In summary

County child welfare leaders and social workers are stymied by a lack of tools needed to best support foster youth.

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By Cathy Senderling-McDonald, Special to CalMatters

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

Californians learned last month that a number of foster youth were being sheltered in a county office because no other safe options were available. 

We share the concerns about this heartbreaking situation. As the statewide organization of county human services agencies, we also know it didn’t have to happen. 

For years, we have been sounding the alarm about a worsening, statewide crisis and calling on state leaders to ensure children have the safety, support and services they need to heal.

Since 2015, county child welfare agencies have partnered with the state to overhaul California’s approach to caring for youth who have experienced abuse or neglect. Most notably, California is part of an important nationwide shift away from group homes in favor of family homes and the support of resource parents (formerly known as “foster parents”) as youth stabilize and recover from trauma.

Unfortunately, this shift and other factors have had the overall effect of shrinking capacity across the state to care for youth with the most complex needs, in particular victims of sex trafficking, those with intensive mental health needs and developmental delays, and older youth. At the same time, our nation is experiencing a well-documented youth mental health crisis.

As these trends collide, state leaders must bring together counties, youth and families, and community organizations to develop and implement an immediate, comprehensive plan to fill critical gaps in services for young people who count on us. 

To ensure counties can swiftly transition youth out of environments of abuse or neglect and into support and stability, California must:

Accelerate funding to help youth with complex needs. At the urging of counties and youth organizations, legislators set aside, and Gov. Gavin Newsom approved, $100 million to help counties build services for youth with the most intensive needs. Counties have been eagerly anticipating the release of these funds since the state budget was signed in mid-July, but funds have just begun to flow.

Reboot funds that support family caregivers. Specially targeted funding to recruit and support resource families, including those who take children into their homes for short-term, emergency stays, expired in 2020. California remains far short of the number of family homes needed to realize the state’s vision to shift away from congregate care settings, especially for those youth with the highest needs.

Strengthen support for community providers. Nonprofit service providers who partner with county child welfare agencies are also struggling with workforce gaps and caring for youth with the most complex needs.  They need additional financial support.

Help counties support youth in crisis. California lacks options for foster youth with highly specialized needs, such as youth in mental health crisis, those who are sexually exploited or who have experienced gang-related violence.  Assembly Bill 226 by Assemblymember James Ramos to build in-state capacity to support intensive needs was vetoed despite strong bipartisan support in the Legislature. Newsom committed to re-address the issue in 2022. We urge this work be expedited.  

Complete building out a range of youth services.  While there are persistent gaps in services for California’s diverse foster youth, youth are particularly vulnerable to homelessness as they approach aging out of care. We call upon the administration and Legislature to expand the Transitional Housing Placement Program for minors and other needed support, working with youth and families to ensure services are comprehensive, relevant and culturally appropriate.

County child welfare leaders and social workers across California are stymied by a lack of tools they need to best support foster youth. Stepped-up state leadership and legislative oversight are necessary to develop new options for California’s 60,000 youth across a range of needs, from longer-term family-based services to shorter-term, crisis-focused providers. 

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