California to spend extra $42 million to help foster youth during pandemic

Apr 15, 2020 | Community

By Ricardo Cano| CalMatters

California will steer $42 million toward helping tens of thousands of foster youth as stay-at-home orders have drastically reduced contact and services for some of the state’s “most vulnerable” children, Gov. Gavin Newsom said in his daily update.

The new effort to help foster youth came as Newsom also teased that he and his West Coast counterparts, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee would work together on a plan to incrementally reopen the region’s economies.

Newsom and state officials have walked a fine line in recent days: They’ve expressed cautious optimism that early stay-at-home orders helped California and the West Coast prevent the worst predictions of the coronavirus pandemic, but have warned that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations could spike if Californians relax social distancing efforts.

That wary encouragement continued Monday as Newsom said Californians largely abided by stay-at-home orders over Easter weekend. The state saw a “modest increase” in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the weekend, though Newsom said the current trend lines allow the state to mull an “incremental release of the stay-at-home orders that advanced the fundamental principle of keeping people healthy.”

“The curve is being bent because of you, and because of your willingness of continuing to stay at home, including this weekend,” Newsom said.

But California’s curve bending has come at a trade-off. Social workers have been mostly unable to conduct in-person welfare checks of the state’s 59,000 youth in foster care.

Additionally, referrals for child abuse and neglect have dropped significantly, Newsom said, as the state’s public schools are likely to remain physically closed for the rest of the year. School closures, though deemed necessary by Newsom and public health officials, have curtailed the ability of mandated reporters such as teachers and school nurses to report cases of possible neglect.

“Those referrals are down. Those in-home visits are down as a consequence of the virus,” Newsom said. “But what is not down is our guard and our commitment and resolve to work around that and work through that.”

Most of the extra $42 million for foster care will cover the cost of $200 monthly payments to the thousands of families with children “at-risk” of becoming foster youth. Here’s where the remaining funds will go, according to a Department of Finance letter:

  • $3.3 million to child care providers serving families who receive CalWORKS, the state’s public assistance program.
  • A separate $3 million in cash to people earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level.
  • Roughly $8.5 million to expand family resource centers and California’s 211 helpline, and secure laptops and cell phones for foster youth.

Kimberly Johnson, director of the state’s child welfare agency, said some of the money will buy masks and other protective gear so case workers can continue in-home visits. That $8.5 million will be important to ensure that foster youth don’t get left behind as schools transition to online instruction, she said.

“We want to ensure that all of the foster youth across the state have that cell phone access, but also that laptop that helps them and connects them to the resources and education that they need to be successful,” she said.

Across the state, school officials and education advocates have worried that the disconnect from brick-and-mortar schools will have dire consequences on disadvantaged youth, including those in foster care, who rely on schools for stability and social services.

In 2013 under Gov. Jerry Brown, California rewrote its school finance law to steer additional money to school districts with higher concentrations of English learners, low-income students and foster youth. But Gov. Newsom said Monday that more must be done to address persistent disparities amid the pandemic.

Reaching foster youth and other vulnerable children who lack necessary tools for remote learning has been daunting for California’s public schools. Large, urban school districts like Los Angeles Unified, already in financial straits, have dipped into reserves to buy laptops and other devices for students who lacked one. The state Department of Education said last week that it was working to secure 150,000 devices for children, and officials have also asked for public donations. But it’s unlikely those efforts will be enough.

The state will also extend emancipation timelines for foster youth so that they can remain with caregivers during the pandemic, Newsom said. Roughly 200 youth age out of the state’s foster care system each month, Newsom, according to state estimates.

“We want to knock on the doors of those that are most vulnerable,” Newsom said.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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