With California still officially entering a recession Monday and coronavirus infections continuing to multiply, the state Legislature released a budget that would restore more than $90 million in previously proposed cuts to child welfare services, setting up a showdown between lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom over the depth of the safety net.
Last month, the Democratic governor offered his version of the state budget, which included painful cuts to the foster care system to address a $54 billion budget hole. With the state unsure if coronavirus-related federal help is on its way in an economy ravaged by illness and pandemic-related shutdowns, Newsom announced that funding for county-run child protective services agencies would be a necessary part of the austerity plan.
Newsom’s May budget also proposed cuts to spending on supportive housing for transition-age foster youth, social workers employed by foster family agencies, the dependency courts and residential treatment providers serving foster youth, among others.
Last week, the state Assembly and Senate announced a budget plan that would reverse those cuts. Like Gov. Newsom’s proposal, the Legislature’s budget mixes spending reductions with some anticipated federal funds. But instead of slashing funding to schools, health care and human services, the Legislature’s budget proposal – which must ultimately meet the governor’s approval – dips deeper into state reserves.
“Protecting child welfare programs, including those that help keep our youth housed, will better ensure the health and well-being of our state’s most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chair Phil Ting (D) in a statement to The Imprint.
The budget from the Assembly and Senate also assumes that help is coming from Washington, D.C. But instead of setting the deadline for July 1, like the governor’s proposal, legislators are hoping that help will arrive by October.
Legislative leaders and Newsom must hammer out a solution before a June 15 deadline, though many expect a deal to happen by the end of the week.
If the governor’s plan prevails, County Welfare Directors Association Executive Director Frank Mecca said that county-run agencies will bear the brunt of child welfare cuts at a time when foster youth and the families that care for them are struggling as never before, as a result of the pandemic. More than 4 million Californians have filed for unemployment, according to Newsom, with many residents also struggling to receive government benefits.
Mecca said that child welfare is “uniquely exposed” during crises. While some funding comes from federal entitlements, state funding that is dispersed to the county level helps manage everything from emergency investigations of child abuse to caseworkers who help families reunify and assist young people transitioning out of foster care.
Should the governor’s proposed cuts go through, “you’re going to see investigations that fall through the cracks because caseloads are too high,” Mecca said. “You’re going to see older transition-age foster youth drift by themselves when they need the close contact and support of a social worker.”
As the state weighs a possible reduction in the current level of child welfare services during the COVID-19 pandemic, it must also contend with a potential rise in already troubling rates of homelessness among foster youth. The influential San Francisco-based John Burton Advocates for Youth has its own budget proposal; the nonprofit advocacy group is calling on the state to invest $4 million in general fund dollars to better support the state’s transitional housing program for older foster youth ages 18 to 21.
Newsom nixed the idea in his May budget, but the Legislature has included the spending plan, designed to protect older foster youth from further homelessness.
As California real estate prices have soared, transitional housing programs for young adults in extended foster care — ages 18 to 21 — have struggled to keep up with rising rents. As a result, less money is now spent on supportive services, such as money management and counseling that can help youth prepare for life after care.
According to John Burton Advocates for Youth, nonprofit housing providers serving young people in extended foster care have weathered housing costs that have shot up by more than 60% since 2012 – and the public agencies that fund them have not been able to maintain rate increases to match those prices. As a result, large counties like Los Angeles have had difficulty creating and maintaining enough housing stock with the right types of supports for the hundreds of young people who grew up in the foster care system.
If the state opts to invest $4 million in the transitional housing program for nonminor dependents, it would draw down $2.4 million more in federal Title IV-E foster care funding.
A survey of transitional housing providers in April found that waiting lists have grown by 40% in recent months as youth have scrambled to find safe places to live during the pandemic and its resulting economic upheaval. Almost half of those who are now being served have arrived after becoming homeless since coronavirus struck the state in mid-March.
As of Jan. 1, 2,097 young adults lived in these transition-age housing programs, which can be single units spread throughout a county, or apartments in a complex where all residents are in foster care. African American foster youth, youth who have had frequent placement changes and youth with medical conditions that require special care, are more likely to reside in the programs.
Emmerald Evans, a 22-year-old former foster youth from Sacramento, has shared many struggles with her peers in these settings, even in the best of economic circumstances. One of her foster sisters has spent the last year couch-surfing, struggling to find stability with a young child, after exiting a housing program at age 21.
Evans, a San Francisco State University student who aims to become a dependency lawyer, said she lived in 10 different foster homes after entering care at age 5. After seeing her mother battle homelessness, her biggest fear growing up was always ending up with no place to live.
“I was never afraid of going to jail or being killed,” she said. “It was always not having enough means to support myself. With foster care, homelessness is always a possibility.”
Evans counts herself fortunate that her social worker helped her prepare for aging out of care and focus on her reaching her educational goals. Though she lived in a foster home from ages 18 to 21, she said she received resources and tips that have helped her weather the pandemic, like learning how to budget her money.
But most foster youth were unprepared for the COVID-19 outbreak, she said. Few know what type of food to buy during a prolonged stay-at-home order, or how to set aside money from stimulus checks. Success after care, she said, is more dependent on how foster youth learn life skills and develop healthy personal and financial habits.
“Just getting money is not enough,” Evans said.
Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint and can be reached at [email protected].