State program to help foster students not available to some

February 22, 2015

About a third of California’s foster youth don’t receive state-funded tutoring and counseling services because they are living with relatives. Proposed legislation would change that.

Foster youth living with relatives cannot take advantage of the Foster Youth Services program, typically run by county offices of education. The program provides counseling and tutoring. Staff members also act as advocates and mentors for foster youth, determining their needs and identifying gaps in services.

An October 2014 report on the program by the California Department of Education found that it helped foster students – who have the highest dropout rate of any group of students – improve academically, complete high school and avoid being expelled.

The program also is in a position to play a key role in helping school districts meet the educational needs of foster youth as required under the Local Control Funding Formula, those involved with foster youth say, particularly if it could be expanded to include all foster students. The program, which serves about 40,000 of California’s 60,000 foster youth, currently receives about $15 million from the state.

A bill, expected to be introduced this week by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, would make all foster youth eligible for the program.

“Access to those services is critical,” said Marcus McKinney, senior assistant to Weber. “We need to value relatives and get them a reasonable amount of resources.”

McKinney said relatives were not included in the original legislation creating the program because legislators considered it the responsibility of families to take in their relatives. However, foster children are considered wards of the state. When the state makes the decision to remove children from their homes, McKinney said, it becomes the state’s responsibility to ensure they are put in the best possible placement.

“Relatives are doing the state a favor,” he said, because placements with relatives cost less and are more stable.

If the bill is passed, advocates are also hoping for more funding in the budget for Foster Youth Services so it can accommodate the influx of students now living with relatives and can support school districts as they work to provide additional services to their foster students.

“More and more of my kids can’t get my services,” said Michelle Lustig in the San Diego County Office of Education. “They will be making progress with their counselors and then suddenly can no longer see them. It breaks my heart.”

Social workers try to place children with family members, generally considered the least disruptive placement for a foster child. Children are often transferred from a foster home to a relative’s home when a willing family member is found. Because under the law children with relatives cannot receive help from Foster Youth Services, a child who is being counseled or tutored through the program can’t continue if a relative has stepped up to care for him.

“More and more of my kids can’t get my services,” said Michelle Lustig, program manager of foster youth and homeless education services in the San Diego County Office of Education. “They will be making progress with their counselors and then suddenly can no longer see them. It breaks my heart.”

In San Diego County, the number of foster students living with relatives is growing, Lustig said, and now comprise about half of the county’s foster students.

Lustig felt helpless when Helena Kelly, who had worked as an intern in her office, came to her for support.

Kelly became a foster parent so she could help her sister Jennifer graduate from high school. When Jennifer moved into Kelly’s apartment, she was 15 and a year behind in school. Kelly, a college student, began working three part-time jobs to support herself and her sister, including paying for an online tutor for Jennifer.

One job paid the rent in her subsidized apartment, one paid for Jennifer’s tutor and the third job paid the rest of the bills, Kelly said. “I slept maybe two hours a day for two years, but by her senior year, Jennifer had already caught up.”

Kelly is back to two part-time jobs now and is a full-time student at an online college, Ashford University. Jennifer, now 18, has a job and is attending Mira Costa College in Oceanside near San Diego.

“I was tremendously sad when she [Michelle Lustwig] couldn’t help me,” Kelly said. “It would have meant a lot. I wouldn’t have had to work so much. I would have been able to enjoy life with my sister. She could have had a mentor and a tutor – someone to hold her hand and walk her to the finish line.”

Relatives have always been treated differently by the foster care system, said Angie Schwartz, policy director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, based in Los Angeles. She said the families who take in the foster children are typically low-income – often grandparents on fixed incomes – with 40 percent living below the poverty line.

Until this year, foster parents could receive up to $361 a month for fostering a relative, while foster parents who weren’t related to the foster child could get two to three times as much depending on the circumstances, such as if the child needed specialized care. Under the 2014-15 Budget Act, relatives can now receive $838 a month for students who are 15 or older, but no extra stipend for specialized care. They receive a little less if children are younger, depending on the age.

However, Schwartz said the state put a cap on the number of foster youth who could receive funding from the state under the new law. Counties can only get state funding to cover the number of foster children in the county as of July 1, 2014. But if the number of foster children in a county increases, the county would have to cover the additional costs. Counties have the choice of agreeing to this cap by March 1. If they don’t agree, relatives could still get the $361, but would not be eligible for the higher amount of funding.

Schwartz supports Weber’s bill as another way to get more funding for relatives.

When families don’t get the support they need – no tutoring, no counseling – “we are asking them to fail,” she said. “Then the kids have to be moved and are traumatized again.”

“We should stop treating kids differently based on placement,” Schwartz said. “And we need to quit treating relatives like second-class citizens.”

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