Will California Lead the Way in Overhauling the Foster Care System?

Earlier this year, the Veterans Administration was caught in a horrific scandal that resulted in the resignation of its department head, Eric Shinseki. Shinseki stepped down after it was alleged that more than 1,000 veterans over the past decade may have died from improper care and often delayed appointment times to see a doctor. The American public was outraged at the apparent maltreatment of its heroes.

Another government-run system is also in need of the American public’s attention. While the abuses may be just as broad in scope as those found in the veteran’s healthcare system, this system pertains to the care of innocent children who are unable to speak out for themselves.

The foster care system, whose responsibility it is to care for children who have been removed from their parents’ custody, typically due to allegations of abuse, appears to be riddled with exploitation and mishandling of funds.

Many noteworthy claims of corruption within the foster care system have been reported for approximately 16 years. However, the stories of malfeasance usually don’t make the national news and discussions regarding how to improve the system are almost never undertaken.

Recently in California, the director and executive director of a nonprofit organization were charged with misappropriation of public funds and embezzlement. The husband and wife were charged with embezzling more than $460,000 from a taxpayer-funded nonprofit agency hired by Los Angeles County for the purpose of helping abused and neglected foster children.

A county audit conducted in 2011 indicated that the agency used the money slated for the children, to purchase personal real estate, personal vacations, and salaries totaling $269,000. It is also alleged that they borrowed money without repaying it.

According to Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, “Money intended to care for children in foster homes instead lined the pockets of the executives who ran the programs.”

In 2013, another case of fraud occurred in Temecula, Calif., a city located approximately 86 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

A female CEO of a 15-year-old foster care agency pled guilty to two counts of embezzlement and was sentenced to 40 months in prison. She was found guilty of taking approximately $400,000 allocated for foster care children.

While allegations of fraud continue to plague the system, there are other signs that point to the brokenness within the foster care system.

Each year, foster care children age out of the system at 18and are unprepared to cope with the demands of life outside of the system.

In 2012, the number of those turning 18 in the United States and ineligible to continue receiving funds and care from the foster care system, totaled approximately 23,439.

Studies have shown that one in five will become homeless after 18; at 24, only half will be employed; less than 3% will have earned a college degree; 71% of women will be pregnant by 21; and one in four will have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of United States war veterans. And that’s not all. All too often, these same foster children will end up in juvenile centers and prisons.

Instead of being returned to their parents or adopted, these foster care youth will face many challenges including emotional problems, illegal drug use, and involvement with the judicial system.

Colorado found that children within its foster care system are less likely to graduate from high school than other at-risk populations, including homeless students.

The statistics illustrate how the system is failing children by inadequately preparing them to enter a world in which the government is no longer involved in their lives on a daily basis.

Public outcry, similar to that following the discovery of the mistreatment of veterans, must occur in order for changes to happen within the current foster care system.

Florida claims that it is aware of the problems facing its foster care youth and is making strides in 2014 to correct the ills of the federal child welfare system.

Florida recently passed the “Keys to Independence” bill, a three-year pilot program that will pay for driver’s education, licenses and auto insurance for those qualified in the foster care system. The program will cost $800,000 a year.

While this bill helps with those issues facing foster children who want to find independence by learning how to drive, it doesn’t seem to address more pertinent and far reaching issues facing those aging out of the system.

California appears to have gone a step further than Florida, to address the aging out issue. California has chosen to extend benefits past the age of 18. Those in foster care will now receive benefits until age 21.

The bill would also provide additional support by including case management, assistance with housing, higher education, vocational training and employment for youth in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

California will also offer mentoring programs and educational advocacy for foster youth.

Finally, California will now allow homeless youth to be put into the foster care system so that they might receive federal funding.

Not only is California extending benefits for those in the system for three years, it is bringing children into the foster care system that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed in.

The creation of an expanded foster care system to include groups not normally eligible for inclusion in the system is not the solution.

A larger federal system is never the answer. Less taxpayer dollars with more supervision of how funds are spent is key.

Also, we must ask ourselves why so many children are taken into custody with only slightly more than half of them being reunited with their parents or adopted out of the system.

Keeping children out of the system in the first place should be our priority. If this is not possible, then returning them to their parents or finding placement long before they become adults should be the goal.

More programs, either privately funded or otherwise, must be made available to provide individual and family therapy, parental skills workshops, and other family-oriented services to keep the family intact long before foster care services are considered or become necessary.

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