Enormous public resources go to foster families and group homes, and those expenditures are appropriate because the county and state are the virtual guardians for thousands of abused and neglected children. As such, the state and the county are duty-bound to ensure that the children receive proper care and, despite any mistreatment at home and despite the turmoil of being sent to live with strangers, are put on a pathway toward a successful adulthood.
But Los Angeles County also places thousands more abused or neglected children not with foster families or group homes but with their own grandparents and other relatives, and that's a good thing; numerous studies over many years show that such children do better in the long run than those in foster care — if those family members have the money to properly clothe and care for the children.
The problem is that relative caregivers often are ineligible for the federal funding that goes to non-relative families and group homes, especially if they voluntarily took on the care of their young family members before the child welfare system got involved. They may be eligible for CalWORKS, but they are seldom if ever advised of that fact by the county and are given no assistance in applying. Why not? In part because of bureaucracy: One county department places children in homes, but a different one determines CalWORKS eligibility. Meanwhile, relatives wait too long to get county approval and are too often treated rudely by county workers despite the advantages, including cost savings, of using relatives instead of foster care where possible.
A little funding to allow a child to stay with relatives — $8,000 or so a year — is a drop in the bucket compared with the more than $100,000 a year it costs the public to maintain a child in a group home. And because children raised by family members have higher rates of graduation and lower rates of homelessness, drug abuse and arrest as adults, it's smart policy to give grandparents and others living in retirement and on Social Security enough information and money on the front end to buy their young charges clothes and food and to pay for gas or bus fare to get to doctors and parent nights at school.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection wisely argued in its draft final report that funding and services for a child removed from his or her parents should be determined by the child's needs, not by the status of the placement family. State lawmakers are considering a bill — AB 1882 — that would go part of the way toward helping to direct funding to relative caregivers, and it's a good start. But so much more could be accomplished in Los Angeles County if the Board of Supervisors would make child welfare a priority across all county departments and not just at the Department of Children and Family Services.