About 25 percent of San Benito County’s foster children live outside county limits, but administrators hope a new law may help the county increase local resources so youth won’t have to leave the area to get the support they need.
“I think, basically, the idea behind the law in general is to try to deal with children and their families within their own communities without having to have them go outside of their communities,” said James Rydingsword, the director of the county’s health and human services agency.
Rydingsword is referring to AB 403, approved by Gov. Jerry Brown in October as a law that shifts the state’s foster program away from group homes and toward foster families. The law also provides foster families with more training so they can better support the youth in their care.
If foster youth need additional services before they are ready to be in a foster family’s home, the law would allow them to be placed in a “short-term residential treatment center”—a 24/7 hour facility that provides temporary but intensive services—instead of traditional group homes where foster youth have been known to languish for long periods of time, sometimes until they age out of the foster care system.
The Chamberlain’s Children Center, a Hollister-based group home, operates four family-style homes serving up to six children each from a San Benito Street site and probably won’t be affected much by the changes. The center qualifies as a “short-term residential treatment center,” according to Robert Freiri, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“What it probably, bottom line, means for us is the kids won’t stay with us as long,” he said.
But that has already been a growing trend at Chamberlain’s. About four years ago, the average child’s stay was 18 months to three years, Freiri said. Now it is six weeks to maybe nine months, the executive director said.
As part of AB 403, San Benito County received $85,000 for 2015-16 to develop in-county resources, Rydingsword explained by email. The plan isn’t fully developed yet, but the county intends to recommend using the money to develop local resources so foster children that currently need out-of-county placements can remain here, he explained.
The county will probably use that funding to hire a person or contract with a company to sort through all the alternatives and begin a conversation with the community about what works best for San Benito County, he said.
“We do have about 25 percent of children placed out of county because we haven’t been able to find places for them in the county,” Rydingsword said.
It’s a statewide problem, the director explained. The high cost of living in California, along with the modest amount of money foster parents receive and a large percentage of commuters spending less time at home, are all factors in the low numbers of local foster families, Rydingsword explained.
The director has been in his current position for about two and a half years, and staff has told him that it is hard to recruit—and keep—foster families in San Benito County, he said. Foster parents don’t make a lot of money so it’s kind of an “economic deterrent,” Rydingsword said.
“One of the premises behind the law is if we can bring children home—even if we have to raise the amount of money that we pay for people to take care of children—in the long run, we will probably save some money because it will be easier to take care of those children and their families because they will be close to services in San Benito County,” Rydingsword said.
San Benito County’s foster youth are often placed outside county lines in Stanislaus, Madera and Merced counties, said Maria Corona, the county’s deputy director of child welfare services. A few are in the Monterey and Santa Clara counties, she said.
Corona was helping with one of the county cases Monday and commuted to the valley to visit children and get paperwork signed, she said. She was gone from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the deputy director said.
“If I had the children placed in Hollister, it would probably take me half a day, maybe less,” Corona said.
But the deputy director was quick to point out that although the effect on employees is sizable, it’s even greater for the foster children.
“Because we have children placed out of county, it makes it more challenging,” Corona said. “But forget about us. We’re removing them from their schools, their friends, our community.”
Staff will also be looking at the practices in partner counties to see what might work best to keep foster children within the county lines and closer to their families and services, Rydingsword said.
“The bill says that we need to look at our system and work on changing the system by 2019, so that’s what we’re going to do,” Rydingsword said. “We’re going to take this year to kind of look at what we’re doing in San Benito County.”
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