Foster Care Population Drops Sharply in California

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Chart showing the decline in foster care populations in California. Via Kids Data

From the San Francisco Chronicle (MCT)

-- California has seen drastic decreases in the number of children in foster care in the past decade, but child advocates say the need for high-quality foster parents remains high.

Since 2000, California has reduced the number of kids in foster care from 103,501 to 55,218, a 47 percent drop driven by policies that emphasize keeping families together when possible and, when not, increasing permanent placements.

Four Bay Area counties were among the state's leaders in slashing the number of foster kids, with Alameda dropping 66 percent, Santa Clara 61 percent, San Francisco 59 percent and Contra Costa 54 percent. That's 7,300 fewer kids in foster care in those four counties compared with 12 years ago.

California - which has the country's largest foster-care population - far outpaced the 27 percent decline seen nationally.

Working on outcomes

"With the decline in the case load, it may be easy to become complacent and say we've solved the problem," said Jill Duerr Berrick, co-director at UC Berkeley's Center for Child and Youth Policy. "And that would not be where I want us to land."

Berrick said much work remains to improve the education and health outcomes for children who enter foster care, which is a challenge, considering that many have suffered significant trauma and are in need of mental health services.

Studies have shown that children in foster care are less likely to complete high school or enroll in community college, even when compared with young people with similar disadvantages. A report released this year by the Stuart Foundation found that only 45 percent of California's foster youths graduate from high school, a statistic driven by the nomadic lifestyle many kids lead while waiting for a permanent home. While in foster care, 70 percent of youths had three or more placements.

"For children who are in out-of-home care, what they need are really high-quality foster parents," Berrick said. "They need caregivers who will love them and be incredibly devoted to them."

However, the demand for foster parents almost always exceeds the supply, Berrick said. California now licenses 6,600 foster homes, down from 7,300 in 2009.

Finding foster parents tough

Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, said recruiting and retaining caregivers are among the biggest challenges in foster care.

"It's a difficult job; the cost of living in California makes it difficult to reduce work hours to devote to children who in most cases have suffered a significant degree of trauma," Mecca said.

The basic amount foster parents receive each month ranges from $657 to $820, depending on the age of the child. Amounts are increased for children with special needs.

Lorraine Hanks, a Bayview foster parent, said money goes quickly when kids are enrolled in extracurricular activities like sports and dance.

Hanks has had more than 20 kids placed in her home over the years and currently has three foster children.

"You have to have patience," said Hanks, 47. "You have to be open and you have to communicate. Without those things, it all goes downhill."

Training programs added

Hanks said she has to advocate for services and hasn't always felt supported by state and county agencies overseeing foster care. She said recent changes in San Francisco's Family and Children Services agency have led to more support for families, such as training programs and retreats.

"In any job you can burn out," Hanks said. "This is a 24-hour job. If you feel respected, you can handle anything. ... I do this because when you look at where the children came from, this gives them an opportunity to see something different, to reach their goals and reach for success."

Melody Gutierrez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @MelodyGutierrez


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