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Foster Care Gets an Overhaul

  • June 9, 2011

A risky plan to turn around Alameda County's foster-care system is paying dividends, reducing the number of kids in the program while providing more help to older teens as they make the transition to adulthood.

On the heels of hiring about 50 social workers and opening a new community center last month, Alameda is preparing a job-placement program for some of its foster-care kids who have become too old for the system. The new program is part of an expansion that began in 2007 when the county started to overhaul the operation by questioning established ways foster care operates.

"We had to figure out a way to improve the lives of some of our neediest children and some of those improvements required that we make some bets," said Susan Muranishi, Alameda County administrator.

For years, local foster-care systems received money from California and the federal government based on the number of children served and faced rigid guidelines on how the funds were spent. But in 2004, the state applied for a federal program that gave flexibility to local systems to spend on programs they deemed could lower the number of kids in the system and improve care. The catch: annual funding would be fixed, no matter how many children were served.

California offered 20 counties the opportunity to sign up, but only Alameda and Los Angeles County agreed to the new funding system. The result in Alameda has been dramatic: Case loads fell from nearly 5,000 foster-care children in 2007, with social workers juggling some 50 cases each, to about 1,500 children currently, with social workers handling some 15 cases. (Los Angeles County saw its case load drop from about 25,000 children in 2007 to about 18,000 today.)

Since joining the program in 2007, Alameda receives an annual fixed allotment of nearly $137 million from federal and state agencies.

The number of children Alameda places in group homes has fallen by some 40% to 141. Driving the decline was a push to bring secondary family members, such as an older cousin or aunt, into the process when a child is close to being removed from a family home. These relatives widen the list of potential caretakers, keeping more kids out of foster care.

The department also created partnerships of county agencies and local community groups to offer social and health services. The partnerships give troubled households services that can reduce the need to remove a child from home.

"Alameda was able to improve its circumstance during a very worrisome time for most Bay Area child welfare providers," said Jill Berrick, a professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.

While the improvement in Alameda was substantial, Ms. Berrick notes that Alameda's foster-care system was in worse shape than those in surrounding communities. Agencies in other Bay Area counties had policies in place that kept their systems from swelling to the size of Alameda's, Ms. Berrick says, and as a result didn't have as great a need for an overhaul.

The shift in Alameda mirrors efforts around the U.S. to address the needs of those in foster care, especially for teens transitioning out of the system at age 18 with little or no support. Federal legislation signed into law in 2008 bolstered funding for foster programs. Two years later, California became one of a handful of states to pass a law allowing foster-care youth to stay in the system until age 21.

Already Alameda has created a job-placement program for young people in the foster system between the ages of 18 and 21. The program will place about 30 participants in part-time jobs with county agencies starting in July. The program is an extension of a small-business initiative launched in 2009 that pairs foster children with three county-owned cafés to learn accounting, food preparation and management skills.

Monique Johnson, along with her four siblings, had been in and out of the Alameda foster system since 1999. Ms. Johnson, 20, says before some of the new programs were offered there had been so many kids in the system that counseling services "were a joke" and support services were nonexistent.

In March, Ms. Johnson joined a county program that extends services to youth who have aged out of the system. She has received housing assistance and began working as a manager at one of the county's Fresh Start Cafés.

"I wasn't a bad kid, I just didn't have anyone to talk to or any support," said Ms. Johnson about challenges she faced in the foster-care system.

Alameda began improving its foster-care system after it failed regulation compliance audits—California's requirement for running a child welfare system—15 years in a row. In late 2000, Alameda's Department of Social Services hired Chet Hewitt, a social-services expert with the Rockefeller Foundation, to address the ailments.

Mr. Hewitt said he noticed that kids on average stayed in the system for nearly 10 years. When youths aged out, many turned to crime or ended up homeless, he said.

"We had lots of storage capacity to warehouse the kids for long periods of time and no proper exit," said Mr. Hewitt, who left the foster-care agency job in 2007. He experimented with strategies to relieve the case load, such as including secondary family members in decision-making.

Alameda's moves faced significant opposition. Some policy experts worried the shift would threaten entitlements for the neediest. But now, many of the groups that fought the efforts are beginning to adopt some of the same policies, said Terry Jones, a professor of social work at California State University, East Bay.

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