California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature reached an agreement this week on a record $262 billion budget, using a tax-revenue windfall to seed several big child welfare investments.
The Democratic governor announced a $76 billion surplus in May as a result of the mushrooming income of California’s highest earners during the pandemic. That led to robust investments in funding to address the state’s homelesness crisis, stimulus checks for middle- and low-income residents and the creation of a universal transitional kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds in the state.
The budget deal passed this week provides even more notable investments for the state’s child welfare system, including millions of dollars in pandemic relief for attorneys, youth and providers.
Dependency lawyers — who represent parents and children in court — received a $40 million boost in funding over the next year to address an increase in costs that resulted from the closure of many courts and rising caseloads in counties like Los Angeles.
“The pandemic created even greater obstacles in access to justice for children and families who are already disenfranchised and then suffered through court delays, family separation, increased isolation and lack of access to services,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, a firm that represents children in three California counties. “The increased funding provided in the California budget is critically important to helping families involved with the child welfare system move forward and to ensuring that the advocates who support them have the tools we need to do our jobs to the best of our ability.”
After a challenging year during the state’s coronavirus-induced lockdown, caregivers of foster children in California — including relatives and foster parents — will be sent a $1,500 per-child stipend as a result of the new budget.
Providers of the state’s residential treatment centers, known as short-term residential therapeutic program facilities, received a one-time $42 million boost from the general fund to deal with costs incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. And county child welfare agencies will use $100 million over the next two years to increase the number of emergency response social workers, the personnel charged with investigating abuse or neglect.
The academic needs of foster youth were given a boost by towering investments in the state’s schools. Nearly $28 million will go to county offices of education to provide assistance to foster youth, who often struggled with virtual learning school during the pandemic. California will also provide an additional $1.1 billion in funding to schools with a large amount of low-income, English-learner and foster youth students under the state’s Local Control Funding Formula concentration grant. That includes money for after-school and summer school enrichment programming for low-income students who have experienced significant learning loss during the pandemic.
The budget package, which is expected to be finalized over the coming week, also provides a robust investment in prevention services ahead of the state’s adoption of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which will open up new services aimed at averting some families from entering the foster care system.
Over the next five years, California’s child welfare agencies will receive $224 million from the state to implement mental health, substance abuse, in-home parenting skills and kinship navigator services, as well as some tangible supports for families to reduce the need for their involvement in the child welfare system.
“While the budget does not include an ongoing funding commitment, the investment is a critically important step toward building a new way of engaging with and helping strengthen families and communities,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California. “This is especially true for children and families of color and our children and youth who identify as LGBTQ+, for whom involvement in the foster care system has too often been the first resort rather than the last, and for whom that interaction hasn’t always produced the best outcomes.
Other notable child welfare investments included the following:
After an investigation into abusive practices at out-of-state residential treatment facilities that serve children involved with the foster care and juvenile justice systems, the budget deal includes $139.2 million to create a pilot project that would help place these young people closer to home in more therapeutic settings. A related legislative bill would also place a moratorium on sending these children to any out-of-state facility.
After Newsom decided to shut down the state’s youth prison system last year, his administration and legislators grappled over the size and scope of an office to oversee and administer the reform. Under the terms of the budget agreement, the new Office of Youth and Community Restoration will receive $27.6 million in start-up funding, a far larger investment than what Newsom had previously allocated.
California will set aside $20 million a year to provide current and former foster youth with additional, ongoing Cal Grant awards, the state’s primary source of financial aid to college students. The Foster Youth Cal Grant Access Award would provide young people with up to $6,000 for non-tuition expenses like food and housing.
After he campaigned on early education issues three years ago, Newsom announced that he would increase the number of subsidized short-term child care slots by 200,000 over the next four years. This will increase access for caregivers of foster youth who are eligible for child care under a state program when they take in the child.