In earlier posts, I reviewed the basics of California’s realignment and discussed the new reality for advocates. I argue that the advocacy energy that child welfare stakeholders previously focused on the state legislature is now appropriately directed at local systems: county departments and elected officials.
In his pitch for realignment, Gov. Jerry Brown insisted that local options and opportunities are necessary in a state as complex as California. Localities, he argued, should be able to tailor programs to local needs.
In an environment of scarcity, this seemed like a bad joke: rather than “tailoring” programs, counties would be empowered to trim them. As I discussed last time, all that changed with Prop 30 and the economic recovery. Now counties are seeing revenue growth and are coming to understand the scope of their new choices. It’s time, then, to definitively re-frame our conversations about realignment, and start talking about the opportunities it presents to improve the safety net for children, youth, and families.
In my last piece, I mentioned the example of Alameda County’s decision to increase funding in Adult Protective Services. Doing so is not required by the law, it doesn’t draw down a whole bunch of new federal dollars, but ask any advocate for seniors in Alameda County, and they’ll tell you that it is right for our community.
Here are some other innovative ways counties could invest realignment revenue growth to address persistent needs in their communities:
Expand THP-Plus housing for former foster youth: California’s Assembly Bill 12 has given 18- to 21-year-old foster youth the right not to be homeless, but we still need THP-Plus, which provides housing for former foster youth up to age 24, and likely we need even more of it than before.
Thousands of former foster and probation youth around the state turned 18 before AB12 went into effect, and many of them are homeless or unstably housed. Also, in 2014, the first cohort of youth who DID have access to AB12 will turn 21 and thus “age out.” Housing continues to be a primary concern among these youth, their attorneys, and social workers.
Even at the peak of its funding, many THP-Plus programs had extensive wait lists. As THP-Plus is available to youth to age 24, in areas with high populations of former foster youth (or where high rental costs contribute to housing instability and homelessness) counties can invest realignment growth to expand THP-Plus contracts and increase capacity to alleviate homelessness among youth who missed out on AB12 or who still struggle with housing at age 21.
Equitably fund relative placements: Considering that all foster care policy over the past 20 years has prioritized family connections and placements with kin, it’s a stark irony that California inequitably compensates relative caregivers. As noted in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Janis Spire of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, as a result of California’s refusal to pay state-only foster care benefits to relatives, a relative foster parent who takes in a child that doesn’t qualify for federal foster care benefits receives just $351 per month to provide for their care. An unrelated foster parent receives $820 per month to care for that same child.
California is one of only two states that refuses to provide state foster care funding to relatives caring for a foster child, and the state could absolutely commit its own general fund dollars to redress the impact to families of this contradiction between stated priority and fiscal incentive, but so far has failed to do so. There is no reason, however, why a county couldn’t choose to invest realignment revenue growth to pay its relative placements the basic rate.
Provide increased support to parenting youth: The design and passage of AB12 was informed by research that documented the multiple challenges facing foster youth during early adulthood. Among these challenges is a very high rate of pregnancy and childbirth among young women. Recent research underscores the need for robust support for parenting teen foster youth.
Counties can invest realignment growth to increase reproductive health education or planning efforts, or to increase the availability of affordable child care to ensure that parenting youth are able to participate in education and employment. Several counties, including Alameda, have developed child care options for parenting minors using other funding streams. These models could be replicated and/or expanded.
These are just three of the many ways that counties can take advantage of the opportunity provided by realignment. They could also choose to provide additional services to families before or after they become involved with foster care; that is, more child abuse prevention and more post-reunification services. They could choose to create flexible funding pools to empower child welfare workers to solve immediate cash flow problems or material needs for youth and families. They could enhance coordination among county offices of education, local school districts, and child welfare to support youths’ educational progress and attainment, or create wage subsidy programs to encourage employers to hire current and former foster youth.
The point is, the flexibility and growth provided by realignment truly empowers counties to innovate and invest to improve outcomes.
Advocates have a stake in how counties decide to utilize flexibility and invest growth, and they need to have a say in those decisions. Only by organizing and advocating locally, with county departments, boards, and community groups, can they hope to do so effectively.
Reed Connell is the executive director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance
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