A Bridge to Child Care for Foster Kids in California

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morrisonThere’s a crisis in California’s foster care system that few know about: child care.

When children are removed from their parents’ homes due to abuse and neglect, they urgently need a safe, loving family environment. But for the youngest of these children, one of the top barriers to providing a family placement is the lack of access to child care.

In today’s economy, most potential caregivers work outside the home. In order for them to step up and take in a foster child, they need access to child care during their working hours. Unfortunately, with California child care costs hovering around $1,100 per month for the youngest children, many prospective foster parents cannot afford to cover the cost of child care. (To put this figure into perspective, foster parents are only paid $688 per month to support all the needs of a child.) In spite of the costs of child care, many devoted foster parents pay $1,100 per month for child care out of their own pockets.

According to a survey of Welcome Center staff searching for homes for children awaiting placement, an estimated 25 percent of denials for placement are due to the lack of child care. As much as these would-be foster parents may want to step up and take in a child, the expense of child care is too often prohibitive. This child care crisis tragically affects young, vulnerable children in several ways.

First, the impact of this crisis hits children at the most vulnerable moments of their lives. Immediately following the trauma of abuse, neglect and removal from their homes, children critically need to be supported and to bond with a nurturing caregiver. Yet, when the most appropriate caregivers cannot step forward, foster children often bounce between short-term emergency homes until the ideal caregiver (often a relative) can find an affordable, subsidized child care opening and can take the child into his or her home.

Second, due to their past trauma, foster children are at particularly high risk for developmental delays, poor academic outcomes and social-emotional issues, which quality child care and development services can help ameliorate or prevent. But, while they need these services the most, they are actually the least likely to receive them.

In California, the best data come from Los Angeles County, where children in the foster care system are actually less likely than other low-income children to receive a child care subsidy. Fewer than 13 percent of 0- to 5-year-olds in LA County’s child welfare system receive this support. In contrast, 20 percent of infants and toddlers and 50 percent of preschool-age children from LA County’s other low-income families receive subsidies for child care or preschool. All these children should be able to access child care, but it is particularly troubling that the most vulnerable children have the least success in accessing the child care system.

Third, from a system standpoint, there are not enough foster parents to provide homes for all our foster children. In an October 2015 survey of Southern California-based foster family agencies by the Association of Community Human Service Agencies, every respondent cited child care as a problem when it comes to recruitment of foster parents. Because the system as a whole lacks enough foster parents — much less those who can afford child care without assistance — children are often forced to languish in inappropriate placements, such as in shelters or with poorly-matched foster parents.

In 2015, acknowledging the vast impacts of this crisis, LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl convened a workgroup to pursue policy reform to address this issue. By June 2016, the coalition grew to 40 organizations with expertise in both the foster care and child care systems.

The coalition proposed an incremental, first-step solution, termed the Emergency Child Care Bridge Program for foster families. It would provide short-term, emergency child care vouchers to caregivers immediately upon taking in a child or sibling set. Vouchers could be used as payment to any preapproved child care provider. This proposal would enable a new foster parent to quickly access child care and provide a bridge toward a stable placement for vulnerable children.

Additionally, the proposal was crafted to include extra support for foster families. It would provide navigation support to help them find appropriate, high-quality child care, and it would include training for child care providers to help them deliver trauma-informed care to young children in the system.

It would only be a first step toward resolving the child care crisis for foster children, but if the “bridge” proposal is approved in the 2017 state legislative session, it will help ensure that child care challenges no longer prohibit immediate and proper placement of young foster children. In removing a major financial barrier, it would enable innumerable would-be foster parents to step up and provide loving, supportive and stable homes for California’s most vulnerable children.

Tim Morrison is a senior policy associate at Children Now, where he advocates for policies that increase opportunities for youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. He earned his master’s degree in public policy from University of California-Berkeley and received the Dean’s Fellowship in Education, Children, and Youth Policy.