Editorial

Don't miss out on this foster care fix, L.A.

L.A. County must act before Oct. 1 or lose millions of dollars to keep kids with relatives

Thousands of California children who have suffered abuse or abandonment are sent to live with strangers in foster homes. That often happens even if there are extended family members ready and willing to take them in, despite California laws requiring placement with relatives when possible, and even in the face of countless studies that show the kids do better in the long run after stays with relatives rather than strangers.

So why do we keep doing it? Because so many of those relatives, retired or with their budgets maxed out raising their own kids, need a bit of financial assistance to be able to take in their nieces and nephews, siblings or grandchildren — and because under a complicated and outdated set of state, federal and local laws and rules, they can get only a tiny fraction of the funding that non-related foster parents get. Worse yet, there is a shortage of foster parents, so the children often end up being sent to group homes, which are the most expensive option and produce the least desirable outcomes. Government foolishly requires itself to pay more to get worse results.

Family members taking responsibility for relatives in the foster care system are expected to use money available under CalWORKS. But those poverty-level funds represent a small fraction of what other foster families get to ensure children are adequately fed and clothed.

This year's California budget goes a long way toward fixing the problem. It provides money that counties can use to bring financial aid for many eligible relative caregivers up to the same level they would receive if they were non-relative foster parents. All the counties have to do is opt in by Oct. 1 to be in line for 2015 funding. Why wouldn't they?

A few counties may be skittish because they know that if they opt in, they are in all the way: They must pay all relative caregivers who take in children even after the state funding runs out. It stands to reason that they'd want to know how many families will seek the funding.

But counties always have the option to change their minds and opt out, even mid-year. Besides, Los Angeles County, which has the largest number of children who need places to go after abuse or neglect, and the largest number of relative caregivers ready to step up if only they had some assistance, has a federal waiver that gives it even more flexibility than other counties have to allocate money for just such a purpose. Yet Los Angeles County has yet to act.

The clock is ticking. The county has just over three weeks left to act or lose by far the largest chunk of the state's $30-million fund for relative care for a year. It's time to opt in.

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