Merced County is behind on foster care payments

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 17, 2014 

Some Merced County families say they haven’t received an initial reimbursement check from the county’s Human Services Agency after opening their homes and caring for foster children.

County officials admit they’re behind, and say there are many reasons.

The county signs a contract with foster families to pay them a clothing, feeding and care allowance within 45 days of a new child’s placement, according to documents. The amounts vary based on each child but can average about $250 for a clothing allowance and $600 for the feeding and care.

A 65-year-old Atwater resident, who asked for anonymity because of fear of retaliation from social workers, said it’s been close to three months since her foster son was placed with her, and there’s been no reimbursement from the county.

“When you get a new child, many of them come with not a lot of clothes and we take them shopping,” she said. “It’s especially difficult during the holidays because we’re buying things out of our pocket.”

The woman said she’s spent about $200 of her own while awaiting reimbursement.

“It’s a hardship on the foster child because a lot of them come with hardly anything,” she said. “We feed them and clothe them and take them to doctor appointments.”

The woman said she contacted a Human Services Agency employee regarding the check and was told there were 35 cases ahead of hers. The employee told her the agency was “really behind” and there was nothing employees could do about it.

County officials acknowledged being behind on issuing payments, but said several factors can hamper the process, such as family noncompliance, having multiple siblings, special needs children or waiting on court proceedings.

With one full-time social worker on a leave of absence, officials said, the Human Services Agency is short-staffed. Each worker is supposed to handle about 400 cases, but they’re currently carrying about 700 cases.

“We’re aware of the issue and, unfortunately, right now we’re low on our staffing and doing what we can,” said Susan Flores, foster care supervisor. “We’re trying to catch up by offering overtime for the (social) workers. I would ask families to be patient and we’re not ignoring the children’s needs.”

It’s unclear how many cases are overdue, Flores said, but there’s an influx of new cases each day. There are about 55 cases pending now, she added.

Human Services Agency Director Ana Pagan said other uncontrollable circumstances caused the county to fall behind, including county furloughs and the federal government shutdown.

“We’re not the only ones facing these issues,” Pagan said, adding that funding constraints prevent the agency from hiring more social workers for the foster care program. “But every time we have furlough we get behind and we have to scramble and it takes some time to do that. We’re still trying to recover.”

Shar Herrera, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Merced County, said her organization has seen the impact on foster children when families don’t have money to purchase clothing and other items.

“We’ve had some experiences with foster families saying they don’t have the money to buy kids clothes,” Herrera said. “We have had some kids come into CASA that have waited a long time to get funding for the clothing. It does have a major impact on the foster families as well as the kids themselves.”

“They just don’t have the variety of clothes that most kids have and that has an impact on their self-esteem,” she added, “They go to bed wearing the same clothes. I feel bad for the kids.”

As of April 1, there were more than 650 children in the Merced County foster care system because of parental abuse or neglect, according to CASA’s website. The organization works with about 80 foster kids, helping them navigate the court system.

Herrera said she was aware of the delay in reimbursement checks but is hopeful the Human Services Agency will do whatever it can to get back on track.

“When you have high caseloads and that type of thing you just don’t have the manpower to get things done like they should be,” she said. “Some things are out their control and it’s difficult situation for everybody.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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