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The Forgotten Mothers of Mother’s Day

May 14, 2013

By Amy Lemley

Last Sunday, there was a group of mothers who weren’t treated to a fancy brunch buffet, or even breakfast in bed. Instead, they struggled to care for their children, against all odds.  These are young mothers in our foster care system.

One such young mother is named Sara*. Sara was raised by her mentally ill grandmother, who emotionally and physically abused her. When her grandmother died, Sara’s life became even worse and she entered into a period of homelessness for the next two years. To numb her pain and fear, Sara turned to drugs and alcohol.

Finally, the foster care system stepped in at age 14. Soon after, Sara became pregnant and at age 15 gave birth to her son.

Now 18 years-old, Sara is a wonderful young woman, who wants a better life for herself and her child. Unfortunately, the odds are not in her favor. Like other young parents in foster care, she is less likely to complete high school and dramatically more likely to raise her child in poverty than a non-foster youth of the same age. Worst of all, her child is five times more likely to be removed from her custody and enter the foster care system, thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle of foster care.

Sobering statistics such as these motivated California State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) to author Senate Bill 528, which would end California’s era of neglect towards young parents in foster care and replace it a practical approach that reduces unintended pregnancy and prevents child abuse, all while drawing down new federal funding.

SB 528 would provide age-appropriate reproductive health education to reduce the alarming rate of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among youth in foster care. When a youth becomes pregnant, it would require the child welfare system to refer them to existing resources, such as the federally-funded Nurse Family Partnership. Finally, it would prevent youth from dropping out of high school by ensuring they have access to affordable child care.

California isn’t alone in waking up to the reality of vulnerable young parents like Sara. For the first time ever, President Obama included $12 million in funding for pregnancy prevention among youth in foster care in his proposed FY 2014 budget, funds that California can use to implement SB 528.

SB 528 has made its way through the Senate’s policy committees with overwhelming support, from both Democrats and Republicans. Now, however, comes the hard part, as it is heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will evaluate whether or not the proposal is worth its price tag.

We know how much it will cost to do nothing. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, California will spend $25 million annually on the young parents currently in foster care. These costs include increased Medi-Cal costs, child welfare costs, incarceration and lost revenue due to lower taxes paid by the children of teen mothers over their own adult lifetimes as a result of lower education and earnings.

What is not included in that hefty price tag, however, is the lingering effect of abuse and neglect suffered by generations of children to come.

Next Mother’s Day, as we honor all that our own mothers have done for us, let’s not forget the young mothers in foster care, such as Sara, who together with their children have lived in the shadows long enough.

*Name has been changed

Obama Budget Raises Issue of Outdated Federal Foster Care Eligibity Criteria

April 23, 2013

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

Lately, the issue of changing how the federal government determines whether or not a child is eligible for foster care keeps surfacing. First, in March, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report detailing 14 proposals that would address income eligibility requirements for federal foster care reimbursement. As those aware of the issue are aware, for a child to be federally eligible for foster care, he or she must have been removed from a home that meets the 1996 income eligibility standard for the now defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which has not been adjusted for inflation. In the 17 years that have passed since 1996, fewer and fewer children have been determined to be eligible for federal foster care, leaving states and counties bearing an increasing share of the cost.

Then, earlier this month, this reality was acknowledged in President Barack Obama’s budget for Fiscal Year 2014, released last week. “The Title IV-E caseload decline can be attributed to several factors, including a reduction in the overall foster care population, increased adoptions and notable fixed-income eligibility guidelines…. Fewer and fewer families meet these static income standards over time, thereby reducing the number of children who are eligible for Title IV-E foster care maintenance payments.” (page 308)

The budget summary reports that nationally, Title IV-E eligibility has dropped from 51.8 percent of all children in foster care in 2000 to 44 percent in 2012. California’s federal eligibility has followed a similar trajectory, falling from 52.72 percent of cases in July 2001 to 44.06 percent of cases as of June 2011.

The question considered in the GAO report is whether or not a means test should be used as a basis for federal foster care eligibility. Of the 14 proposals reviewed in the report, 12 propose to entirely eliminate a means test, making all children in the United States who are otherwise eligible for foster care eligible for federal funding. Two of the proposals recommend an alternative means test, which would update the 1996 income eligibility criteria.

