How everyday people can invest in the area’s vulnerable children

Children of color are overrepresented in California’s foster care system, with 21% Black children and 20% Alaska Native and American Indian children making up the total number of foster placements. (Stock photo by Santi Vedrí)

By Lisa Thibodeau

The day before Thanksgiving last year, I went to family court in Placer County for the 6-year-old child to whom I am a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

My child and his two younger brothers were permanently placed with their parents, a best-case scenario and the result of a team of social workers, therapists, attorneys, and the diligent efforts of the parents themselves. The day felt important, as studies show that children who remain with their parents, instead of being removed from their home, have greater odds of overcoming addiction, incarceration, suicide and homelessness later in life, should they face these challenges. 

CASAs advocate for a child within a system that is often overburdened with cases, and we aim to be a consistent, supportive presence in the child’s life. We observe their home environment and check with teachers, pediatricians, family members and work to fill gaps in the child’s basic needs. We look at each case through a lens of possibility and hold the belief that healing from unimaginable trauma is achievable. 

I’ve been a CASA since 2020, and have supported a 12-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. Reading the court cases can be difficult, but advocating for these children is rewarding work.

And many young people in our communities could use this support.

Currently in Sacramento County, there are about 1,200 youth in foster care and about 150 in Placer County, according to the Point in Time count from UC Berkeley’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project. In California, there are about 45,000 kids in foster care, according to the CCWIP. 

The statistics are disturbing: under 3% of all former foster youth obtain a college degree, 70% of female youth become pregnant before age 21, and 1 in 5 are homeless at age 18, with as many as 1 in 3 former foster youth experiencing homelessness for some period of time. Children of color continue to be overrepresented in California’s system, with 21% Black children and 20% Alaska Native and American Indian children making up the total number of foster placements, according to the most recent data available (2018).

Addressing foster youth needs

The challenges for youth as they age out of foster care are immense according to Susie Kleinfelder, program manager of Child Advocates of Placer County. 

“Kids aging out of foster care have experienced a lot of traumas, have financial roadblocks, are less likely to go to college and are less employable,” Kleinfelder said.

Foster youth are eligible to remain in foster care until age 21 (if they meet criteria) because of Assembly Bill 12, California’s Extended Foster Care Program that took effect in 2012 to address the difficulties these young people face. 

“Studies show that having a consistent adult in their lives increases their odds at living independently,” Kleinfelder said. “CASA programs address the whole family, which is crucial in breaking generational cycles. This strategy works because the parents receive support, and this leads to a safe, nurturing environment where cycles of abuse can be broken.”

Rising housing costs and the pandemic have made the transition to adulthood more difficult,

but California’s state budget for 2022-2023 has implemented a guaranteed income program

for former foster youth and has allocated funds for reducing homelessness. This is good news for Lisa Addy-Peat, founder of The Taylor House, a transitional home in Roseville for young women who have aged out of foster care. Addy-Peat purchased the once run-down house and remodeled it with her own funds in 2011; it is now supported by individual donors and grants. 

“We focus on five key areas for success with our girls: employment, education, transportation and a car, health and wellness especially mental health, and budgeting and banking which are skills they are lacking,” Addy-Peat said. “These youth turn 18, or even 21 without a safety net so they lack real-world experiences and crucial social cues. We work on confidence and self-esteem and to date we have eight girls who have earned a bachelor’s degree and one who has earned a master’s degree, and 24 girls have graduated high school. Graduating high school is our highest priority.”

Outdated Systems

A growing concern with the foster system, and specifically Assembly Bill 12, is it’s outdated and punishes young people who have not fully developed, according to Lynn Berkley-Baskin, program manager at FosterHope Sacramento. AB 12 was enacted to extend services for youth until age 21 but does not address current evidence on brain development, according to medical research.

“Longer support for these kids is needed because full, rational brain development continues into a person’s 20s and up to age 25,” Berkley-Baskin said.

Another barrier to success is that young people are being cut off from funding if they make a mistake like substance abuse or incarceration, which causes them to lose their eligibility and inflicts more trauma.

“We need a comprehensive approach that allows for mistakes without criminalizing these young people,” Berkley-Baskin said. “Longer support and a whole-person program without punishment for previous mistakes will allow for necessary healing.”

My 6-year-old CASA kid was home with his family for Thanksgiving, which I still reflect on with joy and gratitude. But considering there are still thousands of other children in our communities in foster care, in need of reunification with their biological parents or who would greatly benefit from another adult advocating on their behalf, there remains plenty of need for even more support.

Correction: This story has been corrected to include more current foster youth data as reported by the UC Berkeley California Child Welfare Indicators Project.

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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