New Efforts to Provide a Stable Foster Care System for California Youth

Foster youth

Former foster youth, Kawanzza Byrd, is gaining culinary skills through a youth program called GROW Oakland. According to a national report , one in five foster care youth will become homeless after the age 18, and one in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of aging out of the child welfare system. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

There are more than 60,000 children in foster care in California. Serving their needs depends largely on finding foster parents who can provide them with stable housing and care.

In her teens, Jennifer Rodriguez bounced between  group homes, youth shelters and juvenile hall. Growing up, she says, her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic and her father was incarcerated. As a foster youth, Rodriguez says she was often described as manipulative. She would frequently run away, get into fights, and spend time in psychiatric hospitals.

These were her coping and surviving mechanisms, she now says. She  used them as a way of  dealing with life in the system. Now Rodriguez has a law degree and runs a nonprofit that works to improve foster care. The scrappy qualities that she used to survive as a foster youth are today valued in her profession as an advocate.

“That experience of never being parented and not growing up with a family had the greatest impact,” she says.

In her teens, Jennifer Rodriguez bounced between foster group homes, youth shelters and juvenile hall.
In her teens, Jennifer Rodriguez bounced between foster group homes, youth shelters and juvenile hall. (Courtesy of Jennifer Rodriguez)

Rodriguez never was allowed to live with a foster family because of her behavioral issues. Like many foster teens, she had to live in group homes.

“Fundamentally the thing that children need most in order to heal and to thrive is that relationship with an adult who loves them.”

Phasing Out Group Homes

In October, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law intended to scale back the use of group homes by the state’s foster care system. Instead of leaving foster youth to the care of the staff in a group home, Assembly Bill 403 (AB 403),  will place children more quickly into foster families.

Foster youth will stay at treatment centers for a maximum of six months and group homes will be officially be phased out around 2021. These treatment centers are designed to better fuse the services of the mental health and child welfare systems.

The new law goes into effect in January as part of a larger framework called the Continuum of Care Reform.

Sylvia Deport, who is deputy director of the Human Services Agency of San Francisco, says this is a big undertaking and will require recruiting, finding and securing families who are willing to provide an adequate level of care for foster youth.

“We want to make sure that kids transition out to be successful adults in our society,” she says.

Aging Out of Foster Care

According to a 2009 Report from the Urban Institute, one in five foster care youth will become homeless after the age 18, and one in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of aging out of the child welfare system. Those numbers prompted California to extend the age foster youth receive benefits to 21.

Twenty-year-old Noel Anaya has been in foster care since he was 4 years old.

“When I was 18, I realized, that I had [this year] plus a year to go. So after high school, [I] figured out a game plan, you know go to college.”

But sticking to a game plan is difficult he says. Foster youth often have to worry about things that might not even cross the mind of a privileged youth who is the same age.

“You go through a midlife crisis at the age of 18, 19, 20, because you’re like, ‘Oh my God is my credit good, is my housing stable, [are] my funds right?”

Choosing to Be a Foster Parent

There’s a lot of paperwork, home study and  licensing that goes into becoming a foster parent. But Sheri Justice-Cook says even though the job is challenging, it’s also fulfilling and important. Justice-Cook is currently fostering two children and a legal guardian of two other children.

“They need socialization skills. A lot of the children didn’t have limits and boundaries set upon them prior to entering into foster care. It’s not just difficult for the foster parents, it’s difficult for the kids. Just imagine being snatched out of your house and taken to a strange person’s house.”

She says being a foster parent is a two way street — it’s hard for both the parents and the kids.

“A lot of children have a hard time attaching with us because they feel disloyal to their parents, you know. You have strangers telling you what to do.”

She says it’s the foster parents’ job to assist the child and do the best they can to help the child go home or get adopted.

New Efforts to Provide a Stable Foster Care System for California Youth 4 January,2016Adizah Eghan

  • solodoctor

    I have worked with kids ‘in the system’ over the course of my 20 year career as a psychologist consulting with Juvenile Probation and Child Welfare Service. I can attest to the tragedy of so many of these kids becoming homeless and/or incarcersted when they transition to adulthood. The goal of providing more foster homes rather than group homes for these kids is a laudable one. The challenge will be in finding and SUSTAINING families who want to foster these kids. It is extremely challenging to do this over the course of a few years. Too many of these families are well intentioned but clearly not up to the challenge of doing it successfully. They will need lots more ongoing support, education, and occasional respite than they currently get. Can/will the system hire and support enough case workers/social workers so they can be available 24-7 to these families? The problems can arise at any and at all times of the day. The social workers have to be able to respond in a timely and effective way when a crisis occurs. If they can’t, then the system is setting these families and the foster kids up for failure.

  • nccpr

    This series included several important perspectives: There were current and former foster children, foster parents, representatives of private agencies, representatives of advocacy groups and representatives of state and local government.

    But one group was left out: birth parents who lost their children to foster care. As a result, you left out the issue that drives all the others: needless removal of children from their homes, often – and contrary to the common stereotype of such parents – when family poverty is confused with “neglect.”

    The problem with that kind of removal is not that it hurts parents, though of course it does. The problem is that it hurts children. Not
    only does it do terrible harm to the children needlessly removed, it also overloads the foster care system, leading to some of the very conditions explored in these programs, such as the overuse of group homes. And it steals time, money and effort from finding children in real danger who really do need to be taken from their homes. (That’s almost always the real reason for the horror story cases that, rightly, make headlines.)

    When birth parents are left out certain questions don’t get asked, such as: Why does San Francisco take away children at a rate well above
    the national and state averages, even when rates of child poverty are factored in? Why does Los Angeles County take away children at a rate far higher than New York City or Chicago?

    Until we answer questions like that – and deal with the issue of needless removal of children from their homes – all the other problems
    will remain intractable.

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform


Adizah Eghan

Adizah Eghan is a reporter at KQED News and a writer for KQED Arts. She caught the radio bug as an intern for PRI’s The World and landed in KQED’s newsroom after a stint teaching English in India. She covers culture, the arts, and global music in the Bay Area. This is where she tweets: @Adizah_E

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