The issue is particularly pressing here in California, with the implementation of 2011 Realignment, which placed the full non-federal share of cost of foster care onto the 58 counties. Previous to the 2011 Realignment, the cost of providing foster care for non-federally eligible youth was shared between the counties, at a rate of 60 percent counties and 40 percent state.

The issue has important implications for the health and well-being of California’s CalWORKs program as well. As fewer children are determined to be ineligible for federal foster care, those youth placed with a relative will utilize CalWORKs, which is what our state provides to non-federally eligible youth living with relatives. However, unlike federal foster care, CalWORKs is not an open-ended entitlement, but rather a block grant whose funding has remained essentially flat since 1996. Therefore, the shrinking rate of federal eligibility for foster care is impacting our ever growing population of low-income families who are seeing scarce CalWORKs funds diverted.

The John Burton Foundation and the Alliance for Children’s Rights have drafted a letter to the California Congressional Delegation urging them to take action on the Foster Care Income Eligibility Guidelines. If your organization would like to join the letter, please contact Amy Lemley by April 30th.

 

Moving Parenting Foster Youth Out of the Shadows

March 25, 2013

To learn more about SB 528 and how you can join the effort to make this change, attend a web seminar on Wednesday, April 4th from 10:00 to 11:30. If you are not available, contact Amy Lemley at the John Burton Foundation. 

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

Like many in child welfare, I began my career as a residential counselor in a group home. Although only 22 years old, I was somehow charged with addressing the employment, education, health and child care needs for 13 pregnant and parenting teens and their children. Over the course of four years, I saw these young women struggle. Despite their deep love for their children and a desire to provide a better future, most of the young women I knew did not escape the throes of poverty. Even worse, many of them lost custody of their children to the foster care system.

I wish things had radically changed for parenting foster youth since then, but unfortunately they haven’t. Parenting foster youth fall into the double cross-hairs of foster care and teen parenthood. Educationally, they fall far behind their peers, with a rate of high school graduation 13% lower than non-parenting foster youth and 25% lower than their non-foster youth peers. As young, often single parents, two out of three will live at, or below the poverty line in adulthood. Most troubling, children of parenting foster youth are a full five times more likely to be maltreated and placed into foster care themselves.

That’s why Senate Bill 528, authored by California State Senator Leland Yee, is so important. It puts into place four common-sense measures that will improve the outcomes for parenting youth in foster care in California.

First, it will ensure all foster youth have access to sexual development and reproductive health information starting at age 12. Without the involvement of parents, responsibility for providing this information often falls through the cracks. This was the conclusion of a 2009 survey that found only a third of California child welfare workers discussed these issues with half or more of the youth on their caseload. The same study found that Independent Livings Skills Programs do not address this topic consistently.

The effect of this lack of health education is a baby boom. Teen girls in foster care are 2.5 times more likely to become pregnant by age 19 than those not in foster care. By age 21, a full 50 percent of foster youth will have given birth to at least one child, a rate more than double the same-age population.

Second, Senator Yee’s legislation puts into place a voluntary, specialized case conference, where the pregnant youth, together with their social worker, extended family member and others knowledgeable in the area of maternal and child health, develop a plan for the birth of the child and related issues, such as how the birth of the child will affect the youth’s foster care placement.

A key element of this plan is ensuring timely referrals to prenatal care, which currently does not occur. Only 1 in 5 California child welfare workers thought it was their responsibility to refer a pregnant youth for prenatal care. Diffuse responsibility results in delayed prenatal care, as was the conclusion in a study in Illinois, which found that 22 percent youth did not receive any prenatal care during their first six months of pregnancy.

Los Angeles County has conducted these conferences for five years with positive results. Although voluntary, an estimated 95% of expectant parents elect to participate. In addition to developing a plan for the upcoming birth, the conference also covers how to prevent subsequent pregnancies. A full thirty percent of parenting youth in foster care will experience a subsequent pregnancy while in foster care, decreasing their odds of graduating from high school by 45 percent and increasing the odds of having a child placed into foster care by 54 percent.

Third, SB 528 will add parenting foster youth to a list of individuals who receive priority for subsidized child care. This is urgently needed. According to data from the State of California, in 2012, just 4 percent of custodial mothers who exited foster care had either applied or received subsidized child care when they were discharged from foster care. This lack of access is keeping young parents out of school, out of jobs and without the access to opportunity they need to become economically stable.

