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RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION OF FOSTER PARENTS

Subject of Investigation

Problems related to recruitment and retention of county-licensed foster parent placements by the County Department of Health and Human Services, Child Protective Services Division.

Reason for Investigation

The matter came before the Grand Jury as a result of information from various sources indicating that there are problems related to the recruitment and retention of county-licensed foster parent placements.

Method of Investigation

Members of the 2000-2001 Grand Jury evaluating foster care programs reviewed various media accounts and received written and oral information from staff of the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services ("Department") and several organizations representing the interests of children in foster placements (including the Lilliput Children's Services, the Child Abuse Council, and Casey Great Start Program).

Background

In 1996, there were approximately 1,300 children in foster care in Sacramento County. In October 1999, there were 4,718 and, today, there are approximately 6,200. This 500% increase in four years has occurred primarily as a result of a change in philosophy approved by the County for Child Protective Services, which now pursues the "best interests" of a child in lieu of the previous philosophy, which encouraged "family preservation" and "family reunification".

Foster child placements include several options, primarily group homes, state licensed private agency placements, and county-licensed placements. Group homes are the most expensive, costing about $6,000 per month per child; state licensed placements (which were supposed to take only children with special psychological, physical, or behavioral needs) cost about $1, 000 to $1,500 per month per child, and the county-licensed placements are paid $400 to $569 per month, depending on the age of the child. About 90% of these funds are from the federal and state governments, with the balance from the County. According to the Sacramento Bee (December 4, 2000), the necessity of placing children in homes which are not county-licensed could cost the county an extra $2 million or more per year.

In January 1999, there were 823 County-licensed foster homes. In August of 2000, this dropped by about 30% to 581. Some of these families stop performing foster care, and others transfer to state-agency licensed activity, increasing the cost of the County. There are many reasons for the poor retention rate, including 29% adopting a child, 13% because they are tired of fostering without adequate respite, 5% because of late payments, and the balance for other reasons. Other reasons given, according to a recent Sacramento Bee article, include unresponsive social workers or inappropriate responses by social workers.

In addition, there are serious problems in recruiting additional foster families. Not only is the pay differential between state-licensed and county-licensed programs significant, but the state programs include various benefits for foster parents including respite care (e.g., "vacation" days and health care respites), improved support for behavioral and health problems, and less "bureaucracy" in terms of paperwork and pay.

Additional research by Grand Jury members indicates a number of institutional barriers to recruitment. For example, households receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, the federal assistance program which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children) who have one or more children and could provide foster care usually cannot qualify merely because they do not have income to cover the first month's foster child costs, even though they may meet all other qualifications and be interested in serving. In addition, family members cannot receive foster care payments, even though they are undertaking the additional cost of raising an otherwise homeless child.

Finally, while the Department has undertaken advertising campaigns on billboard and buses to seek foster parents, Foster Care information cannot be found easily on the Department's website and, if finally found under "Financial Assistance Services", is the only program which does not include a link to a "Fact Sheet" (although Cal-Learn, CaIWORKS, Food Stamp Program and General Assistance Program do include links).

The problems with the system cause collateral problems. For example, the State Legislative Analyst recently reported that Sacramento County has the highest rate of placement turnover of any county in the state. Some children move every 4-6 months, resulting in changes in schools, disruptions in medical care, lack of continuity of parenting, etc. There also are increased problems with children "aging-out" of foster care (see related Grand Jury report entitled "Transitional Assistance for Aging-Out Foster Children").

The state and federal funding sources for foster care lack significant flexibility for foster care payments and costs, but the amount approved by the County Board of Supervisors has greater flexibility. In addition, there are a variety of funds available for family reunification services, including parenting training, employment and education assistance, and other programs.

Several sources indicate that the Department is improving services for current households. However, the improvements have not staunched the loss of current foster families or increased the ability to recruit new foster parents.

Conclusions

    1. There is an increasing shortage of county-licensed foster parents, compared to the number of children being referred for care in foster homes. The shortage of county-licensed foster parents is a result of problems related to both recruitment of new foster parents and retention after they become foster parents. The difficulties in recruitment relate partly to the outreach efforts and partly to the inherent problems in being a foster parent; some remedies are within the power of the County and Department of Health and Human Services, and some are a result of state and federal policies and laws. With respect to retention, the Department has taken some steps to correct problems, but others remain within the ability of the Department and the County to achieve, including the availability of augmented funds from the County to increase benefits for foster parents.

