A proposal to overhaul California’s foster youth system is receiving support from Orange County officials, while also sparking an effort to prevent the closure of the county’s main children’s shelter.
The bill, AB 403 by Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Monterey), aims to drastically reduce the use of group homes to house foster youth in California, instead shifting resources toward foster families.
It comes amid a growing belief among child welfare experts that foster youth should only rarely be housed in institutionalized environments.
The bill, as currently written, would “phase out” the county’s main children’s shelter, Orangewood Children and Family Center, over the next several years, according to Orange County’s social services director, Mike Ryan.
The bill currently proposes to end the placement of children in group homes by the beginning of 2017, or 2018 if an extension is granted.
Ryan told county supervisors on Tuesday that his staff is working with the other nine California counties that have emergency children’s shelters on getting changes to the bill that would allow county shelters to keep operating.
“Orangewood will look a little different. It could become more of a temporary shelter that could be up to 10 days,” with exceptions approved on a case-by-case basis, Ryan said.
Discussions on the amendments are going well, Ryan said, leading him to believe that the county will be able to continue to use Orangewood, which is located in the city of Orange, in the future.
Overall, he said, the bill is a positive step that supports the county’s ongoing efforts to shift to family-based foster care.
Orangewood’s average daily population has been reduced from 260 children down to 60 over the last 10 or 15 years, Ryan said. Most of the children at Orangewood are large sibling groups and high-need adolescent youth, he added.
And, he said, while there were 800 children in long term residential care in Orange County ten years ago, today there are less than 100.
The bill “really supports the efforts that we’ve been pursuing for many years now, and as long as the state works with us, I believe we can transition,” Ryan said.
The bill is largely based on a report by the California Department of Social Services, which found that family-based settings were linked with far more positive outcomes for foster youth.
Research cited in the report pointed to children in group homes having higher arrest rates and lower school performance than those placed with families.
Foster youth themselves prefer family settings, according to the report.
“Many former foster youth who resided in group homes have articulated the need for permanency, normal childhood and teenage experiences, and caregivers who understand their needs and are able to help with conflict resolution, educational support, and problem solving,” the report states.
If the state implements the report's recommendations and provides support and funding for it, Ryan said, “that’s all very good stuff that will really benefit Orange County."
In California, responsibility for finding safe homes for foster youth lies with counties, while the state creates many of the laws and regulations that must be followed.
Statewide, nearly 63,000 children were in foster care at the beginning of this year, with 3,800 placed in group homes. And as of January, 48 percent of youth in group homes had been there for more than two years, with 23 percent housed for more than five years.