Columnists Opinion Starlett Quarles

THE X FACTOR: The revamping of California’s foster care system

With so much recent discourse around gentrification, homelessness and rent control, one of the issues we should remember to add to the conversation is the housing and social services needs for our foster care youth.

So I sat with Kenneth Fleming, of the Dimondale Adolescent, about the needs of today’s foster care youth and the current impact of the recent overhaul of California’s foster care system; which drastically scales back the reliance on group homes, and instead seeks to place more children with adoptive or foster parents; or in the homes of relatives.

SQ: The “Continuum of Care Reform.” What exactly is this bill?

KF: The “Continuum of Care Reform,” or the CCR as we know it, is a bill that revamped the whole system. And in this revamping, they reached out to [Assemblyman Mark] Stone to write this bill and push it up. It was done by the folks at Community Care Licensing, or what we would call the California Department of Social Services. They wanted to change [the foster care system].

They thought that we were spending too much money and not really getting the results we should have been getting with the kids. And also we were in a situation where the kids were being raised in the system.

So they began to shorten the stay of the [foster] child and give them more intense services; i.e. more therapeutic, more resources from the Department of Mental Health (DMH), and shortened the length of time these kids stayed in congregate care, like group homes. They basically wanted these kids’ permanency to be either adoption or returned to the family.

So it’s a six-month program that the child would [participate] in that “begins with the end in mind.”

SQ: How does this differ from before?

KF: Before, in the group home model, we would take the foster kids in and over the three to four months try to figure out what the kids needed. And then after that spend another four to five months trying to understand how to service those needs. And then spend another four to five months implementing them. Sometimes it would take a year. So you’re investing two years into the child before you try to get them back home.

But with the CCR, [foster kids] are now going to a short term residential treatment program, or STRTP, where they are receiving these intense services within the first 30 days.

They say, “This is the plan. This is what we’re going to ‘throw at the child.’” And I’m saying it in a practical manner. “We’re going to ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at this child with every service we think they need and deserve. Get them acclimated to it … and in the fourth or fifth month try to get them back home or adopted.”

And in some instances, kids would need an additional six months. That request would have to come from the department, not necessarily the provider.

And we hope that it works because this is a new program and the data is out as to how successful it is. We can’t track the data. As of right now, the only data we’re really able to track is that our kids are coming back into the system because we’re pushing them out too fast.

SQ: So they’re coming back because they’re not prepared to leave?

KF: Correct.

SQ: So in your opinion what inspired the proposal for the CCR?

KF: I think it was [about] money. I think they thought that they were spending a tremendous amount of money on these kids for a long period of time.

And the unfortunate part about human beings is that there’s no [specific] amount of money that you could spend on a human being to make them “right.” That human being has to want to do right.

It’s not about the amount of money. It’s definitely the time and the individual wanting to commit to being a better person.

SQ: How has this bill impacted group home providers like you?

KF: Well we are an agency, and they don’t consider us a small agency at 30 beds with an acquisition; right behind an additional 18 beds. The reality is that we’ve never had a DMH contract with mental health services. And it’s challenging bringing all those resources to the table. So it’s just a different way of doing business; and we have to accept it.

But it’s impacted us because we had to spend a tremendous amount of money in reforming our homes. We also have to be a part of an accredited association. And that expense by itself is tremendous amount of money because we have to pay to become accredited; [while] also trying to keep qualified staff members.

So it’s definitely impacted us.

SQ: So what happens to foster youth once they age out of the STRTP?

KF: Well because no permanent services were put in place, when they age out they are placed in transitional housing. Some of our kids are equipped to handle it. Others aren’t. But I believe foster kids are no different than regular kids.

When some of the kids in our homes turn 18, most of them want to go to college and I’m sure they do. And then we have that percentage that doesn’t go to college because they haven’t figured out what life’s about. So they get part- time jobs.

But our foster kids have a lower percentage [of going] to college compared to the average kid who has a mom and dad, or parents in the home. And we aren’t able to follow them and be in their lives…because they move from one system to a different part of the system; or from one department to another department.

So while we have transitional housing, we don’t have enough transitional beds. And so the County of Los Angeles is working very hard to open up proposals to get more providers to provide excellent services to these kids when they age out of STRTP and foster homes, because these kids want to be on their own as well.

But with foster kids it’s different. They have to qualify to stay with you. And if they don’t meet the qualifications they have to move on to transitional housing; which is not always an easy transition for them.

SQ: If you had a “magic ball” what changes or additions would you want to see implemented in the CCR?

KF: Well it’s very controversial. I’m glad you asked that question. That’s an excellent question. It’s a “magic ball.” It’s what I believe. It’s not what you believe. It’s not what’s legal. It’s not what’s illegal. I have to preface [my response] by saying that.

I believe that we’ve given our kids too many rights. And in giving them too many rights, they have the right not to take psychotropic meds, but they make the decision to go out and do illegal drugs. And there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s an issue for me.

We know that there are some kids who have been over-prescribed meds …that’s well documented. But it’s not documented enough that you say [a way] to fix the problem is to give the kid, who already has “trauma-informed challenges,” the right to refuse to take psychotropic meds that have been prescribed by a doctor endorsed by the state of California.

So [in essence], we go to the courts to get permission just so the kid can come to the facility and say, “I don’t want to take those meds. I don’t need those meds.” But then they can run away from us and go smoke weed all day. To me that doesn’t work. We’ve never been forced to make them take meds; [but] what’s changed is that they [now] have the right to refuse the meds.

And some would say in this profession, “Well they should know what they’re putting in their bodies.” I believe they should know what they’re putting in their bodies; but I don’t think they have the right to overrule a doctor in a court of law. That’s huge because we know that meds help some of our kids. We know that.

And the second thing with my “magic ball” would be the runaways. We haven’t been able to come up with something that effectively works with runaway kids.

We want to have them in the community and in school. We want them to have regular activities. And for some reason, no matter how much we talk about this runaway situation, it just always appears our hands are tied.

The only thing that we can do is paperwork. You know, report the runaway to the local police department; and start the paperwork to send to their social worker or probation officer. And that’s it; that’s all.

We have to come up with a solution. I’ve worked on a few runaway committees and we just haven’t come up with anything that’s worked. However, I did push L.A. County Probation for our kids to at least have cell phones when they leave…so we can call and talk to them.

The downside of them having cell phones, when they leave and don’t want to come back, they don’t take our calls. However, in many instances they’ve called and said, “I’m running late or I’m stranded. Can you guys come get me?”

And for that, I’m glad we really do help our [foster] kids get cell phones.

Starlett Quarles is a Gen X Advocate, public speaker and host of the internet TV Talk Show, “The Dialogue with Starlett Quarles.” For more, please visit www.TheDialogueLA.com.