Amid State Foster Care Reforms, Relatives in L.A. Still Face Obstacles

New reforms were designed to bring more relatives into California’s foster care system. Instead, they’ve actually made it much harder to keep a child in a home with family members as foster care providers.
resource family approval process slowed by delays

About 4,600 caregivers in Los Angeles County are tied up in the approval process, including many that have already taken in a foster child.

Mahoganie LaFranks initially welcomed the opportunity to bring 16-year-old foster youth Tiffany* into her Long Beach home this past year.

In September, LaFranks started the process to be formally licensed as a resource parent under California’s new approval process, a key part of child welfare reforms in California that started in January.

But LaFranks has yet to be approved, which means that at least $923 in monthly support to care for Tiffany isn’t coming in.

“I’m actively expecting my landlord to show up at any point in time and hand me a three-day notice and start the eviction process,” LaFranks said. “I love this kid, but I am completely petrified.”

She is one of 4,600 caregivers in Los Angeles County tied up in the Resource Family Approval (RFA) process, an effort to ensure better-quality foster homes for California’s foster youth. The process is a crucial part of the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), through which the state hopes to see more foster youth thrive in family-like settings and decrease its reliance on group homes.

Officials expected the RFA process to take three months. But data from Los Angeles County obtained by The Imprint shows thousands of families are facing months-long delays to become approved, and are often waiting for months before they are fully paid for taking care of an abused or neglected child.

That, advocates say, is placing hundreds of new foster care placements at risk of disruption, potentially thrusting many children deeper into the county’s foster care system and hampering the state’s reform efforts.

“We’re hearing about situations every day that are fairly dire,” said Susan Abrams, policy director at the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, which represents foster children in the county’s juvenile dependency courts. “We’ve seen placements fail, we’ve had caregivers say, ‘I can’t take care of these kids, I literally just don’t have the finances.’ One of the caregivers for our children, their uncle, said he was selling everything he could at a pawn shop to raise money to keep the kids with him.”

State child welfare officials said the California Department of Social Services is aware of the delays in Los Angeles County and elsewhere, but is committed to making the stricter approval process work.

“We’re aware of the challenges facing many counties,” said DSS spokesperson Michael Weston. “But you have to realize that the goal of the resource family model is getting an improved level of home and preparing families to better the needs of children and youth in foster care.”

The First Year of California’s Resource Family Approval Process

2017 is the first year of the RFA process, which for the first time in California establishes a uniform approval process and equal payments for all caregivers in the foster care system, including both foster parents and relative caregivers. Both are now referred to by the state as “resource families,” and are paid an equal amount of support.

But the new RFA process has wreaked havoc for many relative caregivers in Los Angeles County and across the state. Thanks to the new standards, all relative caregivers — such as grandparents or non-related kin like family friends — must pass through a much more stringent approval process than they once did before they are able to receive foster care payment from counties.

For now, the new RFA process only applies to families who have agreed to become caregivers for foster children since the start of the year. But since January, thousands of families in L.A. County are effectively stuck, waiting to get approved while their bills add up.

The lack of money from the county has strained the ability of many relatives to care for children who often show up at their door without much advance notice. It has also led to some children leaving placements with family members and moving to foster homes with strangers or to group homes, according to advocates.

L.A. County has hired more social workers in recent months in order to move caregivers through the approval process faster. It also provides a $400 monthly stipend for three months to caregivers who take in a foster child as part of an “emergency placement,” a situation where the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is trying to place that child in a home right after a removal.

But that is often not enough for many families struggling with the expenses of supporting a child. Abrams of Children’s Law Center said that delays in the approval process have led to some children leaving placements with family members and moving to foster homes or to group homes.

“We have some clients who are lingering in group homes or in foster homes when there is a relative or non-relative extended family member who is seeking placement who the child wants to be with,” Abrams said. “Because of the approval process, the child is not able to go there for months and months.”

Staying with Aunt Momo

A former L.A. County foster youth, Mahoganie LaFranks knew she could provide some stability and an empathetic ear to a troubled teen. After running away from home several times last year, Tiffany had been living on the street and is working her way through some mental health issues.

Tiffany has known LaFranks since age 7, though they are not related. Growing up, she called LaFranks “Aunt Momo.”

Tiffany has lived with LaFranks since January, but she only started the resource family approval process in late September. LaFranks still has not been approved and is not receiving county money for the teen, at least $923 a month, according to the most recent rates.

LaFranks said she is still waiting for the county to make one more mandated home visit, but she is worried that by the time she makes her way through the process, she may no longer have a home.

After finishing her graduate degree in conflict resolution this summer, LaFranks has been unable to find full-time work because she needs to be around for Tiffany. That means picking up Tiffany after school every day at 1:15 p.m. or staying home with her when LaFranks says she has “emotional days” and can’t be at school.

