In summary

A permanent investment in supportive services could help keep children out of our foster care system.

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By Cathy Senderling-McDonald

Cathy Senderling-McDonald is executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California,

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Jackie Rose, Special to CalMatters

Jackie Rose is executive director of the Rose Family Creative Empowerment Center,

Maya, a pregnant mother living in her car with her 6- and 8-year-old children, reached out for help in Sacramento last April. Within 24 hours, she received a hotel voucher and rental assistance for permanent housing. She also was linked with local programs that provided a crib and diapers for her child on the way, home-based trauma support and referrals to other community services. 

Maya’s story is an example of how struggling families can succeed when counties and community partners work together to prevent children from being placed in foster care, as happens almost 100 times a day in California. Because most kids are only briefly removed from their homes before being reunited with their families, in many cases foster care could be avoided by strengthening families prior to the child’s removal. But the state’s investment in prevention to support these efforts took a hit during past recessions and has never recovered.

In his revised state budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken an enormous step toward helping more families like Maya’s stay together. We urge state lawmakers to take an even bigger step and make a permanent investment in prevention to help make foster care a last resort. 

Under Newsom’s proposal, a one-time investment of $122.4 million would begin shifting our child welfare system toward strengthening families first by providing mental health and substance abuse services, in-home parenting skills support and other supportive services. Some of these services would be paid for by federal funds under a new national program to help children placed in the care of extended family while their parents are helped.

While the governor has not released details yet, ideas widely supported by advocates for children and families provide a path forward. First, funding should be increased and made permanent instead of one-time, and the program should be statewide, not optional for counties, as proposed. County child welfare agencies, in partnership with local communities, should develop plans that harness culturally relevant services and bring funding to bolster community organizations. Through this framework, counties partnering with organizations in the community could prevent foster care placements by working with families to  identify and build on their strengths and ask them what they need, rather than presuming that “the system” knows best. 

In Sacramento County, these funds would likely support time-tested programs — including those that helped Maya — and could help to build new ones. Two examples are the Black Child Legacy Campaign, a network of organizations serving families in seven neighborhoods with high black infant mortality, and the Birth & Beyond Collaborative of family resource centers, which supported Maya. It operates in nine neighborhoods, providing crisis intervention, basic needs support, home visitation, counseling, job training and community leadership. 

There is an enormity of need, and community partners are essential to meeting it. Here in Sacramento County, an important cultural brokers program facilitates communication and planning between parents and child welfare workers investigating abuse or neglect, but there is a wait list. As the coronavirus spread, the state enlisted family resource centers to aid struggling families — reaching over 117,000 in 54 counties — and demonstrating the promise of this proposal to make foster care a last resort whenever possible.

Because most children placed in foster care in Sacramento County are Black or Latino, a focus on preventive services also is an important shift toward equity. Although the Black population comprises less than 6% of the state’s children up to age 5, over 18% of foster youths at this age are Black; over 52% of young children in foster care are Latino.  

As California recovers from the pandemic, it must do more to strengthen families and reduce placements into foster care, which requires families to work harder to get back together. Turning reactively to foster care doesn’t make sense. A permanent, statewide investment in supportive services to help families in crisis does make sense. And it will help ensure that our recovery from COVID-19 justly improves child welfare.  

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