial linchpin of support in Los Angeles: nearly 43 percent of all foster youth live with relatives, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project.
Despite recent research that shows that living situations with family members translate to better educational outcomes for foster youth than congregate-care placements like group homes, most relative caregivers receive a paucity of funding that lags behind the support given to unrelated caregivers.
Because of arcane eligibility rules based on the poverty standard from 1996, more than half of all foster children living with relatives do not qualify for federal foster care benefits. For relative caregivers who aren’t eligible for federal money, this means that the only support California offers them are CalWORKs benefits. This ends up being less than half the amount of money non-relative caregivers typically get from the foster care system.
The yawning gap in funding and support has hit family caregivers particularly hard, according to advocates. The scant funding and support provided to family caregivers is seldom enough to care for children who often have specialized care needs that result from experiencing trauma or abuse.
California is “forcing families—primarily low income, single women, and a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos—into deep poverty to keep their families together,” Kinship in Action Director Joseph Devall wrote in an email to The Imprint. Kinship in Action supports the rights of family caregivers in South Los Angeles.
Grandparents have traditionally represented the largest number of family caregivers, but under current funding, they are also among the most vulnerable. Grandparents are often living on Social Security or retirement benefits, and taking in a family member can result in kinship caregivers falling in debt, taking out loans and possibly losing their housing, according to Streimer.
“When you’re living on a fixed income, you have to make really draconian choices,” Streimer said. “Am I going to pay this bill this month or am I going to feed these kids?”
For Soto and Elijah, things worked out. In 2013, Soto adopted the now 5-year-old Elijah. She says he wakes up happier these days, free from the bad dreams and the screams that would rouse her almost every night.
Jeremy Loudenback is a reporter for The Imprint.