LaFranks is behind on her November rent and was only able to pay December’s by using a check she received from the insurance company when somebody hit her in a traffic collision.

The last of three $400 “emergency stipend” checks from the county is coming later this month, but after that, LaFranks is not sure how she will make rent with only a small salary from part-time work.

4,600 Resource Families Waiting

According to data obtained by The Imprint, Los Angeles County’s DCFS has had 6,756 applications to the RFA process from new caregivers in the county since January. About 9 percent of those applications, or 611, have been approved this year. Thirty-two of the referrals were denied and about 1,500 were withdrawn.

But 4,600 families are still “in process,” often because of the addition of new requirements for caregivers under RFA. Currently, 2,524 of those families waiting for approval are already providing care to foster children.

The state envisioned the RFA process would take 90 days, but that timeline is not being met in L.A. County. Of the 2,524 families, 1,052 have been waiting for approval for more than five months, while 539 families have been on hold for between three and five months and 933 have been waiting for three months or less.

According to the lengthy collection of rules that guide the process, relative caregivers must now undergo stricter home inspections, a psycho-social assessment and a battery of interviews for any adult in the household who might come in contact with the child as part of a permanency assessment. That is on top of at least 12 hours of training and other required tasks before a caregiver can be approved as a resource family, a new requirement for relatives to now receive foster care funding.

The new rules are causing delays for both the families and social workers, according to Nina Powell, the DCFS division chief who oversees the resource family process. Since the start of the year, the county has hired 11 community-based agencies at a cost of about $15 million a year to help relatives in the county get through the approval process.

“We have found some success with having relative home assessment service contractors helping to guide and support the families through the process, but we still have the reality of a lot of new mandates and having a learning curve for everybody,” Powell said.

A DCFS survey of barriers in the county’s RFA process found that the biggest reason caregivers are still waiting for approval is social workers’ failure to complete a new written report, though getting relatives through criminal background checks and scheduling interviews for caregivers also rank high.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has ordered DCFS to return to the board later this month with a report about how they could improve matters for relatives struggling to take care of foster children, warning that the “problem could be exacerbated without further funding to bridge the gap created by California’s new approval system.”

That could mean extending the $400 emergency stipend for longer than three months, or doing more to link eligible families to the state’s CalWORKs programs — California’s version of the federal Temporary Cash Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

A Key Part of California’s Child Welfare Reforms

Under CCR, California is striving to place fewer children in shelters and group home care, and more in family homes, including those of relatives.

Before the state reforms, California was like nearly all other states, where federal law dictates that foster care funding can start as soon as home, health and safety requirements are completed.

Now, with CCR, relatives and foster parents must both undergo a more involved approval process and hours of training while also caring for a child, an experience that may hamper other caregivers from taking in family members who have experienced the trauma of abuse, neglect and parental separation.

By the end of 2019, all caregivers — including those caring for foster children before the start of the year — must complete the RFA process. But since most relative caregivers were never formally approved in the state’s old foster parent licensing system, they must seek approval now to receive support.

“This is essentially a problem that we’ve imposed on ourselves,” said Angie Schwartz, policy program director for the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children’s Rights. “Withholding funding and having this long process they have to go through, it’s more like a stick than a carrot,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said the Alliance is working at the state level to figure out a way to pay relative caregivers much sooner.

DSS spokesperson Michael Weston said the state is closely monitoring the RFA process and is helping counties “smooth out” the implementation process. But he said that imposing more rigorous requirements on caregivers as part of CCR could have led to better outcomes for foster children.

Abrams and other advocates in the state are supportive of the aims of the reforms enshrined in CCR. But just a year into implementation, there is growing concern about its impact on relatives and extended family members.

“If we’ve created this new process and it’s resulting in an increase in failed placements, then we are failing in this reform effort,” Abrams said.

Supporting Tiffany at Home

Taking in a teen like Tiffany with special needs has been much more challenging than LaFranks first thought.

“She needs much more attention than I imagined originally,” LaFranks said. “It’s like pulling all the layers out. You don’t really know all the things going on in someone’s life until it’s right in front of your face.”

Despite some initial issues with setting appropriate boundaries, LaFranks is happy that the teen has adjusted so well in her home. Best of all, Tiffany has not run away again.

Getting support from the county has been frustrating. LaFranks said she has made four trips to the offices of DCFS and the California Department of Social Services to make sure she will be eligible for payments.

Months after the CCR initiative launched, some county workers were unaware that extended family members were able to receive money from the state as resource families. As her bills have mounted, no one has been able to tell her when she will finally be approved, either.

“It’s like being on a merry-go-round,” LaFranks said. “What are these systems here for if they’re not here to help?”

*“Tiffany’s” name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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