Foster Care System Struggles To Implement New Law

Jun 6, 2019

A big change is happening at foster care group homes in California.  By the end of this year, they are no longer supposed to be a place where a kid can stay until adulthood.  Instead, a new law requires all foster children be placed with families. But implementing this law is proving difficult.

When she was 12-years-old, Isamar Amaya ended up in foster care.  For the next six years, she moved a lot.

“I was in a series of about 11 to 12 placements and half of them were foster homes and half of them were group homes,” Amaya says.

Amaya never liked living with foster families.  She says she was happiest in a group home. That’s where kids live together while in the foster care system.  

There are about 750 group homes in California, where around 3,500 children live. Most are run by nonprofits. Group homes are designed primarily as places to keep children safe, run by a rotating staff of caregivers that often earn minimum wage and have limited training.  

For Amaya, that meant always finding someone who could meet her needs.    

“I knew that the moment a new staff member would clock in that's another opportunity for me to say, ‘Hey, can you take me to the mall? Hey, can I go to this extracurricular activity? Can I go to a dance?’ And it was always yes,” says Amaya.

But Assemblymember Mark Stone says his research into foster care shows Amaya’s experience is not the norm. He points to a report done by the California Child Welfare Council.  It says group homes are a target for people looking to exploit children.

“In group homes, kids get bullied. Drug trafficking is a big issue, sex trafficking becomes a big issue. Kids sort of get lost when they're placed there without any accountability by the system to how long they're there, why they're there,” Stone says.

So Stone authored the Continuum of Care Reform Act.  It was signed into law back in 2015.  One thing it does is change the function of group homes.  Instead of being a place where foster kids can live until adulthood, they can only stay there for six months.  

“To reform group homes into what we now call Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs, with the emphasis on the therapy short term so that the kids don't languish. So they don't get lost in the shuffle,” says Stone.

The law not only makes group homes temporary, but also requires they offer a higher standard of care.  These new Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTP) have mental health services, more staff for every child, and caregivers who have undergone state mandated training.  

So far, only about one third, or roughly 230, of California’s group homes have made the switch. Approximately 270 are waiting for approval.  About 210 group homes have decided to close or have been denied an STRTP license. Assemblymember Stone doesn’t expect all will meet the end of the year deadline. They’re already on borrowed time; the law originally required the group homes to make the switch by the end of 2018.

Lori Medina says Monterey County probably won’t meet the end of the year deadline either. There are two group home providers in the county with space for 18 beds. Both are still waiting on their Behavioral Health Plan to be approved.

“Our statewide capacity is very challenged. We are losing providers who are just not going to be able to make the transition to this very high standard of care,” Medina says.

Medina works for Monterey County’s Family and Children’s Services.   She says the most challenging part of this new law is that it requires finding permanent homes for all kids in foster care.  But so far, there aren’t enough families willing to take in foster children.   

“That's really what we are trying to grapple with now, is trying to figure out how we increase our capacity. Caregivers who will take teenagers or kids with a lot of challenges, sometimes medical challenges, sometimes behavioral challenges,” says Medina.

That means trying new approaches to find foster families.  They’re working to help the kids bring more people into their lives, hoping this could lead to a permanent home. Approaches like connecting with a long lost relative or expanding their social circles at school.