With group homes coming to an end, county seeks families to care for troubled foster kids

State-mandated reforms to foster care will eliminate group homes in Stanislaus and other counties, and bring other changes expected to challenge the child welfare system.

About 3,000 of the 60,000 foster children in California – who are removed from their parents due to abuse or neglect – are placed in group homes for special therapy and care. But long-term residential care has not met the needs of the state’s most troubled foster youths, lawmakers believe.

The state wants to reduce reliance on group homes and place those young people in safe, comfortable homes with relatives, foster parents or adoptive families who are trained and given professional support to meet their needs.

By favoring home-based placements over group homes, policymakers hope that fewer foster-care graduates end up homeless, addicted to drugs or incarcerated. The reforms are intended to help the kids overcome their challenges, do well in school and become self-sufficient adults.

The new policies require group homes to convert to accredited short-term therapeutic centers for children with serious emotional or behavioral issues. The centers will provide 24-hour supervision and treatment, with the goal of quickly returning the youths to family settings.

The state expects counties to implement the reforms by 2021. It’s not known how many of the 16 group homes in Stanislaus County will convert to short-term facilities or simply close.

Nenita Dean, child welfare manager for Stanislaus County, said raising foster children in a family setting holds the most promise for improving outcomes.

As of November, the county had 51 of its 727 child-welfare foster children in group homes. The state will give counties more time to implement reforms for young people placed in residential care by juvenile courts.

Dean estimates that 50 additional foster families are needed to make the reforms work in Stanislaus County.

Difficult cases

Children in group homes often have a history of physical and emotional abuse, and multiple foster-care placements. Care providers said these children have a difficult time feeling accepted in a family, may suffer from emotional disorders and can be suicidal.

To manage the more difficult young people, the reforms include more extensive training for foster families and team-based support from social workers, mental health counselors and other specialists.

“I think it is going to challenge the system,” said Jeannie Imelio, chief operating officer for Aspiranet’s residential and foster care programs. Aspiranet, which has a statewide network of foster care services, could have group homes with 52 beds in Stanislaus County converted to short-term programs later this year.

“It will require us to work cooperatively to see how we can provide more resources to families,” Imelio said.

As group homes are relicensed, agencies will consider whether it’s best to return some children to their biological parents or place them with other relatives or foster families, Imelio said.

The reforms create a uniform process for licensing foster homes and approving care providers, legal guardians and adoptive families. The new process began statewide Jan. 1, though Stanislaus got an early start in April.

The county has certified 27 relatives as caregivers and approved 15 other foster families, which are now called resource families under the law.

Sierra Vista Child and Family Services of Modesto is applying to license its two group homes, with a total of 14 beds, as short-term residential treatment programs. Executive Director Judy Kindle said the nonprofit is well-positioned for providing intensive services for children. It advocates for placing challenging foster children in good family settings.

“If a child needs counseling, we have a counseling program,” Kindle said. “We have a psychologist who sees all of the kids, we have mental health services and clinical staff. We try to ensure placements are successful for these children so they are not moved from one placement to another.”

Equal support for relatives

While there are doubts about reforming the system in large counties with severe shortages of foster homes, officials believe Stanislaus is in a better position than many to comply with the mandates.

Angie Schwartz, a policy program director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, said she’s optimistic because the state increased caregiver rates for relatives who care for foster youths. The new rates for relatives are equal with financial support for other foster parents and will give them the same training and access to services.

“Relatives have always been willing to step up and care for these children, but without support, it makes it more challenging,” Schwartz said. “There are a lot of needs in the day-to-day care of teenagers.”

Even though uncles, aunts or grandparents, who meet child protection standards, are preferred as caregivers for emotionally disturbed foster kids, the system has not provided relatives with equal funding or resources until now.

Maira Gonzalez, a foster parent for teenagers, said she hopes foster families are given support in dealing with aggressive young people. Gonzalez said she has cared for teens with emotional disorders in her Modesto-area home and gives them plenty of chances to learn good behavior.

But there are limits.

“I hope they have one-on-one counseling, and if it works, they can stay in my home,” Gonzalez said. “If they are still not (responding) to counseling, I hope they can take them to a facility where they can get the help they need.”

The reforms are designed to bring services such as mental health counseling or parental training to the home, Schwartz said. Facilities offering short-term intensive services will be the only licensed residential care. There are exceptions for extending the residential care beyond six months.

As of Jan. 1, the monthly caregiver rates are $889 per child for placements with resource families and relatives to pay for food, clothing and other needs. The state Department of Social Services is working on a rate structure with additional amounts based on levels of care, Dean said.

This year’s county budget included 23 additional staff positions for implementing foster care reform, including 16 social workers at an annual cost of $1.8 million. Federal, state and local funds will cover the salary and benefit costs.

Dean said the reforms will most likely require additional county staff positions.

People interested in serving as foster parents may call the Stanislaus County foster care and licensing hotline at 209-558-2110.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321