Stanislaus County sees increase in foster care cases

kcarlson@modbee.comJanuary 17, 2014 

Having been in foster care herself Maira Gonzalez chose to be a foster mom hoping for a baby or young child but fate gave her troubled teens. It has been a successful road for both Maira and the foster teens and one of them, Stephanie Lopez has chosed to extend her foster services.

THEMODESTOBEE

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textKen Carlson
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: County government, health and medicine, air quality, the environment and public pension systems
    Bio: Ken Carlson has worked 13 years for The Bee, covering local government agencies in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His in-depth reporting has focused on access to health care and public employee pensions.
    Recent stories written by Ken
    E-mail: kcarlson@modbee.com
  • Stanislaus County Foster Care Placements (as of January):

    Foster family agency.....................267..........40%

    Guardian home (voluntary)...........141..........21%

    Relative home...............................132..........20%

    Foster family home........................84..........13%

    Group home....................................24..... .......4%

    Independent living...........................11..........1.7%

    Other .................................................7...........1.3%

    Total...............................................666..........100%

Stanislaus County officials don’t fully understand a recent jump in foster care cases, but it has prompted an effort to recruit more parents to care for children who are removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.

From July to September, the county saw a 21 percent increase in children entering the foster system. Stanislaus had a total of 688 youths in foster care, compared with 598 the previous year and 567 in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Jan Viss, the county’s director of child and family services, said there are spikes in foster cases from time to time. Foster youths who used to “age out” when they turned 18 can now receive services until they are 21 – and 67 have chosen that option.

Viss said it’s also become more common for her division to need safe homes for sibling groups of three or more children.

Neglect usually is the cause for court orders that remove children from their biological parents or guardians. Most often, the children are endangered by parental substance abuse, mental illness or domestic violence.

The county makes services available to the biological parents for six to 24 months in an effort to reunify the family. Superior Court judges decide whether the children can safely return to their parents or if adoption is appropriate.

Even with the recent spike, Viss said, the county’s rate for placing children in foster care is 2 per 1,000, still below the statewide rate of 2.7 per 1,000. But it has created a larger caseload for social workers and other staff members. And it results in more frequent phone calls to place children with the county’s 110 licensed foster households.

The county has a $24.6 million child welfare budget this year, which includes staffing and contracted services in the community.

“We have very good foster family agencies and county-licensed foster homes,” Viss said. “We can always use more. If there are more homes in the community, we are better able to make sure children are placed in an environment where they will thrive.”

Officials hope to continue a record of finding adoptive parents for foster children who are freed for adoption, so they don’t become orphans. In 2012, all 90 children who were not returned to their birth parents were adopted within 12 months.

Viss said budget cuts resulted in a less sterling record of placing foster children with relatives, where they may feel more secure. The placements have occurred about 20 percent of the time since the division lost a social worker who concentrated on identifying relatives. A new social worker will start focusing on that next month.

Out-of-county placements

Besides the children from Stanislaus County, foster kids from other areas are placed here through a statewide network of private, nonprofit foster agencies that contract with multiple counties. As of this month, there are 381 foster children housed in Stanislaus County who are dependents of other jurisdictions. Stanislaus is not responsible for those cases; social workers are dispatched from the counties of origin to check on the young people.

Viss noted that 73 of the foster youths from other counties are in the extended services program for the 18- to 21-year-old age group. After one year in the program, they can choose to transfer to the Stanislaus County program. That could create a budget impact if the county picks up the expenses, Viss said.

About 27 percent of children removed from homes in Stanislaus County last year were placed outside the county, which is above the statewide rate of 21 percent for out-of-county transfers.

Of the 143 out-of-county placements last year, 59 children from Stanislaus County were moved to nearby San Joaquin County, 44 to Merced County and 11 to Sacramento County. Viss said minors are placed in homes in other counties if foster caregivers are not available locally. With some of the transfers, the preference was to place them with relatives in the Bay Area or as far away as South Lake Tahoe. Other out-of-county transfers are special-needs children who need treatment that is not available here.

In 2010, a New York Times article documented what some called the “outsourcing” of neglected children from California’s metropolitan areas to foster care agencies in the Central Valley, where it is less costly to house them.

The Excell Center outside Turlock, operated by Aspiranet of South San Francisco, was cited as an example of the long-term trend. The executive director for Aspiranet in Turlock said Friday the organization has made an effort to reduce out-of-county transfers and far fewer are taking place.

Aspiranet’s Jeannie Imelio said the 30 children at the Turlock residential care center include youngsters from Stanislaus County and other areas.

As an example of efforts to discourage transfers, she referred to a state law that favors foster placements within the district where the child attends school so they don’t have to change teachers. “If they are receiving counseling and therapeutic services, it’s important to minimize any disruptions,” Imelio added.

Viss said the movement of foster children across county lines has not generated much discussion here. She stressed there is a need to recruit qualified foster parents for abused and neglected children from Stanislaus County.

It is always difficult to place larger sibling groups, and newly licensed foster parents often want to care for younger children instead of teens, Viss said. The county also tries to recruit parents who have skills to care for kids with special medical needs.

Love All Our Kids

Jeff Pishney, who leads the Love Modesto community cleanups, has a program called Love All Our Kids, which provides education and support groups concerned with foster care adoptions. The program has worked with 130 families or couples that have adopted kids or are in the process of foster-care adoptions.

Pishney said the priority is reunification with the birth parents, but it is not always possible. “You have to put kids in healthy, stable homes if you want to keep them from getting into gangs,” he said. “Families that are signing up with us don’t care about the check that comes once a month.”

Pishney and his wife adopted a child. “Adoption has been such an amazing joy for my family and every family I know who has experienced adoption,” he said. Pishney advises parents, though, to carefully consider the commitment they are willing to make. It might be adoption, taking care of a newborn who tested positive for drugs, or providing a temporary safe home for a teenager or siblings.

The county’s current foster care payments range from $657 a month each for infants to 4-year-olds, to $820 a month for 15- to 19-year-olds. Assistance also is provided for children who need to be driven across town to keep them in the same school.

Sally Smith of the Stanislaus County Foster Care Association said her family has cared for six children, and “all of our experiences have been very positive. People shy away from it because of the stories you hear.”

Some of the biggest challenges, Smith said, are managing things such as medical appointments and visits from the child’s family members, which may occur two or three times a week.

On Feb. 22, Love All Our Kids will hold a Trust Based Parenting Seminar to train foster adoptive parents and those working with “children from hard places.” The seminar is from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at The Venue, 4040 Tully Road, on the Big Valley Grace Community Church campus in Modesto. The cost is $25, which includes lunch and child care if needed. Register at http://loveallourkids.com.

For information about licensing of foster parents in Stanislaus County, call Child and Family Services at (209) 558-2110. Applicants attend a nine-week training class and are licensed after clearing background checks.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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