Finally, SB 528 will require the State of California to track the number of parenting youth and their children. Currently, we cannot answer the most basic questions, such as how many parenting youth are in foster care or how many of their children have been removed and placed into foster care. This information is vital if we are to understand how to target limited resources to prevent unintended pregnancies, support young parents and prevent maltreatment of the children of parenting foster youth.

Together, SB 528 will support parenting foster youth to become successful parents, where they can provide the love, economic stability and nurturance that all children need. California’s current practice of a providing a financial supplement to the foster care rate paid to the placement of a parenting youth is a good one, but it doesn’t go far enough. With SB 528, we can move parenting youth out of the shadows of foster care, where they, and their children, have lived for too long.

To learn more about SB 528 and how you can join the effort to make this change, attend a web seminar on Wednesday, April 4th from 10:00 to 11:30. If you are not available, contact Amy Lemley at the John Burton Foundation. 

There is Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Increasing California’s Food Stamp Participation Rate

March 18, 2013

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

At a California Senate Human Services Committee hearing held last Tuesday in Sacramento, the latest data were presented on the effect of growing up in poverty. According to researchers from the University of California at Davis, children who grow up in poverty have poorer academic performance, have poorer physical health, poorer mental health, and lower IQ than children from families with higher socioeconomic status. The cause of this is the chronic stress experienced by children who grown up in poverty actually alters their neurobiology.

That is bad news for California, which, according to the US Census Bureau Supplemental Poverty Measure, is the state with the highest level of poverty in America. A full 23.4 percent of Californians live below the poverty line. For a family of three, that means living on an income of $18,300 annually.

What can we do about it? A good first step is taking advantage of underutilized resources, namely the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. This federally funded program provides low-income individuals with an average of $150 per individual and $335 per household each month to purchase food. For a family of three living at the poverty level, this level of support would boost their monthly household income by 22 percent.

Despite the tremendous assistance food stamps can provide, evidence was presented at the hearing that food stamps remain underutilized. According to USDA data, California has the lowest food stamp participation rate in the country: just 55% of eligible persons receive food stamp benefits. California’s performance is even worse when it comes to ensuring the working poor receive access to food stamps. Again, California ranks dead last in the nation, with just 42% of eligible working poor receiving benefits. This is money literally sitting there for poor families—all California Counties need to get that money into the hands of these parents and their children.

Moving Beyond Flexibility to Adequate Funding

February 12, 2013

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

In January, the United States Government Accountability Office released, Child Welfare: States Use Flexible Federal Funds, but Struggle to Meet Service Needs, a report documenting the inadequacy of funding for services that prevent children from being placed in out-of-home care. The report documents both how our government underfunds prevention, and how states across the country are diverting funds from other poverty programs to make up the shortfall.

The main source of federal child welfare funding to prevent the removal of a child is provided under Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, commonly referred to as Title IV-B funding. The report examine show four states (Virginia, Minnesota, New Mexico and Florid) consistently supplement Title IV-B funds with other federal funding not designated for child welfare. According to the report, a full 31 states use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding for child welfare purposes that should be covered by Title IV-B, totaling $1.5 billion annually. The Social Services Block Grant program is used even more frequently, with 44 states spending SSBG funding on categories covered by Title IV-B. Medicaid is also an important supplement to Title IV-B, although the exact level of federal Medicaid reimbursement claimed by child welfare agencies is unknown.

Despite drawing funds from these other programs, the needs of families remain woefully unmet. According to the report, a full 91 percent of caregivers who needed substance abuse services in the past 12 months did not receive it, while over half of children under age 10 who required behavioral health services did not receive them. The report also documents unmet needs in housing, domestic violence services, parent education, in-home services and transportation. Together, the report paints a picture of a system that does not adequately fund the essential preventative services that can help children remain safely with their parents, even when it is supplemented with funds diverted from other poverty programs.

What could be the solution to this problem of inadequate funding? The most obvious answer is “more money.” Clearly, Title IV-B programs are underfunded, and it’s certainly no solution to take money from other programs that help needy people, such as TANF. Unfortunately, that’s not the conclusion of the report. Instead, it highlights the opportunity provided by more flexibility, which would allow states to use Title IV-E funds to fund services covered by Title IV-B.

Title IV-E is the major source of funding for foster care placements, adoptive placements and guardianships. It is a federal entitlement and as such it is an open-ended funding source available to all individuals who meet eligibility criteria. Unlike IV-B which funds prevention, Title IV-E funding is largely used to fund out-of-home placement costs and administrative costs.

