Governor Jerry Brown of California signed a bill in 2015 to revamp the state’s long-neglected foster care system. One of its primary goals is to place as many young people as possible in adoring family homes in order to decrease the number of adolescents living in group homes, which studies has linked to a higher risk of arrest and dropping out of school.
An overwhelming conviction that reform was necessary was fueled by horrifying accounts of fatalities, abuse, violence, and neglect at some of these facilities, which were sometimes the last resort for California’s most problematic and vulnerable youngsters.
The purpose of the bill was to significantly increase the number of foster families while limiting placements in group homes to foster children who were found to require specialized mental health services that couldn’t be provided in other settings.
The below tweet confirms the news:
EDITORIAL: Time & again, CA dismantles problematic systems w/out building improved alternatives. The result is often worse— esp for those w/ the highest needs. We’ve seen it w/ the foster care system, & we’re about to see it w/ the juvenile justice system. https://t.co/hB8zR7E9wY
— Emily Hoeven (@emily_hoeven) July 1, 2023
To guarantee that children weren’t just being held in storage until they reached adulthood, group homes that serve these adolescents would be subject to stricter licensing and staffing requirements, forced to provide more comprehensive behavioral health care, and most stays would be limited to around six months.
Sadly, these measures largely did not result in better care for children with the most serious and complex needs.
The state of California failed to match its noble intentions with sound planning and sufficient funding, as it did with many other of the state’s attempts to deinstitutionalize — to divert as many people as possible from restrictive large-scale facilities like state mental hospitals, prisons, and congregate care and place them in more rehabilitative, home-like placements.
Even though the number of foster children in congregate care has decreased by approximately 60% as of March 2022, California didn’t see nearly as many new foster families as it had anticipated. In addition, many group homes for foster children had to close because they couldn’t meet the new licensing standards to qualify as “short-term residential therapeutic programs.”
The California Alliance of Child and Family Services estimates that as a result of the reforms and new federal funding constraints that took effect in January, the state lost thousands of licensed beds. According to a May coalition survey, more than 38% of these residential programs are currently thinking about scaling back or ceasing operations due to lower-than-promised state funding rates and acute staffing shortages.
A 2020 joint investigation by The Chronicle and the Imprint found that California illegally sent more than 1,240 foster children and young offenders with severe mental and behavioral health conditions to out-of-state for-profit facilities, where many of them suffered violence, abuse, and maltreatment. California no longer permits the export of minors.
California, however, has not replaced any lost beds. As a result, many of the most vulnerable children are left without a place to live, which forces desperate counties to temporarily shelter them in unregulated facilities like former jails, offices, and hotels.
These locations may have worse conditions than group homes. The county of Sacramento was required to stop putting foster children in cells at a former juvenile jail facility in May after receiving a directive from the state’s social services department. Foster children with special needs were put at an office facility in Fresno County, where some of them slept on floors and tables and peed in water bottles.
Trent Rhorer, executive director of the San Francisco Human Services Agency, told the Editorial Board that “what the state had planned on paper didn’t work.” He insisted that California’s decision to do away with group homes “is the proper direction to go. Perhaps the accelerator was applied too quickly and harshly.
The state ought to have learnt this lesson earlier. For instance, when California closed several of its mental facilities in the 1950s and 1960s, it didn’t develop better substitutes. The only places left for many persons with serious mental illnesses were the streets, jails, and prisons.
California’s juvenile justice system now runs the risk of making the same error.
The state shut down its Department of Juvenile Justice on Friday, citing historically low rates of teenage crime and the advantages of rehabilitating criminals locally. Youth offenders with the most severe mental health problems and those with convictions for major offenses including murder, assault, and rape are now the responsibility of county probation agencies.
The state’s juvenile detention program was characterized by abuse, brutality, and neglect. The county-based system, which will receive approximately $200 million yearly to deal with the surge of high-needs youngsters, is expected to be an improvement, but there are already signs that it may not be.
The Chief Probation Officers of California Association warned Gov. Gavin Newsom in a letter in January that counties lack the necessary resources to serve twice as many youth and young adults, many of whom have the most complex needs and highest risk factors.
In the letter, it was stated that many counties lack the funding necessary to provide specialized services for female kids, young adults with adult convictions, sex offenders, young people with major behavioral health issues, and young adults.
California’s Office of adolescents and Community Restoration is led by retired judge Katherine Lucero, who stated in a statement that the office is assisting “each county to adopt a unique approach that prioritizes the well-being of youth” and that “with continued support, counties are up for the challenge.”
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However, several counties are still debating where to house juvenile offenders found guilty of major offenses. The long-postponed closure of San Francisco’s juvenile hall may be complicated by the state shutdown. Los Angeles County is in a similar situation since state authorities just gave it the go-ahead to close two troublesome juvenile halls, one of which was the scene of an 18-year-old’s suspected overdose last month.
The demand on California’s short-term residential therapy programs, which serve both foster youngsters and those referred by probation departments, would probably increase as a result of these closures.
We clearly anticipate that some of these children will be taken in by the child welfare system, said Rhorer. “Our worry is that these will be the children who really require that top-notch, rigorous treatment. Furthermore, we lack it.
The Editorial Board was pointed to a long list of unprecedented state investments in programs that aim to close gaps in the foster care system, including for children with the most complex needs, and to develop behavioral health infrastructure by the California Department of Social Services, which declined to make Director Kim Johnson available for an on-the-record interview.
Even while they claim more has to be done, advocates are cautiously enthusiastic about these initiatives. As County Welfare Directors Association of California executive director Cathy Senderling-McDonald put it, the state’s effort to “make all the change all at once” is the basic issue that these band-aid measures fail to address.
We’ve been in this situation before, and we know what happened. It is unacceptable for California to repeat this error at the expense of its most vulnerable children.
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