    2. The significant increase in the number of children awaiting placement in county-licensed foster homes is a result of the increased number being removed from their parents' homes. It may be an appropriate time to review the positive and negative consequences of the recent policy shift from "family preservation" to "best interests of the child", and evaluate whether the fragmented and inadequate foster home situation is really an improvement over a system which provides benefits to enhance family preservation and reunification. New funding, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families ("TANF") is available to use for family improvement, which might alleviate the strain on the foster family funding. Other states, such as Illinois, have revisited this policy and have allocated new resources to family preservation and reunification.

    3. Because of the problems in recruiting and retaining county-licensed foster families, there is a significant increased cost to the County in terms of payments for state-licensed and group home placements. But this cost does not take into consideration the high hidden or deferred costs of children who must move constantly; who lose health, education, and employment options; and who are left with permanent physical and psychological problems as a result of problems which arise as a result of their removal from their families into a series of temporary housing situations.

Findings and Recommendations

Finding # 1. While the Department of Health and Human Services has made improvements in its county-licensed foster parent outreach and recruitment efforts, additional steps should be taken which can enhance recruitment of new foster parents. Failure to do so will have a significant negative impact on County funds which otherwise are being spent to subsidize state-licensed foster families and group home placements.
Recommendation # 1. It is recommended that the County continue to seek means of attracting new county-licensed foster parents by all reasonable means available, including but not limited to:

    a. Support state legislation to increase payment rates and benefit packages for county-licensed foster parents.

    b. Utilize creative means of publicizing the need for and benefits of county licensed foster parents, including accessible website information, provision of information when wedding licenses are obtained from the county, and reaching out to parents of school children through the school system.

    c. Eliminate the artificial one-month funding requirement for potential parents on government assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or with minimum wage incomes by providing initial two-week or one-month checks when a child is placed with the household.

    d. Seek means to place foster children with relatives and finance the associated living and support costs through means other than foster payments, if necessary, to encourage relative placements which also benefit the children by providing stability and familiar surroundings in existing communities.

Finding #2. While the Department has made improvements in its county-licensed foster parent retention and support efforts, additional steps can be taken which can enhance retention of existing foster parents. Failure to do so will have a significant negative impact on County funds which otherwise are being spent to subsidize state-licensed foster families and group home placements, and on foster children not receiving adequate support and services.
Recommendation #2. It is recommended that the County continue to seek means of providing necessary services and benefits to existing county-licensed foster parents by all reasonable means available, including but not limited to:

    a. Support state legislation to increase payment rates and benefit packages for county-licensed foster parents.

    b. Continue to increase funding available for increasing the hiring and training of social workers serving foster children and foster parents. Consider the cost of these services, compared to the cost of financing other placements in lieu of county-licensed foster parents.

    c. Continue to increase funding and programs for county-licensed foster parents so that there are services available which are similar to those available to state-licensed foster parents, including respite services, transportation services or vouchers for necessities such as health care, and training and individual support assistance.

Finding #3. The 500% increase in the number of children being referred to foster care is due, in significant part, to the policy and practice change to place children's interests and safety over family preservation and reunification. The long-term impacts of this change in policy and practice on children, birth parents, and foster parents, as well as community institutions such as schools and health care facilities, has not been evaluated since its inception by a neutral institution in order to determine whether the child protection system as currently structured really serves the children's best interests.

Recommendation #3.

    a. The Department of Health and Human Services should seek and allocate funding for an independent evaluation, including input from law enforcement and social welfare professionals, child advocates, foster and birth parents, community residents, teachers and school officials, and other interested parties, in order to determine whether the current policy and practice of placing children's interests and safety over family preservation and reunification serves the best interests of the children and the community.

    b. The Department should seek and allocate funding, in coordination with other programs to increase the ability of families to correct dysfunctions and retain their children. These could be funds from the General Fund, resources from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grants, and federal Community Development Block Grants for home repairs and rehabilitation to improve living situations which otherwise cause unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

Response Required

Penal Code Section 933.05 requires that specific responses to both the findings and recommendations contained in this Report be submitted to the Presiding Judge of the Sacramento Superior Court by September 30, 2001, from:

· Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services


 
2000/2001 Sacramento County Grand Jury - Final Report (Internet Version) June 30, 2001

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