The approach of the last two Administrations has been to authorize “waivers” that allow states to use Title IV-E funding for preventative services traditionally funded by Title IV-B. The catch is that the waiver must be cost-neutral. Instead of increasing the level of funding to the system overall, waivers “cap” the total spending, making what was formerly an open-ended funding source effectively into a block grant.

The thinking behind this approach is that increasing preventative services will reduce the need for children to be removed from their homes, and therefore reduce the need for Title IV-E funding. Unfortunately, the child welfare system has little ability to control how many children are maltreated. The best available research has identified a set of factors that predict child welfare involvement by age 5 and most are related to poverty. That’s bad news for California, which ranks #1 in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Another problem with the waiver approach is that it is based on an assumption that fewer children in foster care is a good thing. In its discussion of Florida’s waiver, the report cites its 27 percent reduction in the number of children being placed in out-of-home care as evidence of their waiver’s efficacy.

However, the goal of the child welfare system is not a low foster care caseload. The foster care caseload should be as small or large as necessary to respond to the level of child maltreatment. The 1996 “reform” of welfare is a good case study in the error of using caseload to measure effectiveness. Since 1996, the national welfare caseload has fallen 58 percent, yet just poverty has grown and the TANF program serves fewer poor families than ever.

The biggest concern about waivers is that they are setting the stage for a national block grant of Title IV-E funding. As Angie Schwartz of the Alliance for Children’s Rights and I have written before, former entitlement programs that have undergone this transformation have not fared well. Since becoming a block grant in 1996, TANF funding has remained frozen in the face of mounting poverty nationally. Similarly, the Social Services Block Grant has lost 84% of its value since 1998–the most recent Congress has proposed to eliminate it altogether.

In child welfare, it’s time to think beyond flexibility and demand what we really need: more money. Instead of buying into policies that pit prevention funding (Title IV-B) against placement and administration funding (Title IV-E), let’s work to strengthen the federal government’s overall commitment to the most vulnerable children and youth.

A step in the right direction is to call on Congress to reform federal foster care eligibility. Currently, federal foster care eligibility is linked to the 1996 income standard for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which has not been adjusted for inflation. Children removed from households that earn more than this are not eligible for federal foster care. Over the 17 years since 1996, this policy has resulted in a steady loss of federal funds for states, as fewer and fewer children qualify as federal foster care. In some states, as few as 1 in 4 children qualify for federal foster care funding, leaving states to meet the budget shortfall.

Instead of waivers, let’s address this problem by updating the federal foster care eligibility criteria. One proposal is to make federal foster care eligibility consistent with Medicaid eligibility to be implemented as part of the Affordable Care Act, so that all children removed from households with an income below 133% of the federal poverty level would be federally eligible for foster care.

No matter how much flexibility you have, you can’t build a house with $20. Instead of moving our system towards a block grant, we need to increase funding. This would affirm the role of the federal government in child welfare and restore funding to states.

Berkeley or Burger King? For Foster Youth, the FAFSA Could Make the Difference

February 4, 2013

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

Why don’t more youth in foster care receive a college degree? According to the best available data, the percentage of foster youth at age 26 with a college degree hovers at just 4%, as compared with 36% of their non-foster youth counterparts. Why this is the case is a question that is debated far and wide, with many competing hypotheses. Some will argue that youth in foster care switch placements too frequently, interrupting their education and thwarting efforts to continue on to college. Others suggest that most college campuses don’t provide the combination of academic and social support foster youth need, leaving foster youth adrift and unlikely to persist.

While I agree with both of these explanations, I’d also point to a more obvious one: M-O-N-E-Y. The cost of college has skyrocketed in the last 30 years, outpacing the growth in median family income by almost 4 to 1. This increase is a result of state governments shifting the cost of higher education from the taxpayer to the students and their families, a troubling trend for youth in foster care, who don’t have a family to help cover the cost. Twenty years ago, $25,000 was enough to put a child through a year at Harvard. Today, it won’t even cover two semesters at UCLA.

In the face of the exploding cost of college, the only way a youth in foster care can go to college is with extensive financial aid. Three important sources of financial aid are the Cal Grant, the Pell Grant and the Chaffee Grant. Together, they can provide up to $20,000 to attend a UC, $16,000 to attend a CSU or $12,000 to attend a community college.

