An equitable family is a happy family.
When Sacramento County’s Child Protective Services removed Cynthia Baldwin’s two grandchildren from their parents’ home last year, the retiree hired a lawyer to make sure the kids ended up with her and not in foster care.
She won that battle, but is losing a war of attrition that many grandparents and relatives face when children suddenly need a second home.
Relatives receive hundreds of dollars less in financial aid to house foster children than strangers do, and it’s pushed well-meaning grandparents like Baldwin to a financial breaking point.
“It’s unfair that strangers get more funds to care for their children than I because I’m a relative,” she told the board of supervisors on Tuesday.
Finally, relief is on its way—and right on the heels of a report that says too many young people in the nation’s child welfare systems are placed in restrictive group home settings rather than with families.
On May 19, the board of supervisors approved the county’s participation in a new statewide program that addresses the pay disparity that exists for relative caregivers.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropic organization, 57,000 minors in the nation’s various child welfare systems—equal to 14 percent of that population—do not live in family settings, including one in seven children who instead reside in group home placements. More than 40 percent of group home residents, meanwhile, don’t exhibit the clinical or behavioral needs that warrant their placement in such settings, the report states.
In California, the placement rate is slightly better, with 83 percent of the state’s 56,767 dependent minors in family-type settings, which can include foster homes. But that figure slides to 74 percent in Sacramento County, where nearly a quarter—24.5 percent—of dependent children are placed in group homes, according to KidsData.org, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.
(KidsData actually puts the number of California kids in foster care higher, at 58,699, with 2,570 of those in Sacramento County. See below.)
Placement with a family—whether with the child’s parents, relatives or an approved foster family—is universally accepted as a benchmark for predicting positive outcomes for kids removed from their homes.
Less than 22 percent of Sacramento’s foster children reside with relatives, KidsData shows.
“I can’t imagine them in foster care,” Baldwin said. “That would cause them more trauma than they’ve already been through.”
Her 6-year-old grandson, in particular, has exhbited behavioral issues that Baldwin believes would have gotten the boy passed from one foster setting to another.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation claims that child welfare agencies may not aggressively seek out relatives and skilled foster families when determining where to place older youth especially.
Here in Sacramento County, the cost of caring for these children is another factor. Currently, foster providers who care for relatives are paid $300 to $470 less in California than those who take in strangers, even though child welfare officials say the priority is to keep families as intact as possible.
The discrepancy is an unintended relic from former President Bill Clinton’s welfare overhaul in 1996. Many states took measures to patch over the financial disparity created in the foster care system; California was one of the last to sort this out when Gov. Jerry Brown set aside $30 million during last year’s budget signing to balance the scales.
“It’s a travesty that we’ve allowed [children] to be in these [relatives'] homes for this long without the same resources as foster parents,” child and family advocate Lonnie Russell told supervisors. “We should all be ashamed, actually.”
After signaling its intention to opt into the state money in September, Sacramento County cemented its participation with Tuesday’s board vote. “This, clearly, is equalizing a situation that’s been an inequity for many, many years,” said Supervisor Don Nottoli.
Starting July 1, the Approved Relative Caregiver funding program will wield federal, state and county CalWORKs assistance funds to ensure foster caregivers receive the same amount of aid for taking in relatives and they do non-relatives. That equates to $671 a month for a young child and $838 a month for a youth between the ages of 15 and 20.
Baldwin currently receives $607 a month in aid—for both children.
Since welcoming her two grandkids, ages 6 and 2, into her home last March, she has watched her savings dwindle from $8,500 down to $600 and counting. To make space for the children, a roommate had to leave, removing a $1,000 monthly contribution toward the rent. Baldwin’s grocery bill has swelled to $400 a week, and she’s eating up gas shuttling the children to school, daycare, parental visits, counseling and court hearings. The growing children constantly need new clothes, and Baldwin’s utility bills have notched up as well.
The $1,600 she cobbles together a month from her retirement and Social Security incomes spreads too thin, so Baldwin is trying to find a job.
“My life has changed significantly, as you can imagine, and my retirement years are not what I thought they would be,” she told supervisors. “But I love my grandchildren.”
Neglect accounts for more than 82 percent of child removals, both in California and Sacramento County, according to KidsData.org.