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Proposed CalWORKs Cuts Will Deepen Inequity for Relative Caregivers

March 12, 2012

By Amy Lemley

Last week, I wrote about the troubling impact of the Administration’s proposed cuts to our state’s income support program for low-income families, California Work and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs).  What I didn’t cover was how this proposal will directly affect abused and neglected children in California’s foster care system.

Many people are not aware that California has a two-tier foster care system, based on whether or not a child is federally-eligible for foster care. Federal eligibility is based on whether or not the child was removed from a parent who meets the eligibility rules of the now-defunct federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

While there are many aspects to eligibility for the old AFDC program, one of the biggest is meeting the 1996 income standards.  If a parent’s income was below this level at the time of removal, then the child is “federally eligible” for foster care, meaning that the federal government will pay its share of the cost to care for the child (50% in California). If the parent’s income was above the 1996 AFDC standard, then the child is not federally eligible. When a child is not federally eligible, he or she child participates in the state foster program.

Federally-eligible children who are placed with a relative receive the basic foster care rate, currently $776 per month for older children, slightly less for younger children. However, non-federally eligible children who are placed with a relative do not receive foster care benefits at all.  Instead, these relatives – who are expected to do the same work and to meet the same approval standards for foster care — receive a CalWORKs payment, currently $351 per month for one child.

That’s less than half, despite no discernible differences in the circumstances or needs of the two children. Both have been abused or neglected, both have been removed from their family of origin. But one child receives more than double the financial support simply because his parent’s income was below a decades-old income standard that has not been updated for inflation.

This inequity has long been recognized. We have evidence that children fare better when placed with relatives, yet, in California, they receive less financial assistance if the child in their care is not federally eligible.

The Administration’s CalWORKs proposal will deepen this inequity by reducing the grant paid to child-only cases, including those relatives who are caring for non-federally eligible children. In the CalWORKs world, these relative caregivers are part of a larger group of cases known as “non-needy caretaker relatives” and according to an analysis prepared by the Senate Budget Committee this group of caretakers represent 13 percent of the child-only cases, over 40,000 cases statewide.

To illustrate how the Administration’s proposal will affect these children, imagine an aunt who takes custody of her two teenage nieces who were removed from the care of their parent after suffering neglect. Their mother’s income is not below the 1996 AFDC income standard, so the children are not federally eligible for a foster payment of $1,552. Instead, the aunt receives a monthly CalWORKs payment of $516 per month. Under the Administration’s proposal, the aunt’s CalWORKs benefit would be further reduced to just $375 per month, roughly a quarter of the federal benefit.

Some may argue that the aunt is eligible for food stamps, while the federally-eligible foster child is not. That is true sometimes, but not always. And even if those benefits are added in, the caregiver still receives less than half the level of support for federally-eligible children. The inequity between the two programs deepens even further if the child has special needs. A federally eligible child is able to receive an enhanced foster care rate, while a child whose caregiver receives CalWORKs does not.

The fact that so many relative caregivers open their homes to abused and neglected children is a sign of their deep commitment to children. They do so despite the cost and the despite the hardship. Many are grandparents, who instead of enjoying their “golden years” now find themselves raising small children who often require specialized care as a result of their abuse and neglect.

If relative caregivers refused to take custody of these children and instead the children were placed into state foster care, the effect on our child welfare system would be devastating by increasing cost and decreasing quality.

In California, relative caregivers are the backbone of our foster care system, representing a full 35 percent of total foster care placements. They generously serve our state’s most vulnerable children, despite serious inequities in the level of assistance provided. The Administration’s proposal to reduce the benefit levels of child-only cases will deepen this inequity and should be rejected.

Join a growing chorus of Californians calling on the Administration to rescind this CalWORKs proposal by following this LINK at change.org.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2012 6:20 pm

    A cut to the CalWORKs program would greatly damage an already struggling population of people who already lack the basic resources needed to care for another person’s child- Kinship Caregivers. These underserved and under-recognized people are a very essential thread in the family safety net and have a difficult job, raising another person’s child. To take the very little they receive in CalWORKS funding and cut it even more, would be an unfair action to people who are essentially saving our children from being placed into the foster care system.

    These essential Kinship caregivers can provide a lifeline for children whose parents are unavailable or unable to provide the care they need, they face significant challenges. Relative caregivers may suddenly become “parents” to someone else’s child, live on fixed incomes, or live below the poverty line (the Pew Research center reports that nationally, 1 in 5 grandparents taking care of children live in poverty). Caregivers often don’t know where to go for help, or how to navigate complex social service systems to get the legal, medical, financial, or housing resources they need.

    According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, however, data suggests that children living in kinship families experience greater stability and have less behavioral problems than those in foster care. Studies also show that the stability of youth remaining with Kinship caregivers involved in a kinship support network can remain higher than 95%. Keeping kin families together during such difficult times is one solution to preserving the family safety net.

    With the severe challenges that Kinship caregivers face, help is available to them in San Joaquin County and throughout the state. The California Kinship Navigator Program works in collaboration with other local service providers to offer free access to valuable resources so families can stay together, and prevent the further unraveling of family systems that are so deeply impacted by current economic and social stressors.

    • Virginia Coombs permalink
      March 30, 2012 12:26 am

      It is difficult enough for a grandparent to face raising their grandchildren and never having a retirement of their own. The grandchildren at times go not only without their own parents but necessities in life that they need.

      These loving grandparents need extra help.

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