With fewer families qualifying for the federal aid standard, funding for more foster youth is being shifted to the state, Lemley said. However, California has increasingly shifted fiscal responsibility for child welfare programs from the state to the county level, which means that counties like Alameda and Contra Costa are receiving less state support and must provide funding for more and more foster youth. Counties must now pay 50 percent of all costs—administrative, foster family payment…etc—for those children whose birth families qualify for federal funding and 100 percent of the cost for those whose families do not.
“One thing that’s starving our system is the federal government’s unwillingness to take action and to update that eligibility standard,” Lemley said. “If it’s not updated, we will have a fully county-funded program. And counties can only do so much.”
Because counties are now paying for more children in the foster care system, that means less money for the programs needed to support foster parents, Lemley said. “What you have is a system that is reliant on a very small, fragile, under-resourced network of people that are willing to do something because they believe in it,” she said.
Though the financial picture for foster parents has changed, the need for their services has not. If a child is being maltreated, it’s a legal entitlement for them to be placed in foster care, Lemley said.
In her work as a nurse, Nancy DeWeese often came across children who were placed in the foster care system because of neglect or because they had drug addicted parents. “My husband used to say, ‘Isn’t work enough for you?’ I wanted to bring them all home,” she said. “Particularly the ones we worked so hard on that didn’t have a good homes to go to, where it wasn’t safe to release them to.”
Once the youngest of her own children was old enough for elementary school, DeWeese and her husband decided to open their home up to foster children. Soon the whole family was involved. “Our kids got all excited about this, too,” she said. “And, as time went on and we had more kids come and go, they’d all fight over whose turn it was to come and pick up the baby.”
Over the years, some of DeWeese’s charges included children who had spent time living in motels and other unsanitary conditions, or were born in prison to mothers with drug addictions and other legal problems. She said she spent many nights caring for crying babies as they detoxed after being born with drugs in their systems.
DeWeese said the most common reason children are placed in foster care is neglect—defined under California state law as a failure to provide necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care and other protection—which in many cases is tied to parental drug use. “In our county, 90 percent of the children are taken away because of allegations of severe neglect,” she said.
When a child is reported to Child Protective Services, the agency investigates the claim and a social worker may choose to remove the child from his or her home. The foster family is meant to provide a safe, stable home for the child while the child’s parent recovers from drug and alcohol addiction or works to prove to the court that they are able to adequately care for their child.
Child welfare workers in both counties agree that what foster children need most is permanency. “What’s most damaging is when you move around,” Nancy DeWeese said. “When nobody wants to commit to you.”
The primary goal, then, becomes finding a permanent home for a child. The first priority is reunification with the birth family, or kinship care with a close family friend or relative provided that will be a safe environment for the child, Kathy Marsh said. “As an organization its not the goal to take kids away and give them to somebody else,” DeWeese said.
“The primary goal is to bring all the services we have in the county to make that family better,” DeWeese continued. “And part of that goal is keeping them in touch with one another.” For foster families, this means making court-ordered visits with kids and their parents and reaching out to birth parents to not only learn more about the child, but help prove to the parent that the county is not just some “big bad system” that has taken their child away, DeWeese said.
But reunification can take time, and in some cases—when parents are unable to overcome addiction, or disappear, or are imprisoned indefinitely—it ultimately is not possible. In these instances, with permanency still in mind, the goal switches to finding an adoptive family.
In their role, foster families are meant to give the child stability over a lifetime, says Harris of EMQ Families First. Harris said that the young people she has worked with over the years need nothing more than a sense of family and belonging. Even as they mature, foster children need someone to come home to on Christmas or Thanksgiving or to contact in case of emergency, she said. Or, like one former foster child told her, “I was looking for the person who walks me down the aisle.”
“There’s always a need for families who can commit to permanency, either through adoption or lifelong connections,” Harris said.
Foster parents like the DeWeeses have maintained these connections whether the children they fostered were eventually reunited with their birth parents, or adopted by other families. Nancy DeWeese says the weight of having to eventually give up a child you care for can at times be emotionally exhausting. “Be good to yourself,” she advises foster parents who struggle after relinquishing a foster child. “Say, ‘I’ve got to recover from this. So does my family. Maybe I’m not going to do this for a few months.’ Step back, replenish emotional support and then be able to take another case.”
But despite the difficulties, DeWeese said, fostering children has fulfilled her innate need to extend a helping hand to those in need. “It’s not a job. It doesn’t replace a salary,” she said. “You have to do it because your heart is drawn to it.”