Despite the availability of these funds, almost no youth in foster care access all three of them, just 4 percent according to a study by the Institute for College Access and Success. Of the three, the Pell Grant is by far the most accessible, with 84 percent of foster youth accessing it. Accessibility dropped precipitously for the Cal Grant and Chafee Grant, with just 17 percent and 9 percent of foster youth who applied for financial aid receiving it respectively.

The reasons? For Chafee, the main answer is inadequate funding. However, the main reason why more foster youth don’t get the Cal Grant is because they don’t meet the March 2nd FAFSA deadline. All eligible applicants to the Cal Grant are guaranteed to receive it if they apply by the March 2nd deadline.  Foster youth, however, often don’t know about this deadline or don’t’ have anyone to help them complete the FAFSA if they do know about it. This lack of awareness and assistance is costing our youth in foster care and holding back the progress of our child welfare system as a whole.

Like others, foster youth today require a college degree. Study after study has shown that it uniquely moves individuals out of poverty and into the middle-class. While the child welfare system has long understood this, we now have a new, more involved role. With foster care extending to age 21, we no longer usher youth to the front door of college, but instead have the opportunity to serve youth as they enter college and get a firm foothold in higher education.

This change requires the child welfare system to become more informed about college financial aid about and play a more active role in helping youth in foster care secure it. An essential first step in this process is to ensure that foster youth who want to go to college this autumn complete the FAFSA paperwork by the March 2nd deadline, just 25 days away.

To learn about financial aid workshops where youth can receive assistance completing the FAFSA, follow this LINK.

 

Is 30 the New 21? New Research Shows What Young Adults Really Need

January 29, 2013

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

A key argument for the extension of foster care to the age of 21 was a recognition that American social norms have changed significantly in recent decades.  That is, while conventional wisdom, and law, dictated that American young people were adults at the age of 18, most people continue receiving some sort of support from the parents well past the age 18. Whether it’s help with rent, a place to stay during breaks in education and employment, or the myriad other ways families help their adult children, it was hard to argue that the foster care system should shut itself off to youth at age 18.

New research suggests, however, that California’s policy to extend foster care to age 21 may not have gone far enough.  In a recent article, Dr. Diana Divecha summarizes the latest research on the extent of parental support provided to adult children today and the results are surprising. According to the article, a majority of young adults today receive assistance from their parents, with the average parent spending about $38,000 on each child in the years between, ages 18 and 34. High-income parents spend three times more than low-income parents.

In addition to money, parents are also putting in time, providing an average of 367 hours of help annually per child, even when their adult child lives away from their home. That’s an average of 7 hours a week of free support provided by parents to their presumably “independent” adult children!

And, then, of course, there’s housing.  The article provides the latest data on how many young adults are living at home, with nearly a fifth of all American men age 24 to 34 living with parents, while 10 percent of young women do.

Together, this data paints a powerful picture of the length and extent of parental support in the United States today. No longer simply ushering children across the threshold to age 18, parents remain deeply connected to their adult children, providing very real support in the form of money, time and housing well into their 30’s.

What does this mean for youth in foster care?

First, it means that while our state’s efforts to support youth in foster care to age 21 are a step in the right direction, what we offer is far less than the level of support provided to the average young adult by their parent.  For many youth in extended foster care, their only supportive service will be a monthly visit from their social worker and a court review hearing every six months. Even those living in more intensive settings will not likely get 7 hours of help every week, like the average adult child. Hold the level of support received by a foster youth up against what the average young adult is getting, and it’s clear that foster youth remain disadvantaged.

Next, it reminds us that ultimately the real goal of the child welfare system is to ensure all children have a family to support them through young adulthood and beyond. Not a foster family or even a legal guardian to age 18, but a permanent family that will offer hands-on assistance and financial support throughout the many ups and downs young adults experience. For most children in foster care, that family will be their biological one, when they are safely reunified. However, over 5,000 youth “age out” of foster care annually in California without achieving permanence. These children will face the challenges of young adulthood and beyond without the support that most adult children receive.

Not addressed in the report was the extensive support that families provide adult children who have children of their own. This includes everything that most adult children receive, as well as childcare, parenting advice, love and encouragement. Research from the University of Chicago indicates that with the extension of foster care to age 21 the incidence of parenting youth in foster care will increase significantly. Given that, it may be time to re-think how we support parenting youth in foster care and bring our approach to this highly vulnerable group in line with modern norms.

Just as age 18 was not the magic number, neither is age 21. Let’s keep working together to make sure the foster care system meets the real needs of young adults.

 

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